Some of Pope Francis’s closest advisors have called on EU bishops’ conferences to help facilitate the transfer of 20,000 refugees from Lesbos, Greece, to other European countries.

In a Jan 28, 2020 letter – made public on the COMECE website Feb. 20 –  three cardinals reminded the Europeans bishops of the appeal made by Pope Francis on Sep. 6, 2015: For every parish and religious community throughout Europe to welcome at least one family of refugees each, “expressing the Gospel in a concrete way.”

Although many parishes in Europe have taken up the pope’s call – including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican City parish of Sant’Anna dei Palafrenieri – the vast majority have not.

The letter was signed by the Almoner of Papal Charities, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski; the head of the pope’s main office for Migrants, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny; and the President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg.

“After his trip to Lesbos in April 2016, keenly aware of the situation of dramatic overcrowding and suffering in which more than 20,000 refugees experience on that island and many thousands more in the various hot spots in Greece, the Pope has never failed to help them, trying to open humanitarian corridors for their transfer to other European countries with full respect of their dignity,” the letter says.

During that 2016 trip, Francis brought back a dozen refugee families to Italy on the papal plane. Since then, the Vatican and the Rome-based Sant’Egidio lay movement has worked to arrange legal-administrative procedures with the Greek authorities for the transfer of refugees from the camps in Greece to other EU nations.

“A path has therefore been cleared that could give back hope to about 20,000 adults and over 1,100 unaccompanied minors who have been stuck indefinitely in temporary camps and precarious structures, who are in Europe but outside European society,” the cardinals said in their letter. “Encouraged by the Holy Father’s words, this path has become – as well as a Christian duty – a heartfelt invitation for the whole Church to awaken new, evangelical energies of welcome in each of the member countries of the European Union, where the respective Episcopal Conferences should agree on a project for a humanitarian corridor from Lesbos and the other first reception camps in Greece, in collaboration with their individual governments.”

The letter’s signatories have been practicing what they preach: In December, Krajewski brought back 33 refugees from Lesbos to Rome; a month earlier, Hollerich welcomed two families to Luxembourg.

The 20,000 refugees on Lesbos are straining the resources of the Moira camp, which was built to house less than 3,000 people.

The Human Rights Watch 2020 report noted an increase in boats reaching Greek islands “underscored the lack of a functioning system for fair sharing of responsibility among EU members.”

“Beginning in August, there was a sharp increase in the number of arrivals on the islands, leading to severe overcrowding and inhuman and degrading conditions in island camps,” the organization said.

The report called the conditions in the Greek camps “overcrowded and abysmal,” and noted “unsanitary, unhygienic conditions, and lack of basic services such as water and food.”

“Medical care, trauma counseling, and psychosocial support remained inadequate with deteriorating mental health among asylum seekers, exacerbated by conditions of detention and uncertainty about the disposition of their cases. Lack of adequate and secure facilities made physical and gender-based violence common in asylum camps,” it continued.

The reiteration of the pope’s call for Catholic institutions in Europe to host refugee families comes as conservative and populist governments across the continent have gained popularity with anti-immigration rhetoric.

According to the Human Rights Watch’s 2020 report,” EU governments remained focused on sealing borders including through reported unlawful pushbacks from EU borders including Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Spain.”

Despite the political climate, the three cardinals said their experiences show that “the chances of a positive reception are higher than hoped for; in fact, many minors have been welcomed into families, while adults and families have been well received by the religious communities, parishes and families who have made themselves available for this service.”

On Feb. 21, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited the Moira camp on Lesbos.

“Conditions on the islands are shocking and shameful,” he said. “Greece – with European support – has to act now to deal with an untenable situation, while the longer-term measures are put in place.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.