Pope Francis, visiting Greek razor wire-fenced migrant camp, challenges Europe to live up to its human rights ideals

LESBOS, Greece — Pope Francis ventured Sunday into one of the grimmest places in Europe, a razor wire-fenced camp for asylum seekers on this island in the Aegean sea, and told the people held there that Europe’s response has been defensive and inhumane, and has fallen short of its purported values.

“Human lives, real people, are at stake!” Francis said, in some of his most pleading words on a topic that has defined his pontificate.

For many at the camp, sealed off from the outside world, their plight hidden, Francis’s visit punctured the bubble. When the pontiff arrived, asylum seekers lined up to hug and touch him. Unmasked, and at times relying on a nearby priest for support walking, the pontiff spent 20 minutes shaking hundreds of hands.

And yet in returning for the first time in five years to this island at the front line of Europe’s immigration response, Francis also confronted the limits of his own ability to influence opinions and shape policy. These ideas were once part of the European discussion about the best approach to immigration from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. They now seem to be clearly against the political consensus on the continent. A recent incident at the Belarus border showed that the bloc’s dominant sentiment is to stop migrants entering.

Pope Francis spoke out against political exploitation of refugees on Dec. 5, as he visited the Greek island of Lesbos, a main entry point for migrants. (Reuters)

Francis, speaking in a white tent with several dozen migrants, vented his frustration. Progress on migration, he said, has been “terribly absent.” He called it an “illusion” to think a society could safeguard itself without helping those who “knock at our door.” He said respect for human rights should be upheld — “especially on this continent, which is constantly promoting them worldwide.”

“Let us stop ignoring reality,” Francis said. How many situations are not worthy of humans? How many hotspots [are there] where migrants and refugees live in borderline conditions, without glimpsing solutions on the horizon?”

The pope’s previous visit to Lesbos came in 2016, a trip most remembered for Francis’s dramatic move of flying back to Rome with 12 Syrians aboard the papal plane. As the effects of the massive migration surge were beginning to manifest, it was just as they had begun to see the consequences.

Five years later, Lesbos has become as good a place as any to see what has changed.

Near villages where fishermen once helped migrants come ashore, Greek security forces now are accused of pushing migrants back into Turkish waters, in violation of international law. The only migrants that have had the chance to get to Greece are sent to a camp, where they are restricted to leaving for two days each week. New decrees have reduced the chances that migrants will be granted protection. The arrivals are being called “illegal migrants” in Greek media.

The camp is about five minutes away from the island’s largest city. It was constructed in a hurry, after a fire last year ravaged the previous facility — a sprawl of tents, at one point holding as many as 19,500 people, that was described as the most hellish place in Europe.

The replacement, by comparison, is not overcrowded. The replacement can house several thousand people. However, the living conditions of migrants are not equal. Some live in tents while others stay in containers. Others have no heat while others are able to use their heat. Residents claimed that they witnessed camp staff working tirelessly to clean up a month of trash before the pope visited.

“So at least the pope got them that,” said Liza Papadimitriou, an advocacy manager for Doctors Without Borders. “Even if nothing else changes in the long term — hey, they cleaned it.”

Sunday, as the Vatican motorcade arrived at the camp, people came out of their tents and containers and lined up along any spot of fencing they could find. The bus with church leaders was heading to the site for today’s events. Francis, a trailing driver in his vehicle, ordered his driver to pull over right in front of the people.

As they came face-to-face with the pontiff, migrants tried to tell their stories. One of them presented what appeared to be an identification card.

Some at the camp have been there upward of two years. Many of them have fond memories of nighttime fighting at the camp’s old camp. It was very unsafe. They have had multiple children drop out of school. Their children have spent the winters sleeping in tents. The aftermath of the fire last year, which saw thousands fleeing the area and putting their belongings on the street until a new camp was constructed was what they dealt with. Mental health issues are rampant according to aid groups.

On the day before the pope’s arrival, one Afghan migrant pointed to a stretch of pavement near a supermarket and described spending 10 nights there with his wife and two children after the fire. A psychiatrist prescribed him pills that would help him to sleep well and manage depression. He pulled out his wallet.

“My [7-year-old] son is seeing a psychiatrist too,” said the father, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that speaking would reduce his chances of gaining asylum.

From the podium where Francis spoke, one could see the full landscape of the camp: the grid of white containers, the police, the lapping Aegean Sea. Francis said a place like this shouldn’t be a “theater of conflict.”

“Let us stop this shipwreck of civilization,” he said.

After the address, Francis exited, this time getting directly into his white Fiat, and soon the motorcades, the cameras, the crowds were gone. The Vatican plans to move migrants from Cyprus, but no migrants were taken to Rome by planes.

“It’s good that someone is still thinking about refugees,” said Josue Makalalulendo, 18, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I have been in this area for over a year and I am just now seeing cameras. I think the pope came to break through.”

Makalalulendo hoped that conditions might change as a result. It was still too soon to know.

His more immediate priority was managing the rest of Sunday, which he said was typically the hardest day of the week. Migrants are prohibited from leaving camp on Sundays. He returned to container No. 123, where he planned to spend the rest of the day.

“It’s depressing,” he said.

Sayed Ahmadzia Ebrahimi contributed to this report.

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