ROME — Italian government and church officials welcomed 41 Syrian refugees at Rome's airport Monday, saying they wanted to show solidarity with those fleeing war at a time when the U.S. is sending refugees away and building a wall to keep migrants out.
The children among the Syrians were given balloons as they arrived, and a colorful sign reading "Welcome to Italy" greeted them and their parents in the airport terminal. They were the latest group of refugees to be resettled in Italy via a "humanitarian corridor" agreement between the Italian government and a Catholic-Protestant collaborative project.
"At a moment in time where they're building walls in other parts of the world, we are making bridges and bringing by air those who have the right to come to arrive in security," said the vice prefect of the interior ministry, Donatella Candura.
The airlift was organized by the Sant'Egidio Community and the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, an ecumenical collaboration that has resettled some 540 people in Italy in the past year as an alternative to the deadly sea crossings most migrants make to try to get to Italy at the hands of smugglers.
Aid workers identify refugees in Lebanon and arrange for visas via the Italian embassy. Once in Italy, the churches take charge of finding the refugees housing, schooling and other immediate services to help them integrate into Italian society.
"We thank Italy for this hospitality, and we hope that all countries in all the world will do what Italy has done saving people who have escaped from Syria, from the war that is going on right now," said Ahmad Alkhaled, one of the refugees who fled his home in Homs.
The refugees said many of them planned to return home after peace is restored to their country, and that regardless they didn't represent a security threat as the Trump administration charged.
"Islam is full of people who are friendly, who are full of friendship. There are no terrorists among us refugees," said M'aha Aleiwer from Homs.
Italy's deputy foreign minister, Mario Giro, greeted the Syrians at the airport and denounced as inefficient the Trump administration's immigration restrictions banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Syria included.
He said walls, as proposed by the Trump administration along the Mexican border, have similarly been shown not to work. What works, Giro said, is the organized acceptance and distribution of refugees, with all security provisions necessary, coupled with economic accords with countries of origin to try to stem the flow of economic migrants.
"This works. Everything else doesn't," Giro said.
Italy has been on the front line of Europe's migration crisis, coordinating the EU Mediterranean rescue operation and processing the migrants for asylum. While Italy has demanded the EU do more to help out, the government accepts its obligations to protect those who flee war, he said.
At the same time the Syrians were being welcomed with open arms in Rome, police in Milan were announcing the results of a two-year investigation into a land-based trafficking nework for migrants who reach Italy by sea. Thirty-four arrest warrants were issued in Italy, France and Germany against the Egyptian-headed organization that arranged transport for the migrants from Sicily to Milan and beyond.
Police showed images of migrants crammed into trucks that were stopped at the Ventimiglia border crossing with France and said they had documented some 60 such trafficking efforts.
Chief prosecutor Ilda Boccassini called the phenomenon of human trafficking and exploitation of desperate migrants the "globalization of hatred."