ROME – From the beginning of the migration crisis, Greece has been a frontline arrival point for migrants and refugees seeking entry into Europe, and while the situation has improved in recent years, the pope might have a hard time convincing weary locals of his agenda to welcome during his upcoming trip.

From Dec. 2-6 Pope Francis will be on an official visit to Cyprus and Greece, stopping first in Nicosia before heading to Athens Dec. 4.

While ecumenism and Catholic relations with the Orthodox will be a key theme throughout the two-nation trip, in both Cyprus and Greece the issue of migration will be a towering agenda item, as both countries have borne the brunt of the European migration crisis.

Much like Cyprus, where angry southerners are resentful of the so-called “illegal crossing” of their neighbors from the Turkish-controlled north and officials are seeking to put a halt on the acceptance of new asylum applications, the pope while in Greece will likely face challenges in getting local community on board with his push for welcome and integration.

During his brief stay in Greece, Pope Francis will make a half-day trip to the island of Lesbos, which he visited in 2016, to shed light on the migrant crisis, famously bringing a dozen Syrian families back with him on his return flight to Rome.

The pope will make a similar gesture in Cyprus, helping to transfer around 50 migrants and refugees to Italy, and a Vatican spokesman has said the possibility of bringing another group of migrants from Lesbos are being evaluated.

Much has changed since the pope’s last visit to Lesbos five years ago: Numbers have improved, camps are less overcrowded, asylum requests are being processed faster. Yet all this is in part the result of government intervention to tighten its grip on entry points and make the asylum process more difficult.

When Pope Francis arrives with his message of welcome and solidarity, then, it might take some convincing to get government officials on board.

Migration into Greece

As expected, migration is a controversial topic in Greece, and while some locals are trying to take the pope’s message to heart, others have had a hard time swallowing the order to welcome while citizens themselves are facing hardship and an enduring economic crisis.

Speaking to Crux, Maria Alverti, director of Cyprus Hellas (Greece), said there are “many, many contradictions” in Greece over the migrant issue, which she said is “very controversial,” including when it comes to the pope’s agenda and his message of welcome.

“I believe that the majority of the people are always thinking with solidarity, that the rights of the people should be respected,” she said, but noted that there are also many people “who due to a lack of education, poverty, due to manipulation, due to media, due to whatever, they decided to go for the other side…which is that it’s easier to blame the person you have in front of you than the people who are making the decisions.”

When the migrant crisis reached a fever pitch in 2015 and boatloads of refugees were washing up on Greek shores at the same time the country was already grappling with a crippling financial crisis, “Greek society felt abandoned” by the way the European Union, and even the Greek government, reacted.

“They felt this complaint that during the whole financial crisis all of Europe was somehow against us and bombarding us with memorandums, and now all they care about are the refugees,” Alverti said, noting that there are still many people in local communities “that are saying, you’re doing things for the refugees and not for us.”

“My position, which I’ve said on other occasions and it’s also what I believe, is that migration is not something new. Migration has existed since the beginning of time, it is the history of humanity, so opening up a discussion on actually stopping migration is” useless, she said, noting that “as long as we have war, as long as we have human rights violations, people will continue to try to reach Europe.”

Some Greeks accept this and work to make it as easy as possible for the population to handle, while others “are totally against it” and want to stop the influx of migration altogether.

“The misconception in my opinion is that this is going to stop the problem, which is not a problem, it’s a reality,” she said, and voiced hope that the pope’s presence and words during his visit would inspire stronger solidarity in Greek society.

Yet despite the polarization that still surrounds the migrant issue, there are some signs the situation is improving.

According to AIDA, some 40,559 asylum applications were presented in Greece last year, signaling a 47.52 decrease from 2019. Around 57,347 applications were still pending by the end of 2020, with most submitted by refugees coming from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

An estimated 15,696 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece in 2020, which is also a decrease of 78.9 percent compared to 2019.

Part of this is drop related to the coronavirus, but Greece has also taken several recent legislative steps to slow down the flow, especially in terms of the arrivals on Greek islands such as Lesbos and Kos.

Shortly after Greece’s July 2019 elections, new President Katerina Sakellaropoulou announced a more punitive asylum policy aimed at reducing the number of new arrivals, strengthening border controls, and increasing the number of migrants and refugees deported back to Turkey.

Under the new policy, grace periods before deportation were reduced and border police were 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.

Organizations such as the Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR), the UNHCR, and others have criticized the new policy as creating unnecessary and unwarranted procedural hurdles for those seeking international protection, while reducing safeguards.

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.

At one point, Greece had one of the lowest acceptance rates for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Europe.

In part because of these new measures and in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, the status of the migration problem in Greece has changed significantly since Pope Francis’s last visit in 2016, Alverti said, adding, “we had more solidarity back then.”

In the years that have transpired, borders have closed, pushbacks have increased, and the number of deportations has grown.

The result of this, Alverti said, is that Greece has had “the opportunity to decongest the island [of Lesbos] from the people that are staying there. Then of course the asylum process is much faster.”

Not even two years ago, the island of Lesbos was groaning with around 8-9,000 people crammed into camps and living in filthy and inhumane conditions, while now camps on the island house just 3,000 people, Alverti said.

On the island of Samos, there are only around 240 people, where as the island of Helios, which used to house with 2,500 people, has been reduced to just 290.

“We consider this to be a good change,” even if the reasons for the unclogging of the asylum system are disputed, she said, noting that people are increasingly arriving to the mainland, rather than the islands.

Even 10 years ago, before the migrant crisis of 2015, there were so many migrants in Greece that street signs in some areas of Athens were written in Arabic. As more came pouring in, a widespread sense of concern washed over locals, provoking a general xenophobia over those knocking at Greece’s doors.

Alverti said there has also been an increase in the number of people who have formally received the status of refugee in Greece since the pope’s last visit, meaning they are now part of the country’s social system, like any other Greek citizen.

However, this has added strain to system, she said, “because the social security system in Greece is very, very poor, even if you are a Greek person.”

“If you are a person who is marginalized, who doesn’t have access to employment or decent living conditions, I cannot say that the support you will receive from the state is one of the best,” she said.

On Lesbos, despite the reduction in the number of people living in camps and the acceleration in processing asylum applications, “the way people are living is far from being decent,” Alverti said, noting that until very recently, people were still living out of tents in makeshift camps, “which is quite alarming for hygiene reasons, for safety reasons, and weather conditions.”

There is currently a discussion about the creation of new facilities, where people would be living in container houses with toilets and access to a bathroom, which would be an improvement, but these places would be isolated from the cities, which would be “very, very problematic,” Alverti said, because many require treatment for health, psychological, or psychiatric issues, and children need to have access to schools.

“So, staying one year in a camp like this, I wouldn’t say it’s the most creative way to help them and to be on their side,” she said.

Caritas has very limited resources, but maintains partnerships with several organizations, including Greek governmental agencies, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and charitable organizations such as the Catholic Relief Service, to provide support through food, medical care, accommodation, and administration.

When Pope Francis comes, the hope, Alverti said, is that he will “be able to inspire” not just locals, but also politicians.

If all European countries were to heed the pope’s message and open their borders, sharing the load of the ongoing migrant and refugee influx, “then it wouldn’t be problematic,” she said.

Greeks generally “are really looking forward” to the pope’s visit, she said. “We think it’s very, very important. Pope Francis is visiting Greece twice in five years’ time, which is amazing.”

“I don’t know how many opportunities he has for a simple visit to a country, and this is making us feel quite (important and we are) looking forward to it. We really hope that his message is going to be heard by everyone. This is the biggest we can expect,” she said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen