'Shipwreck of civilisation': Pope returns to Greek isle at heart of Europe migrant debate

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By AP with Euronews
Pope Francis attends a ceremony at the Karatepe refugee camp, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021
Pope Francis attends a ceremony at the Karatepe refugee camp, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021   -   Copyright  Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Pope Francis returned on Sunday to the Greek island of Lesbos to offer comfort to migrants at a refugee camp.

He blasted what he said was the indifference and self-interest shown by Europe "that condemns to death those on the fringes."

"Please, let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation!" Francis said at the Mavrovouni camp, a cluster of white UN containers on the edge of the sea lined by barbed wire fencing and draped with laundry hanging from lines.

Arriving at the camp, a maskless Francis took his time walking along the barricades, patting children and babies on the head and posing for selfies.

It was Francis’ second trip to Lesbos in five years and he lamented that little had changed since 2016, when Lesbos was at the heart of a massive wave of migration to Europe.

At the time, Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslim refugees home with him aboard the papal plane.

But no such papal transfers were announced this time around, though during the first leg of Francis’ trip in Cyprus, the Vatican announced 12 migrants who had crossed over from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north would be relocated to Italy in the coming weeks. Cypriot officials said a total of 50 would eventually be sent.

'Let's stop ignoring reality'

Francis’ five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece has been dominated by the migrant issue.

"I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes!" he said.

"Let us stop ignoring reality, stop constantly shifting responsibility, stop passing off the issue of migration to others, as if it mattered to no one and was only a pointless burden to be shouldered by somebody else!"

He denounced that the Mediterranean Sea, "the cradle of so many civilisations," had become a vast cemetery where smuggling boats packed with desperate people sink. "Let us not let our sea (mare nostrum) be transformed into a desolate sea of death (mare mortuum)," he said.

Sitting before him in a tent at the water’s edge was Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, EU Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas and would-be refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Congo, among other countries.

Greece defends its policies

Addressing the pope, Sakellaropoulou strongly defended Greece’s response to the needs of migrants and thanked Francis for showing his support with his presence.

"It is the strong message of hope and responsibility that is conveyed from Lesbos to the international community," she said.

The camp, where tents were only recently replaced with containers, is actually a temporary holding centre pending the construction on the island of a "closed controlled facility," essentially a detention camp.

These new camps, which are funded by the European Union, are already running on three other Greek islands, Samos, Leros and Kos.

Francis listened intently as one of the camp’s residents, Christian Tango Mukaya, a Congolese father of three, thanked him for his show of solidarity and appeal to Europe to let refugees in.

Mukaya lost track of his wife and their third child in their journey and is hoping his visibility with the pope might reunite them.

Rights groups step up criticism of Greece

Greece has recently built a steel wall along a section of the Greek-Turkish land border and is intercepting boats transporting migrants from the Turkish side.

Athens denies allegations that it is carrying out summary deportations of migrants reaching Greek territory but human rights groups say numerous such pushbacks have occurred.

Ahead of Sunday’s stop by Francis, human rights groups have stepped up their criticism of Greece’s treatment of migrants and of tougher migration policies among the EU's 27 members.

Amnesty International said new EU-funded detention camps on Greek islands were in violation of Athens’ commitments to provide international protection to those in need.

"Under international and EU law, asylum-seekers should only be detained as a matter of last resort," Amnesty said. "As we feared, Greek authorities are hiding behind the legally ambiguous concept of so-called closed-controlled centres to illegally deprive asylum-seekers of their liberty."

The rights group asked Greece "to urgently withdraw this decision and lift the restrictions."

Greek Migration Affairs Minister Notis Mitarachi defended Greece's response in a statement Sunday, saying it had "selflessly" responded to the crisis in 2015 and was continuing to provide asylum-seekers with protection.

But it demanded the EU do more to help front-line countries like Greece that bear a disproportionate burden while "those who exploit fellow human beings are rewarded."