‘His visit is like a message from God.’ Refugee camp looks forward to visit from Pope Francis

Pope Francis will arrive in the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday, April 16, at 10:15 a.m., where, together with the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, he will express solidarity with the thousands of refugees on the island and the more than 60,000 who are trapped in Greece following the European Union’s agreement with Turkey on March 20.

More than half a million refugees have passed through Lesbos, the third largest of Greece’s 10,000 islands, over the past year. “They were a population on the move, but since March 20 they are stranded, there is confusion,” Maurice Joyeux, S.J., told America on the eve of the pope’s arrival. Born in France, he is director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, a group that is doing great work, together some 70 other nongovernmental organizations, on the island, in Athens and in other parts of the country.


Francis will be greeted on arrival at Mytilene airport by the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and welcomed by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Athens, Hieronymus. He will then drive together with the Orthodox church leaders to the Moria refugee camp, 10 miles from the city of Mytilene.

This refugee camp is in reality a detention center, surrounded by a high, barbed wire fence and guarded by the Greek military and police. Some 2,500 refugees are held here, living in containers, around 10 in each one. They cannot leave the camp, and one cannot visit them without permission from the Greek authorities. Most of the refugees are Syrians, but there are also Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Bangladeshi and others. Most, like the Syrians, have fled situations of war, armed conflict or dire poverty. There are many minors and women here, as well as men both young and old.

Most refugees who arrived on the island were sent to Moria but, in the past, they would then move on to Athens and Europe after some days or weeks. That is no longer the case since the March 20 accord between the European Union and Turkey. That agreement has been denounced as unacceptable by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other N.G.O.’s. With such a response to the largest movement of people on the continent since World War II, this is certainly not Europe’s finest hour.

Even before that date, and especially today, the most vulnerable people to arrive here—pregnant mothers, young women victims of the smugglers, unaccompanied minors, families with babies and young or disabled children as well as elderly people—are transferred to another camp, Karatepe, or given refuge in places like the Greek Caritas Hotel, some miles outside Mytilene, but that merits a separate story.

Moira refugee camp is situated in the hills of this beautiful island, surrounded by olive groves. It seems an idyllic setting except for the fact that those inside are effectively detainees, without freedom of movement, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. The Greek authorities, in compliance with the E.U. agreement have already deported hundreds of them to Turkey, which one can see on the horizon across the Aegean Sea, where their fate remains uncertain.

Right now, there are some 40 other camps across Greece like the one at Moria, holding around 60,000 refugees, but the pope is only coming here. On the eve of his visit, the camp got a face lift, and garbage collectors were active on the route that he will take from the port-city of Mytilene. Some 150 minors will line the barricades inside the camp to greet the pope, the patriarch and archbishop when they arrive. Then the three church leaders will cross the square where the registration of refugees is done, and greet 250 of them, one by one. Afterwards the pope and the Orthodox leaders will have lunch with some of the refugees before returning to Mytilene. At the port, before returning to Rome, Francis will read a prayer, as will Bartholomew and Hieronymus, for the thousands who have drowned in this sea as they sought to reach Europe. Afterwards, they will throw wreaths into the sea in their memory.

Since March 20, there has been a significant decrease in the number of refugees arriving in Lesbos and other Greek islands. This is due not only to the threat of deportation but also to the fact that the Aegean Sea “has come to resemble a war zone” with patrol boats from the Turkish and Greek navies, NATO and FRONTEX (the E.U. police border management agency that is operating in the area) seeking to prevent refugees arriving by sea, as one member of FRONTEX commented on the eve of Francis’ visit.

The refugees know that Francis is coming, though many are not sure how his visit can change their situation. Nevertheless, Ahmed, a 37-year-old construction worker from Aleppo, who arrived here with his pregnant wife and four young children before March 20, welcomed his visit. He told America, “El baba (the pope in Arabic) is like a prophet, like Mohammed, like Moses. He’s a man of peace. We love him. He’s a good man for us. His visit is like a message from God, and he will help us.”

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