NICOSIA – For migrants who live on Lesbos, Pope Francis’s visit Sunday will be a much-awaited opportunity not only for them to share their stories, but to shed a spotlight on an ongoing crisis which by now Europeans have become accustomed to, but which is far from resolved.
Speaking to Crux, Anastasia Spiliopoulou, project manager for the Greek islands for Caritas Hellas (Greece), said “the situation has changed a lot” since Pope Francis visited the island in 2016.
Among other things, the overcrowded Moria camp the pope toured burned down in September 2020, and a new makeshift camp, the Mavrovouni camp, has been set up as a temporary fix in its place.
Pope Francis will visit the Mavrovouni camp Sunday as part of a broader visit to Cyprus and Greece, after arriving in Athens Dec. 4. While he’s there, he will meet with roughly 250 people living at the camp, and is expected to visit some of the containers they live in.
Most of the migrants and refugees who live in the camp are from Afghanistan, but there are also many who come from Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Iraq.
In terms of numbers, the situation is better, Spiliopoulou said, with just 2,200 people currently living in the camp, versus the 9,000 who were living in the Moria facility during the pope’s last visit.
Yet while the numbers have improved and a new temporary replacement camp has been built, “conditions remain quite basic inside,” Spiliopoulou said, noting that the prefabricated containers that the migrants are living in do not have a kitchen or bathroom, meaning they still have to use common camp restrooms and are unable to cook “at home.”
Until recently, many were still living inside tents, as containers are still being placed inside of the camp.
Spiliopoulou said there are also security concerns, “especially single women or women living alone inside the site, who express fear to walk around the camp at night or even use the toilets or sanitation facilities inside the site.”
Apart from the practical difficulties, many are still in limbo and have no idea when their asylum request will be processed, or if it will be accepted.
Inside the camp, there are people who have been waiting for four years for a ruling their asylum request. While the process has sped up recently, it depends on the case, and whether an appeal is made after rejection.
People “are quite stressed,” Spiliopoulou said. “Procedures are being sped up at the moment, in terms of the asylum procedure, but people really don’t know what is going to happen to them, where they’re going to be placed, if they’re going to be moved outside of the camp. They’re not fully aware of the procedures to be followed, so this brings a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety.”
Greece has also taken several steps in recent months to slow down the influx of new arrivals, including new legislative measures that strengthened border controls and which have increased the number of migrants and refugees deported back to Turkey.
Grace periods before deportation have been reduced and border police have been given granted greater authority, including the ability to detain migrants and refugees arriving through irregular channels, those who do not have the proper paperwork, or those whose asylum application has been rejected.
It also included stricter regulations for NGOs and volunteer groups in areas that overlap with the jurisdiction of the Greek coast guard.
There have also been reports of increased pushbacks of arrivals at the Greek-Turkish border during 2020, as well as those arriving by boat via the Aegean Sea.
On top of the enduring wait and the fear of deportation, migrants for the past two years have faced increased challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Additional restrictions have been enforced inside the camp, Spiliopoulou said, saying people are unable to leave at will, but must provide a legitimate reason for leaving the camp, and are only allowed out on specific days and at specific hours. In addition, they must also have either a vaccination certificate or a negative COVID test to leave the camp premises.
According to Spiliopoulou, vaccinations are conducted inside the camp, but access to healthcare generally “remains basic,” she said, “because obviously the health system is already in a very difficult situation at the moment.”
“There is also less accessibility of the people that reside inside the camp also due to the restrictions of communication with the medical unit,” she said, noting that there is just one hospital on Lesbos, “which is already very overwhelmed…and of course the great difficulty people have in accessing the available health system in the country, makes the situation more complicated.”
The Greek government’s goal after the Moria camp burned down is to build a new camp in Lesbos by the end of 2022, as the Mavrovouni camp is just temporary, Spiliopoulou said.
At the moment the idea is to build the new camp between the city of Mitilini and the city of Lesbos proper on the island, which would be in an isolated area, but the building process has not yet begun.
In the meantime, construction is still happening in the Mavrovouni camp, meaning people are regular moved from one area to another.
The capacity of the camp is now 8,000, meaning it is nowhere near overcrowded, as Moria was when Pope Francis visited in 2016, however, Spiliopoulou said conditions are still far from ideal, and “there is a lot of room for improvement.”
Speaking of the pope’s visit to the camp, Spiliopoulou said the 250 camp residents who will be present come from different backgrounds.
It’s an important visit for them, she said, because Pope Francis “is for them, as it is for us, a person who carries a message of humanity.”
People in the camp have at times forgotten their humanity, she said, “so for them it’s quite important not only to meet him, regardless of their background and their religious beliefs.”
It will also be important for the people to share their stories and their needs, Spiliopoulou, and to be able to tell the pope “That they are people who are here because of difficult circumstances, but who needed to leave their country because they had no alternative, which is something that, especially with the latest news in Europe, we seem to have forgotten a bit.”
The pope’s visit to the camp, she said, is “a great opportunity, not only for us as Caritas working in this sector, but for us as Greece, as a country, and as Europe, to see the symbolic element of it and how we might take a step back and try to reconsider the way we have been approaching refugees the past few years.”
Spiliopoulou voiced hope that the pope would inspire “a change,” and that Greece, and Europe as a whole, might “go back to an approach which is based more on solidarity and mutual respect.”