ATHENS – For the second time in five years, Pope Francis went to the Greek island of Lesbos to talk about the plight of refugees and said it’s only gotten worse, blaming the west – the European Union – for shutting them out.
His message that refugees and migrants were being stuck in detention centers and camps as the EU has shut its borders to them resonated among them but didn’t draw a peep or tweet from the bloc’s leaders.
In a report, the Reuters news agency detailed what he said and that, as he did in 2016 when he first came to an island that had become a symbol of refugee plight as people fled their homelands and used Turkey as a jumping-off point to get there, how his audience was really just them.
The first time he came to the notorious Moria camp that the BBC said was the “worst in the world,” and was burned down in September, 2020 by a handful of refugees furious over COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
It was replaced by a tent city, Mavrovouni, that remains more than a year after Greece and the EU said it would be replaced, with new “closed” detention centers being built on five Greek islands – including Lesbos – near Turkey’s shores.
Francis said he picked Lesbos again to deliver a message of unity that went mostly unheard except in the camps. “They are our brothers and sisters,” he said of refugees ahead of his trip to Cyprus and Greece.
He found a New Democracy government accused of pushing back refugees and migrants, keeping them locked up in centers and waiting two years or more for asylum applications to be processed and no Greek official with him except symbolically.
Still, there was hope and anticipation in the voices of those in the camp awaiting him, but not some residents with compassion fatigue, weary of their island holding them for more than five years.
“Why is the Pope coming? He’s coming for them, not us,” 80-year-old Evangelia Afentouli said while fishing in the harbor of the village facing Mavrovouni, the temporary camp on an old army firing range where about 2,300 mostly Afghan asylum-seekers live, said Reuters.
“I think he’s a good person. He will hear our cry,” added Jules Penda, a teacher who fled separatist insurgency in Cameroon. “Nobody comes here because he was living normally in his country. All of us are running from one problem or another,” the report added.
Christian Tango Muyaka, who escaped Congo with his family, is lined up to speak to the pope. “His visit is a comfort and it gives us hope that the future will be better for us,” he said.
Residents of Moria village blamed incidents of animal theft and break-ins on migrants, staging protests demanding that the camp be shut down.
“We are from a village that has been completely destroyed,” said Thodoros Eskabas, a pensioner who said he has yet to be compensated for damage to his olive trees.
“For us it means nothing if the Pope comes or not. All of the European Union leadership passed through Moria, what were the results?” he said. “The Pope is coming for sensationalist reasons.”
Afentouli had a message for those in power, none of whom were there, and for the Pope too. “Take them from here, the migrants. They cause damage. They don’t do any good.”