RNS

Pope Francis in 2014

Pope Francis visits the to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, in late 2014. PICTURE: European Union 2014 - European Parliament/Fred Marvaux

Pope Francis urged countries to greatly improve their welcome to migrants and stop collective expulsions, saying migrants' dignity and right to protection trumps national security concerns.

Pope Francis' politically pointed message was made on Monday in view of the Catholic Church's 2018 world refugee day, celebrated on 14th January. It comes amid mounting anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and beyond following waves of migrant arrivals and Islamic extremist attacks.

In the message, Pope Francis demanded governments welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants, saying Jesus' message of love is rooted in welcoming the "rejected strangers of every age".

He demanded a simplified process of granting humanitarian and temporary visas and rejected arbitrary and collective expulsions as "unsuitable". He said the principle of ensuring each person's dignity "obliges us to always prioritize personal safety over national security."

Pope Francis has made refugees a priority of his pontificate, making his first trip outside Rome in 2013 to the island of Lampedusa, ground zero in Europe's migration crisis. He has repeatedly spoken out for migrants' rights, demanded countries build "bridges not walls", and personally brought a dozen Syrian refugees back to Rome with him when he visited a Greek refugee camp in 2016.

Ignoring critics who say his calls are unrealistic and naive, Pope Francis insisted in the new message that border guards must be trained to protect migrants and that each new arrival, regardless of legal status, must be guaranteed access to basic services beyond health care.

That extends to guaranteeing access to consulates, the justice system and the ability to open a bank account and survive financially, he said.

Unaccompanied minors, he said, require even greater protection, including guaranteeing them citizenship and access to schooling, as well as foster programs rather than detention centers.

He called for policies that support family reunification, employment opportunities and accelerated citizenship procedures to improve migrants' abilities to integrate.

His call was immediately rejected by the leader of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party, which has opposed government proposals to change Italy's law to accelerate citizenship for children born in Italy to non-Italians.

"If you want to do it in the Vatican, go ahead," Matteo Salvini wrote on Facebook. "But as a Catholic, I don't think Italy can welcome and support the whole world."