Pope Francis returned to the Greek island of Lesbos on Sunday to console refugees in a refugee camp and to criticize Europe’s apathy and self-interest, which he says “condemns to death those on the margins.”
“Please, let us put a stop to this civilizational shipwreck!” Francis spoke to the Mavrovouni camp, a cluster of white United Nations containers on the sea’s edge surrounded by barbed wire fencing and covered with laundry drying in the breeze.
A barefaced man Sunday, Francis strolled through the camp, caressing youngsters and newborns on the head and posing for photographs. After being serenaded by African ladies singing a welcoming song, he offered a “thumbs up.”
Francis had returned to Lesbos for the second time in five years. He bemoaned the fact that little had changed since 2016, when Lesbos was at the epicenter of a large surge of migration to Europe and Francis flew 12 Syrian Muslim refugees from the island back to Rome aboard the papal jet.
That physical act of solidarity had sparked optimism among current inhabitants of the Lesbos camp, some of whom had given birth here while their asylum requests were being processed. However, there were no papal airlifts on Sunday, and Francis is scheduled to return to the Vatican on Monday.
“The fact that the Pope is coming here is a blessing for us.” As refugees, we have a lot of challenges and a lot of pain,” said Enice Kiaku from Congo, who has a 2-year-old boy on her lap who was born on Lesbos. But, like Guilain, she lacks identification and is stranded.
“The arrival of the pope here makes us feel happy, since we think the pope will take us with him because we suffer here,” Kiaku remarked as she waited for the pope in a tent.
The theme of migration has dominated Francis’ five-day tour to Cyprus and Greece, as has Francis’ plea for European countries to demonstrate greater solidarity with those in need. He maintained on Sunday that Europe must stop erecting barriers, instilling fear, and excluding “those in greater need who knock at our door.”
During Francis’ first visit to Cyprus, the Vatican declared that 12 refugees who had crossed from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north would be moved to Italy in the coming weeks. Cypriot officials, who insist the European Union island country cannot take any more migrants, have announced that a total of 50 will be dispatched.
“I implore every man and woman, all of us, to rise beyond the paralysis of fear, the apathy that kills, the cynical disrespect that casually commits people on the margins to death!” Francis stated on Sunday. “Let us stop denying reality, stop transferring blame, stop passing off the issue of migration to others as if it didn’t matter and was just a worthless weight to be carried by someone else!”
He lamented the fact that the Mediterranean Sea, “the cradle of so many civilizations,” had devolved into a gigantic graveyard where smuggling vessels crammed with desperate people frequently perished.
“Let us not turn our sea (mare nostrum) into a barren sea of death (mare mortuum),” he urged.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, EU Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, and would-be migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Congo sat before him in a tent at the water’s edge.
In her address to the Pope, Sakellaropoulou praised Greece’s responsiveness to the needs of migrants and welcomed Francis for his visit.
“Lesbos sends a tremendous message of hope and responsibility to the world community,” she added.
The camp, where tents have just lately been replaced with containers, is actually a temporary holding center that took the place of another camp that burned down last year. It was constructed in anticipation of the establishment of a “closed controlled facility,” effectively a prison camp, on the island. These new camps, sponsored by the EU but opposed by human rights organizations, are already in operation on three other Greek islands: Samos, Leros, and Kos.
Francis listened closely as one camp resident, Christian Tango Mukaya, a Congolese father of three, praised him for his gesture of solidarity and his call for Europe to accept migrants. Mukaya lost touch of his wife and their third kid on their voyage and is hopeful that his prominence with the Pope would lead to their reunion.
On the eve of Francis’ visit, he told The Associated Press, “We always have this dream that one day we may all be together again.”
“We hope that the Pope’s visit would bring about change,” he stated. “We want a better existence.” We beg the Pope to assist us and to speak on our behalf to Europe.”
During 2015 and 2016, more than a million refugees, many of them were escaping violence in Iraq and Syria, crossed from Turkey into Greece, with Lesbos being the main Greek crossing site. The flow may have slowed on Lesbos, but it hasn’t stopped, and anti-migrant sentiment in Greece and elsewhere has only become stronger in the years since, with the newest flashpoint being the EU’s Polish border with Belarus.
Greece has constructed a steel wall around a portion of the Greek-Turkish land border and is intercepting boats carrying migrants from Turkey. It disputes charges that it is carrying out hasty deportations of migrants entering Greek territory, but human rights organisations say there have been several such protests.
According to Amnesty International, the new EU-funded detention facilities on Greek islands violate Athens’ duty to providing international protection to individuals in need.
“Asylum seekers should only be held as a last resort under international and EU law,” Amnesty added. “As we suspected, Greek authorities are using the legally murky idea of so-called closed-controlled institutions to wrongfully deprive asylum applicants of their liberty.”
The rights organization urged Greece to “immediately reverse this decision and eliminate the limitations.”
Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s Migration Affairs Minister, defended the country’s approach on Sunday, saying it had “selflessly” responded to the crisis in 2015 and was still providing shelter to asylum seekers. He requested that the EU do more to assist front-line nations such as Greece.