Pope Francis returned on Sunday to the Greek island of Lesbos to offer comfort to migrants at a refugee camp and blast what he said was Europe’s indifference and self-interest “that condemns to death those on the fringes.”
“Please, let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!” Francis said at the Mavrovouni camp, a cluster of white United Nations containers on the edge of the sea lined by barbed wire fencing and draped with laundry drying in the air.
A maskless Francis took his time walking through the camp on Sunday, patting children and babies on the head and posing for selfies. He gave a thumbs up after he was serenaded by African women singing a song of welcome.
It was Francis’s second trip to Lesbos in five years. He lamented that little had changed since 2016, when Lesbos was at the heart of a massive wave of migration to Europe and when the pontiff brought 12 Syrian Muslim refugees from the island back home with him aboard the papal plane.
That concrete gesture of solidarity had raised hopes among current residents of the Lesbos camp, some of whom have given birth to children here while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. But there were no papal airlifts on Sunday, and Francis returns to the Vatican on Monday.
“It is a grace for us that the Pope is coming here. We have a lot of problems here as refugees, a lot of suffering,” said Enice Kiaku from Congo, whose two-year-old son on her lap was born on Lesbos. But like little Guilain, she has no identity documents and is stuck.
“The arrival of the Pope here makes us feel blessed, because we hope the Pope will take us with him because here we suffer,” Kiaku said as she waited in a tent for the Pope to arrive.
‘Let us stop ignoring reality’
Francis’s five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece has been dominated by the topic of migration and his call for European countries to show greater solidarity with those in need. He insisted on Sunday that Europe must stop building walls, stoking fears and shutting out “those in greater need who knock at our door.”
During the first leg of Francis’s trip in Cyprus, the Vatican announced that 12 migrants who had crossed over from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north would be relocated to Italy in the coming weeks. Cypriot officials, who say the European Union island nation can’t accept more migrants, said a total of 50 would eventually be sent.
“I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes,” Francis said on Sunday. “Let us stop ignoring reality, stop constantly shifting responsibility, stop passing off the issue of migration to others, as if it mattered to no one and was only a pointless burden to be shouldered by somebody else.”
He denounced the fact that the Mediterranean Sea, “the cradle of so many civilizations,” had become a vast cemetery where smuggling boats packed with desperate people too often sink.
“Let us not let our sea (mare nostrum) be transformed into a desolate sea of death (mare mortuum),” he said.
Greece defends response
Sitting before the Pope in a tent at the water’s edge was Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, EU Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas and would-be refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Congo, among other countries.
Addressing Francis, Sakellaropoulou strongly defended Greece’s response to the needs of migrants and thanked the pontiff for showing his support with his presence.
“It is the strong message of hope and responsibility that is conveyed from Lesbos to the international community,” she said.
The camp, where tents were only recently replaced with containers, is actually a temporary holding centre that replaced another camp that burned down last year. It was built pending the construction on the island of a “closed controlled facility,” essentially a detention camp.
These new camps, which are funded by the EU but have run afoul of human rights organizations, are already running on three other Greek islands: Samos, Leros and Kos.
More than one 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. The flow may have ebbed in Lesbos, but it hasn’t stopped, and anti-migrant sentiment in Greece and beyond has only hardened in the ensuing years — with the latest flashpoint on the EU’s Polish border with Belarus.
Greece 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.
Amnesty International said the 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.
Greek Migration Affairs Minister Notis Mitarachi defended Greece’s response on Sunday, saying it had “selflessly” responded to the crisis in 2015 and was continuing to provide asylum-seekers with protection. He demanded the EU do more to help front-line countries like Greece.