LESBOS, Greece (AP) – Pope Francis returned to Lesbos, the Greek island at the heart of a massive wave of migration to Europe, on Sunday to comfort its asylum seekers after sharply criticizing the European governments during a visit to two badly affected countries.
Arriving at the Mavrovouni camp, a maskless Francis took his time to walk over the barricades, pat children on the head, ask them their names and pose for selfies. He was greeted by hopeful asylum seekers who shouted: “Welcome!” “We love you!”
The 84-year-old Francis spends just two hours in the camp, where would-be refugees live in white UN containers by the water and barbed wire line the camp entrance. On his last visit in 2016, Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslim refugees on board the papal plane.
The Pope is on a five-day visit to Cyprus and Greece, which is dominated by the issue of migration. In Cyprus on Friday he denounced the “culture of indifference” towards migrants, and in Athens on Saturday he called on European governments to accept migrants “in proportion to the resources of each country”.
“Europe continues to stall and falls victim to forms of nationalist self-interest rather than being an engine of solidarity. Sometimes it seems slow and uncoordinated, ”he said. “In the past, ideological conflicts prevented bridges from being built between Eastern and Western Europe. Today the issue of migration has also led to rifts between the south and the north. “
Francis said migrants and refugees are now going through a “terrible modern odyssey,” referring to the ancient Greek epic.
More than 1 million people, many of them fleeing the war in Iraq and Syria, came to Greece from Turkey in 2015 and 2016, with Lesbos being the busiest Greek border crossing. An overcrowded refugee camp in Moria on the island, which the Pope visited in 2016, was destroyed by fire last year.
Francis will meet with migrants in the replacement camp on Sunday, lead a prayer service and also spend some time with families in their container houses.
“It is a grace for us that the Pope is coming here. We have many problems here as refugees, a lot of suffering, “says Enice Kiaku, a Congolese asylum seeker whose son sits on her lap on Lesbos. But like little Guilain, she has no ID and is stuck.
“He was born here, but he has no papers. The arrival of the Pope here makes us blessed because we hope that the Pope will take us with him, because we are suffering here, ”said Kiaku while she was waiting in a tent for the Pope to arrive.
The Vatican was not binding on whether migrants would leave the island with Francis this time. The Vatican confirmed on Friday that as part of Francis’ visit, 12 migrants currently living in Cyprus will be relocated to Italy in the coming weeks and cared for by a Catholic charity in Rome.
Among those invited to stand on stage with Francis on Sunday is Christian Tango Mukaya, a Congolese father of three who lost track of his wife on his journey and hopes that his visibility with the Pope will bring her could reunite.
“We always have this hope that one day we can all be together again. That the family can be together again, ”he said on the eve of Francis’ arrival.
“We hope that the Pope’s coming can bring about change. Change, ”he said. “As for our condition, we want a better life. We ask the Pope to help us, to speak for Europe on our behalf, to help us. “
Greece recently built a steel wall along a section of the Greek-Turkish land border and intercepts boats transporting migrants from the Turkish side. She denies allegations that she is summarily deporting migrants entering Greek territory, but human rights groups say there have been numerous such pushbacks.
Before Francis’ visit on Sunday, human rights groups intensified their criticism of Greece’s handling of migrants and of the tougher migration policy of the 27 EU members.
Amnesty International said new EU-funded detention centers on Greek islands violate Athens’ commitment to provide international protection to those in need.
“Under international and EU law, asylum seekers should only be detained as a last resort,” Amnesty said. “As we feared, the Greek authorities are hiding behind the legally ambiguous concept of so-called closed-control centers to illegally deprive asylum seekers of their freedom.”
The human rights group called on Greece to “urgently reverse this decision and lift the restrictions”.
Greek Minister for Migration Affairs, Notis Mitarachi, defended Greece’s response in a statement on Sunday, saying it responded “selflessly” to the 2015 crisis and continued to provide protection to asylum seekers. But it called on the EU to do more to help frontline countries like Greece, which bear a disproportionate burden while “those who exploit their fellow human beings are rewarded”.
Gatopoulos contributed from Athens, Greece.
Follow all of AP’s global migration stories below https://apnews.com/hub/migration.