ROME - "The debate on migration is not really about migrants," Pope Francis said Monday, urging leaders to stop thinking about numbers and worry about individuals.
The debate on migration "is about all of us, about the past, present and future of our societies," the pope said in a message commemorating the 70th anniversary of the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"We should not be surprised by the number of migrants, but rather come towards all of them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their particular personal and family situations," the pontiff insisted.
We should treat others as we want them to treat us and "not neglect hospitality towards the stranger, for ‘for through it, some have unknowingly entertained angels,'" Francis said, citing the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, adding that these principles "should guide the way we treat migrants in the local community and nationally."
As he has done on other occasions, the pope urged people to focus more on the benefits migrants bring to their host countries rather than the problems immigration causes.
"We often hear about what states are doing to welcome migrants," he said. "But it is equally important to ask: what benefits do migrants bring to their host communities and how do they enrich them?"
In this regard, the pope said that in wealthier nations, "migrant labor is in high demand and welcomed as a way to compensate for the lack of it."
The pontiff also denounced "the fact that migrants are increasingly being used as bargaining chips, as pawns on a chessboard, victims of political rivalries," without explaining what he was referring to.
Pope Francis poses with a group of refugees on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Fabio Frustaci)
"How can suffering and despair be exploited to advance or defend political agendas?" he chided. "How can political considerations prevail when it is the dignity of the human person that is at stake?"
"Beyond the political and legal aspects of irregular situations, we must never lose sight of the human face of migration and the fact that, beyond the geographical divisions of borders, we are part of a single human family," he stated.
The pope also urged the facilitation of legal migration routes, while denouncing "restrictive policies," so that would-be migrants do not get caught in exploitive situations.
"There is an urgent need to find dignified ways out of irregular situations," he said. "Desperation and hope always prevail over restrictive policies."
"The more legal routes exist, the less likely it is that migrants will be drawn into the criminal networks of people smugglers or into exploitation and abuse while in contravention of the law," he asserted.
Francis also insisted that the international community "must urgently address the conditions that give rise to irregular migration, thus making migration a well-informed choice and not a desperate necessity."
"To ensure that most people who can live with dignity in their countries of origin do not feel compelled to migrate irregularly, efforts are urgently needed to create better economic and social conditions," he said, "so that emigration will not be the only option left for those who seek peace, justice, security and full respect of their human dignity."
"Ultimately, migration is not only a story of migrants but of inequalities, despair, environmental degradation, climate change, but also of dreams, courage, study abroad, family reunification, new opportunities, safety and security, and hard but dignified work," he declared.