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Pope warns of West’s ‘duty’ to welcome refugees

San Giovanni Rotondo — Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday reminded Western countries of their "duty" to welcome refugees, despite the economic and social problems of assimilating them into society.

Addressing thousands of pilgrims at the popular shrine to a Catholic mystic in southern Italy, the pope called for prayers for the "difficult and often dramatic" plight of refugees.

"Many are those who seek refuge in other countries, fleeing war, persecution and natural disasters, and while accepting them poses many problems, it is however a duty," said Benedict, speaking in Puglia at the shrine to Padre Pio, one of Italy’s most popular saints.

The pope’s comments come as Italy enforces tougher legislation to block foreign migrants from entering the country.

Rome and Tripoli recently implemented a controversial new policy which allows the Italian navy to intercept illegal migrants at sea and return them to Libya, from where they set off for Europe.

Rome’s agreement with Tripoli to repatriate the migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa, has been sharply criticised by rights groups including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the Vatican, on grounds that genuine asylum seekers may be among them.

Libya is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and the UNHCR has no access to immigration centres in the North African country.

The UN marked World Refugee Day on Saturday.