Italy's idea to set up "floating" migrant screening centres on the Mediterranean is "unthinkable," a top Catholic Church official said Wednesday, calling on Europe to instead open its doors to refugees.
Under the Italian plan, migrant rescue boats would be fitted with fingerprinting machines and other apparatuses to perform the same functions as "hotspots," the registration and detention centres recently opened in Italy and Greece with European Union funding.
The purpose would be to separate migrants who can claim asylum, and are thus eligible to stay in Europe, from those who cannot and must be repatriated. Human rights associations say distinguishing between the two groups is difficult and may lead to abuse.
"Migrants rescued at sea have the right [...] to file asylum applications and to appeal if their demand is not accepted. This form of international protection is not possible on boats," Monsignor Nunzio Galantino, general secretary of the Italian Catholic Bishops' Conference, told the newspaper La Repubblica.
"It is equally unthinkable to use boats intended for rescue to hold thousands of people in the Mediterranean before taking them to unknown destinations. Unless they want to take them back to ports in Libya and Egypt, condemning them to new forms of exploitation," he said.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who is the main sponsor of the floating hotspot plan, said he "understood" Galantino's position, but in comments carried by the ANSA news agency, added: "We have a big heart, but we cannot welcome everybody."
In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was cautious about Rome's proposals. "I'm not against it but there are legal questions which have to be [examined]. But I'm not saying no, I'm not saying yes, I'm reflecting," he said at a press conference.
Separately, the far-right Northern League party dismissed Galantino's remarks as "crazy, absurd and irresponsible," and proposed that the Vatican should offer its wealth - including the funds held by its IOR bank - to pay for migrant reception in Italy.
The Italian bishop called last week's sea migrant deaths - at least 1,000, according to aid groups - "a slap" to a Europe which "did not have the courage to set up humanitarian corridors" to allow migrants to travel safely and avoid "violence, exploitation and death."
Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has been a vocal campaigner for migrant rights. The bishop of Ventimiglia, an Italian town on the border with France, made the news this week for offering shelter to about 70 migrants evicted from an irregular camping site.