Pope returns to Greek isle at heart of Europe migrant debate

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Pope Francis returns on Sunday to Lesbos, the Greek island at the heart of Europe’s migration debate.

The visit comes after Francis pointedly criticised European governments for their current handling of migrants during his visit to the region.

In Cyprus on Friday, he denounced the “culture of indifference” shown to migrants, and in Athens on Saturday he urged European governments to take in migrants “in proportion to each country’s means.”

“Europe continues to stall, falling prey to forms of nationalistic self-interest rather than being an engine of solidarity. At times, it appears faltering and uncoordinated,” he said.

“In the past, ideological conflicts prevented the building of bridges between eastern and western Europe. Today the issue of migration has led to breaches between south and north as well.”

Migrant centre visit

The 84-year-old Francis is spending just two hours on Lesbos, visiting a new migrant holding centre where would-be refugees live in white UN containers at the water’s edge and barbed wire fencing lines the camp entrance.

On his previous visit in 2016, Francis brought back 12 Syrian Muslim refugees with him aboard the papal plane.

More than 1 million people, many fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, crossed from Turkey into Greece during 2015 and 2016, with Lesbos the busiest Greek crossing point.

An overcrowded refugee camp at Moria on the island, which the pope visited in 2016, was destroyed by a fire last year.

Francis will meet Sunday with migrants at the replacement camp, presiding over a prayer service and also spending some time with families inside their container homes.

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The Vatican did not say whether any migrants would leave the island with Francis this time around.

The Vatican on Friday confirmed that, as part of Francis’ visit, 12 migrants currently living in Cyprus would be relocated to Italy in the coming weeks and cared for by a Catholic charity in Rome.

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.”

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