ROME – Pope Francis’s agenda on migrants will be one of the major talking points during this week’s visit to Greece and Cyprus, both of which have taken recent steps to stop the influx of asylum seekers into their borders and are places where the pope’s message of welcome has had mixed reviews.

The pope is set to visit Greece and Cyprus from Dec. 2-6, stopping first in Nicosia for two days before heading to Athens Dec. 4. During his stay in Greece, he will make a half-day visit to the island of Lesbos, marking his second visit to the island following a brief stop in 2016, after which he famously brought a dozen Syrian Muslims with him on the plane back to Rome.

In the days leading up to the trip, Francis has on several occasions waded into the migrant issue, saying in a video message to the people of both Greece and Cyprus over the weekend that as he prepares for the visit, his thoughts have turned to “those who, in recent years and still today, have been fleeing from war and poverty, landing on the shores of the continent and elsewhere, and encountering not hospitality but hostility and even exploitation.”

These people “are our brothers and sisters,” he said, adding, “How many have lost their lives at sea! Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery.”

“As a pilgrim to the wellsprings of humanity, I will go to Lesbos again, convinced that the sources of common life will only flourish again in fraternity and integration: together. There is no other way and with this vision I go to you,” he said.

He again referenced the topic during his Sunday Angelus address, asking pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square to think about the many migrants who “are exposed, even in these days, to very serious dangers, and how many lose their lives at our borders!”

“I feel pain for the news about the situation in which many find themselves: of those who died in the English Channel; of those on the borders of Belarus, many of whom are children; of those who drown in the Mediterranean,” he said, noting that women are often sold, and men tortured, by traffickers.

He then issued an appeal “to those who can contribute to the resolution of these problems, in particular the civil and military authorities, so that understanding, and dialogue finally prevail over every type of exploitation, and direct the will and efforts toward solutions which respect the humanity of these people.”

On Thursday, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to issue this appeal personally to political authorities in Cyprus, and on Saturday, to those in Greece.

While his agenda on the issue is clear, it remains to be seen how both political leaders and faithful in Greece and Cyprus, which for years have borne the brunt of the migrant crisis, will react to this policy of welcome.

Migration in Cyprus

Speaking to Crux, Elizabeth Kassinis, executive manager of Caritas Cyprus, said the pope’s visit “comes at a time when Cyprus really is struggling with this migrant issue.”

“There is a lot of rhetoric that’s going right, not unlike a lot of other places in Europe,” about limiting the number of asylum seekers and potentially closing borders,” she said, noting that Cyprus’s situation is unique because many incoming migrants and refugees “are coming from the Turkish occupied part.”

Ever since a 1974 ceasefire agreement was implemented after a Turkish invasion following a brief Greek-backed coup, Cyprus has been divided by a porous “green line” dividing the island into the Turkish-controlled north, and the Greek Cypriot south, whose government is the only one recognized by the international community, and which has been an EU member since 2004.

With a majority of migrants and refugees in Cyprus arriving from the north through Turkey, locals in the south have dubbed their entries as “illegal crossings,” and have accused Turkey of sending the migrants on purpose in order to destabilize the south.

According to Kassinis, there is also now “a racial element” to the migration issue in Cyprus, as many of the incoming migrants and asylum seekers are now from Africa, rather than the Middle East.

In terms of how Pope Francis’s message of welcome is being received in Cyprus, Kassinis said “it’s challenging.”

“The government has acknowledged to the European Union that they have a problem, that they are overwhelmed, not unlike Greece, Malta, and Italy. This is the frontline,” she said.

“No one used to think of Cyprus as the frontline in terms of migration because most migrants and asylum seekers wanted to be within walking distance of a job in Germany. So, they weren’t trying to get to Cyprus, they were trying to get to Greece or Italy. So, this is a new thing for Cyprus,” Kassinis said.

According to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), which tracks asylum requests in Europe, there were some 19,660 pending asylum applications in Cyprus by the end of 2020, with a rejection rate of 72.8 percent for the whole year.

This year, the number of new arrivals has risen 38 percent compared with the whole of 2020, making Cyprus, the closest EU country to the Middle East, one of the main entry points for those seeking asylum in Europe.

With a population of just over one million, Cyprus reportedly has around 33,000 irregular migrants residing in the southern republic, with some 10,868 arriving in just the first 10 months of this year.

According to Kassinis, there are now around 1,000 people a week who are filing asylum claims, “so the local systems are very overwhelmed.”

Many applicants have faced lengthy delays in the processing of their requests due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed the length of the asylum procedure way past the 6-month time limit, lasting 2-3 years in some cases.

To help limit the influx of new applicants and allow pending requests to be processed, Cypriot authorities for the first time in 2020 began carrying out so-called “pushbacks” of boats carrying mainly Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian migrants coming in from Turkey.

Cyprus’s Aliens and Immigration Unit took a hiatus from registering new asylum applications from March to May 2020 without announcing why. Observers suspect the pause was either related to COVID-19 or the high number of applicants.

Lockdown measures on the island were lifted in May 2020, when the number of new arrivals was at an all-time low, however, access to asylum did not return until August 2020, after repeated interventions were made with authorities.

Also last year, Cyprus amended its constitution and key pieces of legislation to reduce the window in which applicants can submit an appeal for a rejected asylum request, which dropped from 75 days to 30 for those going through the regular procedure. For other situations, including those in an accelerated process, or for decisions based on reception conditions, among others, the time was reduced from 75 to 15 days.

She said Caritas is currently assisting some 10,000 people in Cyprus, most of whom are asylum seekers, providing basic administrative help to some, and assistance with food, medical care, schooling, and accommodation for others.

When new migrants and refugees arrive, they are sent to a reception camp where they quarantine and conduct their first interview.

This camp has a capacity of around 1,000 families but has been routinely overcrowded with the high number of new arrivals. In 2020, according to Kassinis, there were over 2,000 people, more than double the camp’s capacity, many of whom have ended up stuck there during months of lockdown.

Many migrants and refugees who leave the camp end up pitching tents around the perimeter, creating a second camp-outside-of-the-camp, Kassinis said, “because they have nowhere to go and because it’s very difficult to find accommodation, and because there is safety in numbers.”

“There’s one camp that has refugees in it but that’s full too and people are still staying outside of that as well,” she said, noting that “It’s not the conditions you have in Greece where you have organized camps, there’s only this one camp of first reception which was meant to house people for three days, and now people are in there for a quarantine period of at least two weeks.”

Kassinis said there are no homeless shelters in Cyprus, and there are no social services available for asylum seekers. There is a social welfare system that guarantees a minimum income, but the criteria to qualify are difficult and the funds are minimal.

According to Kassinis, a guaranteed minimum income in Cyprus amounts to roughly 680 euros, while asylum seekers get around 380, so just over half, and 100 euros for accommodation, “which is kind of laughable given the conditions.”

For families struggling to make ends meet while waiting for their asylum requests to be processed, Caritas steps in to fill the gaps. Last month alone, the organization handed out 900 food bags, “which, when you know the size of Cyprus, is a tremendous amount of people,” Kassinis said.

Not only do they provide food, Caritas, despite its limited resources, also assists with social welfare, health services, modest rent contributions, vaccinations, awareness raising, and advocacy, including with the labor office.

Caritas also partners with organizations in the north to help those in need. While they are registered in the Republic of Cyprus, they have no legal standing in the north, and are not allowed to bring goods across the dividing line, Kassinis said, so their assistance in Turkish Cyprus is mainly providing contacts and links with other NGOs.

Earlier this month Cypriot officials announced plans to again suspend asylum requests, however, this seems like an unlikely longterm strategy for Kassinis, who said, “I can’t imagine there will be a lot of push for that, because that’s almost a bridge too far.”

Both Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Cypriot Ambassador to the Holy See George Poulides have indicated in statements and interviews that the migration issue will be part of the conversation when Pope Francis arrives.

Just last week Cypriot authorities announced that during the pope’s visit to the Mediterranean island, he intends to make a similar gesture to the one he made in Lesbos in 2016 and is arranging to transfer an unspecified number of migrants from Cyprus to Italy.

While this is certainly a sign the government could be open to dialogue with the pope on the issue, once Francis arrives, bringing his message of a broad welcome and solidarity across Cypriot society as a whole, “It will be interesting to see how the discussion goes,” Kassinis said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen