After Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos, J.R.S. Greece offers concrete proposals

Pope Francis greets a Muslim woman as he meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 16, 2016. The pope put his hand over his heart and bowed when meeting Muslim women. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Immediately after Pope Francis’ visit to the Greek island of Lesbos and the Moria refugee camp, a delegation from the Jesuit Refugee Service in Greece (J.R.S. Greece) that was present on the island for that occasion, led by its French-born director Maurice Joyeux, S.J., reflected on different aspects of the visit and made some proposals on what it believes is needed now by way of follow-up.

The full text is presented below, but here it is worth highlighting the key proposals, which go right to the heart of many of the problems that need to be addressed with some urgency by national and international authorities.


J.R.S. Greece begins its list of proposals by calling for the acceleration of the procedures of resettlement and family reunification in all European countries for the 55,000 refugees in 40 camps across Greece.

This is an important proposal given that right now the refugees are stranded in Greece; they are in a kind of limbo and terrified that they may be deported to Turkey at any time.

In its second proposal, J.R.S. Greece emphasizes the need for a revision of the Turkey-European Union accord of March 18 in conjunction with the United Nations and the stakeholders on the ground.

This proposal is widely shared by N.G.O.’s and U.N. bodies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, has distanced itself from the Turkey-E.U. agreement.

Next, J.R.S. raises the highly pertinent question as to what happens to those persons that are deported from Greece to camps in Turkey. It insists that this has to be addressed with urgency because right now there is no information and no possibility of follow-up on this, even by the United Nations. It insists that this is essential to guarantee that refugees’ fundamental rights are respected and to ensure their access to proper legal protection.

There is widespread concern among human rights groups and other organizations that Turkey may send the deportees to Syria or other unsafe places. Furthermore, Turkey’s increasing restrictions on national as well as international media makes it very difficult to get information on the fate of those who have been forcibly returned from Greece to that country.  

In a fourth proposal, J.R.S. Greece calls for the urgent establishment of effective coordination and collaboration between the Greek authorities, the UNHCR and N.G.O.’s, so as to facilitate access and assistance to those in the detention camps. It explains this is necessary to provide all essential services to the refugees, including psychological and legal counselling, and to ensure the protection and education of the children in these camps.

Furthermore, J.R.S. Greece highlights the importance of providing regular and intense care to the unaccompanied minors in the camps across the country.  

Drawing attention to the fact that the UNHCR and N.G.O.’s have withdrawn from the detention camps, such as the one at Moria, J.R.S. expresses the hope that as a result of the visit by the pope, along with the Orthodox patriarch and archbishop, it may be allowed to visit and to care for all refugees, especially the most vulnerable, from many nationalities in the camps. It makes this urgent request to the competent national and international authorities.

The following is an English translation of the full text of the reflection given by J.R.S. Greece (J.R.S. Ellada) to America.

Reactions to the visit to Lesbos by Pope Francis, the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and All Greece on Saturday the 16th of April.

"A view of the occasion,  and some concrete proposals"

Sunday the 17th of April 2016.

1. A few preliminary observations of the Greek and international context:

  • A unique visit, a ‘first’ for the Pope but also certainly for the display of unity of the three Christian leaders united in their solidarity, not with Greece or with the Greeks, but with a population undergoing a veritable Exodus, a population of refugees now effectively imprisoned because of the agreement of the 18th of March 2016 between Turkey and the EU.
  • These refugees were the priority of the visit, the victims and hostages of the war in Syria and of the geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and of the Aegean and Mediterranean littoral.
  • But those who were not there, those of all ages who have been drowned at sea in the course of this crisis, and particularly the thousands of children, were also at the heart of this visit , with its pastoral and humanitarian imperative to awake the conscience of the world to this tragedy and to denounce and confront the evil of war.
  • Pope Francis stressed that the visit had come just a few weeks before the International Humanitarian Conference in Istanbul which has the full support of the Vatican.
  • It was therefore an ecumenical initiative like the pope's earlier visit to Lampedusa, bringing to the attention of the whole Christian world the suffering of those who are now the most vulnerable of humanity: those made refugees or displaced by war and any other form of violence.
  • It was a flash visit, but with a powerful symbolic content, in a situation of transition where refugees seeking to move to the north of Europe are trapped in the Greek islands, and on the Greek mainland, in over 40 camps, retention or detention centres. A humanitarian disaster which has become so serious as to require daily interventions by the Greek army for the provision of the most basic needs: water, food, shelter and facilities for hygiene.
  • Greece has been weakened by seven years of social and economic crisis. The "Syriza" coalition government is fragile and early elections are widely anticipated. Prime Minister Tsipras is struggling to retain popular confidence and the administration faces multiple domestic challenges: support to the Greek people, high unemployment, especially amongst the young, combined with drastic tax and pension reforms, and a political discourse which is, for the Greeks, increasingly divorced from reality.
  • Since August 2015, Greek civil society has made immense efforts to welcome the refugees. This has been widely recognised, despite the undeniable truth that over a million displaced persons are at the mercy of people traffickers, both Greek and Turkish. And the increasing presence of the UN, through the UNHCR, and numerous international NGOs (over 90 are currently operating on the ground) to tackle the humanitarian challenges, has created acute tensions, raising both high expectations and the suspicions of a nation that feels humiliated and weakened, but also still proud and determined to assert its own freedom and independence.
  • The Greek Orthodox Church is not culturally nor even politically really separate from the government. It sees itself as being at the very heart of the history of the country and its people, engaged in and tested in its deepest values and convictions.
We were particularly struck by the words of the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Hieronymus, in his solemn address to the representatives of UN agencies (and not to civil society or to the Greek government), in the presence of the Greek President and Prime Minister:
"I have only one request to make to the agencies of the United Nations, one single appeal: that they use the ample experience they have to finally get to grips with this tragedy we are going through."
[Is this] a call to more confidence and co-operation between the Greek government, the UNHCR and its collaborators?
  • The ecumenical visit also has an impact on the Catholic Church and on the Churches of other minority Christian denominations: it encourages them in their efforts to welcome and assist the huge numbers of refugees who have arrived in Greece between June 2015 and March 2016. The Catholics understand that the Pope has not come principally to see them, but to accompany the refugees - mostly Muslims - to listen to them, to become the voice of those who have no voice, and to tell the conscience of Europe, and of the world, of their existence and of all their singular stories. The visit, with its words and actions, echoes the spiritual leaders' own commitment to compassion, justice and peace.

2. A visit of deep import, of compassion and of promise:

During this visit it was above all Pope Francis who spoke, in the manner of the parable, and as "visitor to the prison,” returning to Rome in the company of three Syrian Muslim refugee families.

Here are some extracts from his different speeches, from Mytilene airport to the camp at Moria and in the town of Mytilene:

"I am come with my brothers simply to be with you and to hear your stories. We are come to draw the attention of the world onto this terrible humanitarian crisis and to plead for its end. As men of faith we wish to unite our voices to speak openly in your name."

"Europe is the home of Human Rights. Whoever sets foot on European soil should be able to enjoy those rights, and thereby become aware that he should himself respect and defend them."

"You, inhabitants of Lesbos have demonstrated that here, in the cradle of civilisation, there is still the spirit of humanity which recognises that all of us are brothers and sisters, a humanity which seeks to build bridges rather than protected places that give us the illusion of safety. Barriers and divisions create conflict."

"It is not enough to respond unilaterally to the urgency of the moment, what is needed is collective responses for the long term..”

"Promote peace and stop the spread of the cancer of war by opposing the trade in arms and its dark networks."

"Promote constantly the co-operation between countries and international humanitarian organisations instead of isolation, in order to deal effectively with emergencies."

"Promote the growth of the civilisation of love."

Spoken with gravity to the refugees and to the political and military personnel assembled on the seafront at the port of Mytilene, these words had a special resonance, which was made all the greater by the minute of silence in memory of those lost at sea.

Patriarch Bartholomew was no less forceful:

"The Mediterranean must not be a graveyard. It is a place of life, a cross-roads of cultures and of civilisation, a place of encounter and dialogue. Its vocation is to be a sea of peace..."
"We promise we will never forget you. We will not stop speaking in your name and we assure you we will do everything possible to open the eyes and the hearts of the world to your plight."
"Those who fear you have not looked into your eyes. Those who fear you have not seen your children. They forget that dignity and liberty are more powerful than fear and divisions."

Many present were touched by this proof of unity of the Christian leaders on the Greek coast, so close to Turkey. It was a common humanity which the three men proclaimed to the numerous and attentive media in attendance.

It was also a solemn appeal for hope and peace, in memory of those who had disappeared at sea, the majority of whom were Muslims.

One had hoped for the presence of some Islamic representatives, such as the Mufti who had accompanied the Mayor of Lesbos at the ceremonies for the dead in a cemetery close to town. The speed with which this visit was organised probably rendered this impossible.

What was important in our opinion was that these senior religious figures, effectively united, spoke as one in defence of other men, and that Pope Francis and his collaborators were able to release from the trap of Lesbos, at least some people who otherwise would have been condemned to return to Turkey. They reminded a Europe too turned in upon itself of its vocation to openness and to life and its rejection of the culture of death.

3.  What J.R.S. Ellada now hopes for:

  • That the success of the legal and speedy evacuation of three families to Rome on the papal aeroplane encourages the acceleration of the procedures of resettlement and family reunification in all European countries. Greece must be rapidly relieved of its excessive burden (55,000 refugees in 40 camps dispersed all around the country), having demonstrated on this occasion that it can rapidly process personalised documentation.
  • A revision of the Turkey-EU accord of the 18th of March in conjunction with the UN and stakeholders on the ground.
  • That the large question mark which remains over those persons returned to the camps in Turkey is addressed. There is no information and no possibility of follow-up, even by the UN. It is essential to guarantee that their fundamental rights are respected and to ensure their access to proper legal protection.
  • That effective coordination and collaboration between the Greek authorities, the UNHCR, and NGOs is urgently established. To facilitate the access of help and visits to detention or retention camps (such as that at Moria) so that all essential services may be provided, but also in order to ensure the protection and education of children. To be able to offer psychological and legal counselling without excessive burocracy.
  • Non accompanied minors should be the object of more regular and intense care.
  • Given the fact that the UNHCR and numerous NGOs have withdrawn from camps of detention, such as that at Moria, JRS Ellada hopes it will be allowed to prolong the gesture that the three religious leaders have made for the entire world to see: to visit and to care for all refugees. In the name of the Hope, which must not be crushed for the most vulnerable refugees of all nationalities, JRS makes this urgent request to the competent national and international authorities.

The following were members of the J.R.S. Ellada delegation to Lesbos:

  • Fr. Petros Hong SJ - Director of the Pedro Arrupe Centre for the Integration of Children– JRS ELLADA
  • Stella Semino –Education
  • Mike Nehoda – Welcome
  • Cécile Deleplanque –Advocacy and institutional relations
  • Fr. Maurice Joyeux SJ – Director JRS ELLADA
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