Pope returns to Greek isle at heart of Europe migrant debate

AP , Sunday 5 Dec 2021

Pope Francis returns Sunday to Lesbos, the Greek island at the heart of a massive wave of migration into Europe six years ago, after pointedly criticizing European governments on their current handling of migrants during a visit to two hard-hit countries.

NGO members hold a banner outside Karatepe refugee camp before the visit of Pope Francis, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. AP

The 84-year-old Francis is spending just two hours on the island, visiting a new migrant holding center where asylum-seekers live in white UN containers at the water's edge and barbed wire fencing lines the camp entrance. On his previous visit in 2016, Francis brought back 12 Syrian Muslim refugees with him aboard the papal plane.

The pope is on a five-day visit to Cyprus and Greece that has been dominated by the topic of migration. In Cyprus on Friday he denounced the ``culture of indifference`` shown to migrants, and in Athens on Saturday he urged European governments to take in migrants ``in proportion to each country's means.''

``Europe continues to stall, falling prey to forms of nationalistic self-interest rather than being an engine of solidarity. At times, it appears faltering and uncoordinated,'' he said. ``In the past, ideological conflicts prevented the building of bridges between eastern and western Europe. Today the issue of migration has led to breaches between south and north as well.''

Francis said migrants and refugees are today living through a ``horrendous modern Odyssey,'' referring to the ancient Greek epic poem.

More than 1 million people, many fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, crossed from Turkey into Greece during 2015 and 2016, with Lesbos the busiest Greek crossing point. An overcrowded refugee camp at Moria on the island, which the pope visited in 2016, was destroyed by a fire last year.

Francis will meet Sunday with migrants at the replacement camp, presiding over a prayer service and also spending some time with families inside their container homes.

The Vatican was noncommittal on whether any would leave the island with Francis this time around. The Vatican on Friday confirmed that, as part of Francis' visit, 12 migrants currently living in Cyprus would be relocated to Italy in the coming weeks and cared for by a Catholic charity in Rome.

Among those invited to be on stage with Francis on Sunday is Christian Tango Mukaya, a Congolese father of three who lost track of his wife in their journey and is hoping his visibility with the pope might reunite them.

``We always have this hope that one day we may all be together again. That the family can be together again,'' he said on the eve of Francis' arrival.

``We hope that the pope coming can bring change. Change,`` he said. ``Regarding our condition, we would like a better life. We plead with the pope to help us, to speak on our behalf to Europe, to help us.''

Greece has recently built a steel wall along a section of the Greek-Turkish land border and is intercepting boats transporting migrants from the Turkish side. It denies allegations that it is carrying out summary deportations of migrants reaching Greek territory but human rights groups say numerous such pushbacks have occurred.

Ahead of Sunday's stop by Francis, human rights groups have stepped up their criticism of Greece's treatment of migrants and of tougher migration policies among the EU's 27 members.

Amnesty International said new EU-funded detention camps on Greek islands were in violation of Athens' commitments to provide international protection to those in need.

``Under international and EU law, asylum-seekers should only be detained as a matter of last resort,'' Amnesty said. ``As we feared, Greek authorities are hiding behind the legally ambiguous concept of so-called closed-controlled centers to illegally deprive asylum-seekers of their liberty.``

The rights group asked Greece ``to urgently withdraw this decision and lift the restrictions.''

Greek Migration Affairs Minister Notis Mitarachi defended Greece's response in a statement Sunday, saying it had ``selflessly`` responded to the crisis in 2015 and was continuing to provide asylum-seekers with protection. But it demanded the EU do more to help front-line countries like Greece that bear a disproportionate burden while ``those who exploit fellow human beings are rewarded.``

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