By Lisa Zengarini & Linda Bordoni
152 Afghan refugees arrived in Rome, on Thursday, as part of the Humanitarian Corridors project promoted by the Italian Episcopal Conference, through the local Caritas network, the Sant’ Egidio Community, the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, the Waldensian Table, the Organization for Migration (IOM), the Italian Catholic Lay association ARCI, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees U(NHCR). Their arrival follows an agreement with the Italian Ministries of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
The refugees, traveling from Islamabad, in Pakistan, were welcomed at Fiumicino Airport by Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Archbishop Giuseppe Baturi, Secretary General of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), Fr. Marco Pagniello, director of Caritas Italiana, and by a member of the Council of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy.
An entirely self-financed project
The Afghan asylum seekers, who fled their country after the takeover of the Taliban regime in August 2021, and many of whom have been residing in Pakistan for over a year, will be hosted by associations, religious congregations, communities and individual citizens in various Italian regions.
Their arrival in Europe comes at a time in which Afghanistan is witnessing one of the world’s most extensive and severe hunger crises and amid news of the increasing restriction of rights and freedoms on the part of the ruling Taliban.
As part of the project, they will be sheltered and helped to become self-sufficient and integrated into Italian society thanks to a programme that includes housing, legal aid, language classes, enrollment in schools for the children and help with employment.
An example for Europe
The humanitarian corridors are entirely self-financed by the proposing organizations.
The idea for the project was born after over 300 people died on 3 October 2013 when a boat carrying refugees and migrants sank off the coast of Lampedusa.
The tragedy shocked Italy and Europe and led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the parties and the establishment of the Corridors that aim to avoid perilous journeys, to stop exploitation by human traffickers, and to grant people a “legal and safe entry” into Italy through the necessary security controls by national authorities.
Pope’s support for the project
Pope Francis has endorsed the project and called for concerted action to create extensive humanitarian corridors and offer protection and solidarity for those on the move on various occasions. Thanks to the legal infrastructure created by the project he was able to personally bring three Syrian families back to Rome from the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016 after a visit to the refugee and migrant camps there.
Building a new life in Italy
Speaking at a press conference shortly after the arrival of the Afghan refugees, Sant’Egidio’s Marco Impagliazzo said Italy’s Humanitarian Corridors project sets an example for the European Union on how to best address the migration crisis, by welcoming and integrating those in need of humanitarian protection, through a close collaboration between State and Church authorities and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Addressing the refugees he gave them a warm welcome, saying that in Italy they will find a future, with home, school and work that war in their country has denied them.
“In August 2021, when the borders of Afghanistan were closed, we made a promise: we will not forget you! We have not forgotten you and have prepared a home for you. Today we are happy to welcome you. Help us build a common future here in Italy”, he said.
Safe passage to Europe offered to over 5,300 refugees
So far the scheme has allowed over 5,300 refugees to enter Europe, in addition to over the 1,800 Ukrainian citizens hosted by Sant’Egidio in various European countries.
More arrivals in Rome from Lebanon and Libya are expected in the coming days.
In recent weeks Italy’s new far-right-led government has been strongly criticized by opposition parties and at the European level for resuming a hard line against privately-run ships operating to rescue migrants in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, and for bringing them to Italian soil.