Vatican City: Pope Francis will visit Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa July 8 and celebrate mass there with migrants, who arrive there from North Africa after a perilous sea voyage.

"The Pope has been profoundly saddened by the recent news of shipwreck of a migrant boat from Africa, the latest in a series of similar tragedies," the Vatican said in a statement. "He intends to pray for those who have lost their lives at sea and meet survivors and other refugees on Lampedusa," the statement said. The pontiff will also "encourage" islanders and urge them to help "these brothers and sisters who are in dire need", the Vatican added.

During the visit, Francis will cast a wreath into the sea in a sign of respect for the thousand of migrants who have perished trying to reach Italy's southern shores, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. According Human Rights Watch, up to 13,500 migrants have died since 1998 while attempting to make the dangerous crossing to Europe, including at least 1,500 in 2011, the deadliest on record.

Lampedusa was inundated with around 30,000 people during the first three months of 2011 during the 'Arab Spring' revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that overthrew longtime leaders in those countries.

The severe overcrowding in Lampedusa's single detention centre, designed to hold 850 people, led to squalid migrant camps on the island that drew international condemnation. The warmer summer months see a surge in the number of boats attempting to reach southern Europe.
In June, at least 10 migrants drowned in the Strait of Sicily when their boat got into difficulty and a Tunisian fishing boat allegedly refused to rescue them.


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