Pope Francis laments that for migrants “little has changed”

LESBOS, Greece – Pope Francis returned on Sunday to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, the site of one of his papacy’s defining moments, seeking to uplift the plight of migrants – what he called a “shipwreck of civilization” – for the highest level of global concern, with the pandemic and climate change.

“Five years have passed since I visited this place,” Francis said in a tent overlooking the camp, where he walked through white United Nations containers serving as homes for asylum seekers. In 2016, he took 12 refugees with him to Rome. This time, he offered solace and solidarity to the families who had been stuck there for years. “After all this time,” he added, “we see that not much has changed on the issue of migration.”

Francis’ remarks came during one of the concluding events, and in many ways culminating in a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece intended to refocus attention on migration, an issue on which he never wavered, even though the world’s attention waned. And when the world paid attention, it was usually the opposite of what they had hoped for.

Migrant flows fueled nationalist and populist surges in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Poland. Hungary has claimed that its anti-migrant policies and border towers protect Christian culture. And while the populist season in Europe has subsided somewhat, a politically favorable hard line against asylum seekers has crept into the status quo.

The crackdown on migrants has become an electoral issue in recent weeks in France, a country with a lower migrant percentage than many of its neighbors, even as desperate people have died trying to cross the Channel. Britain, their destination, took steps to keep them out.

Belarus used the migrants as pawns to destabilize the European Union at its eastern border, where Poland, far from welcoming them, pushed them back with water cannons in freezing cold. Barbed wire fences mark the borders, and the bloc, in an effort to keep politically destabilizing waves of migrants at bay, has outsourced its surveillance and detention of migrants to often brutal camps off the mainland.

Beyond that, concerns about the coronavirus and the new Omicron variant have led to travel limits and more apprehension about strangers at the door.

Through it all, Francois has remained consistent, even though his calls to welcome strangers have grown increasingly jarring.

On Sunday, he argued that the intractable reality of the problem revealed both the failure of interim measures and the need for a coordinated global response. He denounced a “indifference which kills” in Europe, which according to him showed a “cynical contempt which nonchalantly condemns the marginalized to death”.

He described as “explosive” the European proposals to pool funds for measures to keep migrants at bay. The Mediterranean Sea, cradle of so many civilizations, now looks like a mirror of death.

All around him at Mavrovouni camp, Greek policemen and soldiers stood guard over white gravel corridors lined with prefabricated buildings with black spray-painted addresses.

In front of the doors, asylum seekers left sandals and strollers, stacks of water bottles and bicycles. They held their children and ignored the stray dogs, looking up to the white tent where the Pope was speaking, slightly above the camp by the sea.

Before Francis arrived, Camille Mobaki, 31, who said he had escaped persecution in the Republic of Congo, lined up to enter the tent. “I am waiting to see if the Pope can take some of us to Italy,” said Mobaki, who has been in Lesvos for two years and who said his asylum requests were twice rejected.

Inside the tent, 11-year-old Voldi Lang Lubaki sat with his parents and sister. She said she didn’t know if the Pope’s presence meant they could leave.

“Maybe it’s yes, maybe it’s no – I hope so,” she said. When asked where she wanted to go, she replied: “Wherever the Pope tells me”.

Neither the Pope nor the Vatican announced further transfers from Lesvos, although days earlier, while Francis was in Cyprus, the Vatican said 12 migrants held there would be relocated to Italy in the coming weeks. . Cypriot officials have said 50 people will eventually leave the island under the deal.

In the years since the Pope’s first visit to Moria – the horrific Lesvos camp that sullied the name of the island, once famous for its ancient lyric poets – it has grown to 20,000 people. Moria has become notorious for the abuse, violence, sexual assault, overall degraded living conditions, and then the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.

Some migrants burned down the camp in September last year, destroying it and leaving the 12,000 people, mostly Afghans, who lived there homeless.

Today, only around 2,000 migrants live in Lesvos, which Greek government officials have called a vast improvement and indicating that Greece is meeting the needs of migrants.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who spoke to François on Sunday, described her visit as “a strong message of hope and responsibility which is being transmitted from Lesbos to the international community”.

But the camp is temporary until a de facto detention center, paid for by the European Union, is built. Such centers operate on three other Greek islands, Leros, Kos and Samos, across a strait from Turkey.

Last year, while the Samos detention center was under construction in the center of the island, Jalila Sarhan, 57, from Syria, sat on a hill overlooking overcrowded settlements known as the Jungle, who rivaled Moria for Europe’s darkest migrant. camp.

“It’s too cold and we’re getting sick,” she said, as men all around her were chopping firewood or making stoves out of earth. The women, many of whom were pregnant, kept their eyes on the thousands of children wandering up and down the hill.

This camp was evacuated this year. But moving people to different detention centers and islands, the Greek government acknowledged, is not a solution.

“It’s a problem that’s here to stay, not just for Greece, but for Europe,” Giorgos Koumoutsakos, a Greek lawmaker, said in an interview in Athens last year, as he was Deputy Minister of Migration. He blamed his predecessors in the left-wing Syriza government, who he said ignored the security dimension of what they saw as a purely humanitarian issue.

The current government has clamped down instead, erecting a wall along part of the country’s land border with Turkey and intercepting boats carrying migrants from Turkish waters.

Human rights groups accused Greek border officials of brutalizing migrants and forcing them back to Turkey. Last week, a legal resident of the European Union working as an interpreter for the bloc’s border agency, Frontex, accused Greek border guards of mistaking him for an asylum seeker, assaulting him and then to force him to enter Turkey alongside dozens of migrants.

In Lesbos, the government spent days cleaning up the camp before François arrived.

“Why is the Pope going to this part of the camp? Asked Ramat Ababsi, 25, who watched in bewilderment the activity around the tent on the hill. An Afghan asylum seeker who said he had been in Lesvos for three years, Mr Ababsi said several of the prefabricated containers police were keeping were unused, and indeed several were empty, filled only with bunk bed frames . “The bad situation is on the other side,” he said, pointing to a section behind him. “The Pope should go there. “

But everywhere Francois went, he implored a reluctant world to open their eyes to the reality facing asylum seekers.

“It is an illusion to think that it is enough to protect yourself, to defend yourself against those who need it most who knock on our door,” François said, adding: “Let me repeat: history teaches this lesson, but we haven’t learned this. “

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