Pope Francis is expected to meet migrants and refugees at the Ħal Far Peace Lab during his two-day visit in April.

The pontiff's visit is expected to draw attention to the plight of Malta's migrant community and follows calls made during previous Mediterranean tours for EU member states to be more welcoming.

During Mass to mark the feast of St Paul's Shipwreck earlier on Thursday, it was confirmed that Francis will arrive in Malta on April 2. 

Little detail of his itinerary was provided, but the visit will take the 85-year-old Roman Catholic leader to Valletta, Rabat, Floriana, Ħal Far and Gozo.

The reference to Ħal Far is understood to refer to a visit to the Peace Lab already included in a programme for his postponed 2020 visit. 

The Peace Lab was set up in 1971 following an appeal made by Pope John XXIII calling for the world to reflect on peace, and is now home to migrants and refugees. 

Frontline of migration

It will be a politically sensitive visit as Malta is on the frontline of migration into Europe and Robert Abela's government has been accused of being involved in illegally pushing back migrants to war-torn Libya.

Testifying in a constitutional case filed by 52 asylum seekers alleging human rights breaches in an Easter Sunday pushback, Abela admitted co-ordinating the return but said Malta had been abandoned by other EU member states.

Thousands of people make the journey across the Mediterranean each year on overcrowded boats in the hopes of reaching Europe, via Malta or Italy. According to UN figures, some 832 people arrived by sea in Malta last year, down dramatically from 2,281 the previous year.

The highest proportion of arrivals in 2021 were from Eritrea, followed by Syria, Sudan and Egypt. 

Pope Francis has defended refugees and migrants, making it a focal point of his papacy and appealing for the European Union to be more welcoming to those arriving in the face of adversity. 

Francis last year made a historic trip to Iraq, followed by visits to Budapest, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus.

He has highlighted the issue of migration in many of these visits - particularly to Mediterranean countries and he has not held back in his criticism of the treatment of migrants.  

In Cyprus, he condemned the "slavery" and "torture" of people fleeing war and poverty, saying it was reminiscent of the history of the last century, "of the Nazis, of Stalin".

During his visit to Greece, he chastised Europe for its lack of co-ordination in tackling migration. 

Last year, a Council of Europe report said Malta "risked jeopardising the right to life of people at sea" by repeated failures and delays in attending distress calls. 

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic also criticised the "deplorable" living conditions of migrants in Safi Detention Centre.

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