LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Pope Francis makes his first official trip outside Rome on Monday with a visit to Lampedusa, the tiny island off Sicily that has been the first port of safety for untold thousands of migrants crossing by sea from North Africa to Europe.
The choice of Lampedusa is a highly symbolic one for Francis, who has placed the poor at the center of his papacy and called on the Church to return to its mission of serving them.
His trip comes at the start of summer when the island sees a steady stream of migrant boats arriving on its shores.
Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, told the Catholic newspaper Avvenire that the pope’s visit would be “an extremely important gesture” that would help keep attention on the migrant issue.
Only 113 kilometers (70 miles) from Tunisia, Lampedusa, a sleepy island which normally lives off fishing and tourism, has become one of the main points of entry into Europe for poor and desperate migrants willing to risk the crossing in overcrowded and unsafe fishing vessels and small boats.
Thousands are known to have died over the years and unknown numbers of others are presumed lost without trace.
Accompanied by 120 fishing boats from the island, the pope will lay a wreath in the water in memory of those who have lost their lives in the crossing.
He will also meet groups of immigrants and celebrate a mass in a sports stadium which served as a reception center for thousands who fled Arab Spring unrest in North Africa in 2011, when dozens of boats carrying hundreds and even thousands of people arrived in Lampedusa every day.
Although the numbers have declined since then, arrivals have continued.
According to United Nations figures, almost 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers landed on the coasts of southern Italy in the first half of the year, with the vast majority coming from North Africa, mainly Libya.
So far, it said 40 people were known to have died crossing from Tunisia to Italy this year, down from 2012 when almost 500 were reported as dead or missing, thanks to better coordination between authorities in Italy and nearby Malta.
On Sunday, the day before the pope’s arrival, coastguards rescued 120 migrants, including pregnant women and children, when their boat’s motors broke down about seven nautical miles off the island’s southeastern coast.
As well as the migrants themselves, the pope will also meet residents of Lampedusa, who have at various points seen their island transformed into something approaching a refugee center, with improvised campsites dotting the hills above the port.
On several occasions at the height of the crisis in 2011, the island’s normal population of 5,000 was outnumbered by migrants waiting at the portside or in the main reception center to be transferred to Sicily and mainland Italy.
Despite some outbreaks of tension and frustration, directed as much at the inactivity of Italian authorities as the migrants themselves, relations have generally been good, with islanders frequently offering food and other assistance themselves.
Reporting By James Mackenzie; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky