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Building Peace with the Refugees

Camillo Ripamonti, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Jun 27th 2022

Fr Camillo Ripamonti, Direcgor of Centro Astalli with Per Njagga a refugee from Gambia, the sign reads #toshare. Photo: Centro Astalli, Facebook

The 21st edition of the Annual Report of Centro Astalli, the Jesuit service for refugees in Italy, gives an updated picture of what happened in Italy in 2021 in the area of forced migration.[1]

This year’s presentation took place in a particular climate, that of the war in Ukraine, which the Report does not address directly. This might make it seem to be lagging behind historical events. In reality, if one does not try to understand the recent past of forced migration, one runs the risk of seeing the flight of millions of people around the world as a series of emergencies in their own right – involving different parts of the planet and different populations – and not, instead, as a consequence of an interconnected world, where “a piecemeal world war” is being waged.

What we are experiencing today has distant roots, in a vision of the world that is often neither  fraternal nor marked by solidarity, and which challenges the conscience of each one of us. Paul VI’s Message for the VI Day of Peace (1973) well describes a continuity in the building of peace, which refers to the responsibility of all: “We must have the courage of peace. A courage of the highest quality: not the courage of brute force, but the courage of love. Every person is my brother or sister. There can be no peace without a new justice.”[2]

The four pillars of coexistence

This question should shake us: “Did we have this courage in 2021 and in previous years?” Peace is built every day on those four pillars of coexistence that John XXIII highlighted in Pacem in Terris: truth, justice, love and freedom.[3]

The first is the truth, which recognizes the dignity of every human being. Where was our courage when we left thousands of migrants in detention centers in Libya,[4] or when we abandoned them at sea, or along the Balkan route, or again, when we left them on the border between Poland and Belarus?

The second is justice, which makes rights enforceable as rights of all, and not just of some. Where was this courage when we sent migrants back to the country of first arrival, even years after their entry into Europe, not even hesitating in the case of nuclear families? The reform of the Dublin Convention is slow in coming, and after 20 years, Directive 2001/55/EC on Temporary Protection in the Event of Mass Influxes of Displaced Persons (20 July, 2001), which is now being implemented for the first time for Ukrainian refugees, is being presented as a great step forward. But we have experienced many influxes of displaced persons over the last 20 years, so where was the courage then?

The third is love, which knows how to share its goods. Where was this courage when the slogan “Italians First” was echoing loudly, sowing hatred?

The fourth is the freedom to take responsibility for the future of everyone. Where was this courage when, even in 2021, we were unable to take the side of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls who only wish to be recognized as Italian citizens by law, when de facto they already are, having been born and raised here?

Peace is built day by day. We have lacked the courage of daily coexistence with migrants that builds a future of peace, because this will necessarily be a plural future, which listens to the reasons of the other and engages in dialogue  without weapons. In the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reminds us that  “Migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world. At present, however, migration is affected by the loss of that sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters on which every civil society is based.”[5]

A supranational perspective: a history that repeats itself in inhuman ways

The war that broke out at the beginning of 2022 will undoubtedly lead to a further increase in the number of displaced persons in the world. The number will likely reach around 90 million. However, the previous year already saw numbers that should have given pause for thought. In mid-2021, it was already estimated that, by the end of the year, more than 84 million people would be forced to flee their homes and countries due to conflict, violence, rights violations and environmental disasters.[6]  There were 82.4 million at the end of 2020. Of these, about 48 million were internally displaced. Presumably the events of August 2021 in Afghanistan – which today with the new emergency of the war in Ukraine we are struggling to remember – will result in an increase in the number of Afghan refugees, who already exceed 2.5 million.

In Italy, in 2021 there were 67,747 landings: 73 percent men; 7 percent women; 19 percent minors,  15 percent of whom were unaccompanied, about 10,000 in total. These are numbers that on more than a few occasions have led to cries of “invasion.” 1,496 died or were lost at sea in central Mediterranean waters. Since 2013, 23,507 have been reported  dead or missing in the Mediterranean “cemetery,” according to UNHCR data.[7]

Migrants from Libya accounted for 47 percent of the landings. This number also makes us reflect on the problem of Libyan prisons where people are forced to live which involves  about 30,000 individuals (“false refugees,” according to a new rhetoric). The experience of detention leaves important psychophysical consequences for an increasing number of people, especially women, as we have been able to see again this year at Centro SaMiFo (Salute Migranti Forzati), the Health Center for Forced Migrants, born from collaboration with Asl Roma 1 (Public Health Care).

We must not forget the land access routes through the Italian-Slovenian border, which registered the arrival of about 9,400 migrants in 2021, as witnessed by our offices in Trento and Padua. These are people who have traveled the Balkan route, forced into that macabre business – known as the game – of trying and trying again to enter Europe, putting their lives at risk even in  adverse weather conditions, which are often life-threatening  in the winter months.

An Italian perspective: a new start, but with the same problems as always

The year 2021 was supposed to be the year of a “new start,” a phrase well known to refugees. A new start is the slogan of their lives. Yet a good economic recovery – compromised by the current war in Ukraine – is not enough to start again with a different cultural horizon, reversing the trend of a country – our country – and of a Europe – our Europe – that for years, on more than a few occasions, have forgotten about the most vulnerable people and have placed more and more obstacles to the entry of migrants.

The Centro Astalli in Rome has been in past years the place that has helped people to understand the refugee phenomenon, because most of the people who have immigrated go there (up to 10,000 in 2021). In this context, along with the primary need for food, other needs emerge that reveal how refugees live and what they want for themselves and their loved ones.

Approximately 46,000 meals were distributed. Twenty percent of the users ate at the canteen only once, and in 70 percent of the cases from 2 to 50 times. It can be concluded from this that for most of those under international care their presence in the capital was an average of 5 weeks per year. This data shows us – after 2020, marked by severe travel restrictions – a very mobile  refugee population, made up of young people and adults who are doggedly pursuing a happy future, in search of the peace that they have not been able to experience in their own countries. Unfortunately, most of them, during their stay in Rome, sleep in the open or in serious marginal conditions.

The vaccination campaign was possible for all these people thanks to the coordinated action of the third sector, in concert with the institutions. Started very late – in June 2021 – compared to the Italian population, it nevertheless recorded a strong rate of  recovery, so as to become, toward the end of the year, almost comparable to the rest of the population. Unfortunately, the issue of access to vaccines reproduces, at the local level, what happens much more dramatically at the global level and speaks to us of an unequal world, in which access to care and the right to health are not guaranteed to all.

As far as reception is concerned, we must record, also for 2021, a prevalence nationally of those in Extraordinary Reception Centers, 52,302 people,[8] to the neglect of the Reception and Integration System (the SAI network, based on reception spread across individual territories and not concentrated in large centers, and with much more careful planning), with 25,715 people. Centro Astalli welcomed 1,175 people in its various centers, with various accompaniment programs. Among these, it is worth mentioning the allocation of housing resources – including shared housing – to individuals or families (especially single parents) at risk of social exclusion. In this specific case, we are talking about the transitional (protected) allocation of housing for a person granted international protection who leaves a reception center. It is worth mentioning that in the Roman shelters – but not only in them – there is a high percentage of vulnerability among the beneficiaries. In particular, about 40 percent of the people have been victims of violence and torture, and many of them have passed through Libya.

The challenge of social inclusion was also a feature of 2021. Over the course of the year, the social impact of the pandemic was even more evident. More than twice the number of people had to be helped along  the path to independent living. Once again, households (292), particularly single-parent households (about half), were the ones that found themselves in the greatest difficulty and often also needed parenting support. However, in the face of difficulties related to the interruption of the path toward autonomy, the operations desk – more than 1,000 people have been accompanied throughout Italy – has recorded a significant increase in employment opportunities for men, especially in the construction sector, and particularly in the northeast. On the other hand, the hotel and catering sectors continued to be slow to recover.

Already at the end of 2020 and for the whole of 2021, the Italian schools for migrants – there were about 500 students throughout Italy – could be held in person. In addition to being a place of learning, schools have once again become a place for socializing and getting to know each other, as well as Italian culture, thanks to visits to museums and monuments in the city of Rome and other cities in the Astalli network.

The year 2021 was marked by the shift of most public administration services to the web, a process that was particularly accelerated during the pandemic period. An attempt was then made to respond to this new need for services, in order to prevent digitalization from becoming a reason for exclusion from the enforceability of rights. There have been many difficulties in activating SPIDs (the public system for digital identification) and downloading the green pass (the Covid certification). This area of digitization, if not properly managed, risks becoming a further factor of inequality.

The perspective of the future: many young people want a different future

One of the initiatives for the 40th anniversary of Centro Astalli was the photographic exhibition “Facing the Future.” It presented photos of young people received by Centro Astalli, taken by Francesco Malavolta. The aim was to look at the future through the eyes of refugees. It is necessary to build a future together, to go toward an ever greater “us.” In the greeting sent for the inauguration of the exhibition, Pope Francis wrote: “The faces of the women and men who follow one another in these pages, which refer to the names and precise stories of people received at the Centro Astalli and which give a glimpse of the blurred contours of some places in the city of Rome, express the desire to be an active part of the city as a place of shared life; individuals with full citizenship together with many other men and women in the construction of communities of solidarity.”

This work of community building takes place in a particular way with young people. The projects in schools that the Centro Astalli has been carrying out for 20 years are an attempt to prepare for a reconciled and plural future. Again in 2021 they were an important place of encounter between young people who wanted to look beyond those dark clouds that have recently gathered on the eastern border of Europe. More than 20,000 students participated in the projects Windows, In the Shoes of Refugees, and Encounters on dialogue between people witnessing to Christianity and other religions. Many young people took part in training courses, volunteered, or chose Centro Astalli for their civil service: this is an important sign of hope for the future.


In 2021 we celebrated the 40th year of the activity of Centro Astalli.[9]  We are grateful for these 40 years, but we cannot be completely satisfied. There  are still too many displaced persons in the world, and, what is even worse, the right to asylum has been weakened under the pressure of a European culture that has played defensively, not daring to seek peace with courageous and generous  gestures.

May the solidarity that has characterized these weeks not be just the umpteenth instance of  passing enthusiasm. May the blood of the barbarity of war that has once again bathed the soil of Europe reinvigorate those principles of justice, equality, democracy – in a word, of humanity – which are at the basis of the European Union. David Sassoli – to whom the Annual Report is dedicated – reminded us last year in a video message: “As Europe we have the duty to enhance the idea of global citizenship and solidarity that is at the basis of an open, inclusive society, without forgetting the invitation of Pope Francis to rediscover an altruistic European Union, made up of human relations. We need rules, rules that humanize global mechanisms, and this only Europe can do.”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.7 art. 1, 0722: 10.32009/22072446.0722.1

[1].      The Report was presented on April 12, 2022, in Rome, in the Sala Squarzina of Teatro Argentina, in the presence of the Italian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Marina Sereni, with a speech by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, and Marino Sinibaldi, President of the Center for Books and Reading of the Italian Ministry of Culture, who moderated the meeting.

[2].      Paul VI, Message for the VI Day of Peace (1973), at

[3].      Cf. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, No. 17; John Paul II, Message for the XXXVIth World Day of Peace (2003): “As an enlightened spirit, John XXIII identified the essential conditions for peace in four precise requirements of the human soul: truth, justice, love and freedom. Truth will be the foundation of peace if each individual is honestly aware not only of their rights but also of their duties toward others. Justice will build peace, if each person concretely respects the rights of others and strives to fulfill fully their duties toward others. Love will be the leaven of peace if people feel the needs of others as their own and share with others what they possess, beginning with spiritual values. Freedom will ultimately nourish peace and make it bear fruit, if, in choosing the means to achieve it, individuals follow reason and courageously take responsibility for their actions.”

[4].      The Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in the field of development, countering illegal immigration, human trafficking, smuggling and strengthening border security between the State of Libya and the Republic of Italy is a document signed on February 2, 2017, to address the pressure of migrant landings from Libya on the Italian coast: see

[5].      Francis, Fratelli Tutti, No. 40.

[6]. See UNHCR, Mid-Year Trends REPORT 2021: cf.

[7].      See

[8].      The figure for December 15, 2021, on the Daily Statistical Dashboard of the Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration of the Ministry of the Interior: see

[9].      Cf. F. Lombardi, “Serve, accompany, defend. 40 years of Centro Astalli’s journey with refugees”, in Civ. Catt. English Edition, December 2021,

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