di Riccardo D'Andrea
Buenos Aires, August 30 - When Pope Francis visited an immigration centre in July on Italy's southern island of Lampedusa - the first point of arrival in Europe for many desperately fleeing their home countries - it was clear that he could well relate to their plight. After all, for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, the situation was all too familiar in its similarities to the immigration and suffering that he had witnessed in his homeland of Argentina. There, he became known for his calls from the pulpit for social justice, and his work on the ground with the poor and organizations fighting for the basic rights of even the most underprivileged citizens. The suburbs of such sprawling South American cities as Buenos Aires have become swollen with "clandestinos" - the very poor who have fled the countryside seeking work and a brighter future in the cities. Many are internal migrants, Argentinians fleeing poverty in their towns and villages. But many are also drawn to the Argentine capital from other countries in the region, such as as Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay. And all too often, they find only more hardship and even death - also the fate of some of the immigrants fleeing north Africa and the Middle East on makeshift rafts and boats for the Italian island of Lampedusa. The EU border agency Frontex reported last month that 1,300 migrants landed on the island in one week this summer, and in the first seven months of 2013, some 12,000 immigrants arrived on Lampedusa. Still, many die every year in the perilous sea crossing. During a public Mass in Lampedusa, France condemned a "globalization of indifference" towards the suffering of immigrants and in his homily. "We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn't concern us, it's none of our business," the pope said. He also pointedly condemned political leaders who have turned a blind eye to the problems of the poor that force them to flee their homes, and prayed for God's forgiveness "for those who with their decisions at the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies". In a tweet after leaving Lampedusa, Francis built upon that sentiment. "We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy". The plight of the desperate and homeless has for years been a major concern for Pope Francis, who often speaks of such key principles as the dignity of work. Indeed, Bergoglio's family were immigrants, leaving behind their homes in Piedmont and Liguria - like so many Italians - to begin a new life in the new world. He was raised on the stories of his family's struggles and successes, as well as hardships, which has helped to shape his interest around immigration. As far back as 2003, Bergoglio delivered sermons on the issues around migration and the necessity of welcoming newcomers and helping them to find a place in society. "Thanks to their presence, Buenos Aires is a city of many faces," Bergoglio preached in 2003. But immigrants also need legal protection and support from abuse, he said. Bergoglio also backed those words with a action during his years in Buenos Aires, supporting organizations that fight against the criminal exploitation of vulnerable immigrants. Many are exploited by human traffickers, forced to work as prostitutes or to become drug mules in conditions that are essentially slavery, Bergoglio has said. He has worked alongside a non-organization Alameda that has grown in size and influence as it fights drug trafficking, slave labour, pimping and child exploitation. He also preached against social injustice and intervened to help protect a group of "cartoneros" - people who collect abandoned materials to be recycled in the streets - under threat from a street gang. In fact, Francis invited a cartonero, Sergio Sanchez, to be part of the Argentine delegation at the Mass at Vatican City celebrating his inauguration as pope in March 2013. Sanchez recalled during his time in Vatican City how for years Francis preached in Buenos Aires against slave labour, exploitation of women and children, and demanded greater support for the poor.