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LESBOS – Pope Francis often says that migrants are more than mere numbers, but people with names and faces. On Sunday, he had the opportunity to look into these faces himself during a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Speaking to migrants and refugees living in the “Reception and Identification Center” on Lesbos, a main entry hub for migrants and refugees seeking asylum in Europe, the pope said he came to the island “to see your faces and look into your eyes. Eyes full of fear and expectancy, eyes that have seen violence and poverty, eyes streaked by too many tears.”
Referring to the fear that often accompanies migrants, he quoted a speech from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, saying, “Those who are afraid of you have not looked you in the eye.”
“Those who are afraid of you have not seen your faces. Those who fear you have not seen your children. They have forgotten that dignity and freedom transcend fear and division. They have forgotten that migration is not an issue for the Middle East and Northern Africa, for Europe and Greece. It is an issue for the world,” he said.
Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos as part of a broader Dec. 2-6 trip to Cyprus and Greece. He arrived in Athens Saturday and has met with Greek authorities as well as members of the local Catholic community.
Sunday’s stop on Lesbos marks Francis’s second visit to the island, having traveled there in 2016 to shed light on the migration crisis and pray alongside Orthodox leaders for the thousands of migrants and refugees who die in an attempt to reach Europe.
On that occasion, the pope visited the Moria refugee camp and met with residents there. When Pope Francis visited in 2016, there were around 9,000 people living on the premises.
Originally designed for around 3,000, the camp burned down in September 2020 and was famous for overcrowding and a lack of sanitation, hosting some 20,000 people at its height. A new makeshift camp, the Mavrovouni camp, was built as a temporary solution while the Greek government drafts plans for a larger facility with better conditions.
Data from UNICEF shows that as of August there were around 3,700 people living in the Mavrovouni camp, however, according to Caritas’s representative for the Greek islands, there are currently about 2,200 in the camp, which has a capacity of 8,000.
While overcrowding is not currently a problem, the camp is still under construction, meaning people are forced to move often, and the conditions of the camp are quite basic, as the prefabricated containers that migrants live in have no kitchens or bathrooms.
Security is also a concern, especially for women who fear walking around alone at night.
Greece has 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.
Stricter regulations are being enforced 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.
In his speech at the camp, Pope Francis lamented that nations around the world are working tirelessly to ensure vaccinations are available amid the coronavirus pandemic and that progress is being made, however slowly, in the ongoing fight against climate change.
“All this seems to be terribly absent when it comes to migration. Yet human lives, real people, are at stake!” he said.
“When we reject the poor, we reject peace. History teaches us that narrow self-interest and nationalism lead to disastrous consequences,” he said, insisting that it is an “illusion” to think that prioritizing one’s safety and “defending” oneself from newcomers will solve the problem.
In an increasingly globalized world, there will be increasing contact with others, and to ensure that this trend serves the common good, “what is needed are not unilateral actions but wide-ranging policies.”
Society has not learned from its own history, he said, saying, “Let us stop ignoring reality, stop constantly shifting responsibility, stop passing off the issue of migration to others, as if it mattered to no one and was only a pointless burden to be shouldered by somebody else!”
Pope Francis then made a passionate appeal for God to rouse humanity from its disregard for those who suffer, from an individualist attitude that excludes, and to help every person to “overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes!”
“Let us combat at its root the dominant mindset that revolves around ourselves, our self-interest, personal and national, and becomes the measure and criterion of everything,” he said.
Recalling his visit to Lesbos 2016, Francis said little has changed in the five years that have elapsed, and that Greece, like many other countries, “continues to be hard-pressed,” while people throughout Europe treat the migration issue “as a matter that does not concern them.”
While fear and insecurity are legitimate reactions to the challenges the migration crisis presents, the pope insisted that the problem will not be solved by building walls, but by recognizing and respecting the value of every human life.
Noting that the balance between security and solidarity and openness versus attachment to tradition and contraposed in many societies, Francis said that in seeking solutions, “Rather than bickering over ideas, it would be better to begin with reality: to pause and broaden our gaze to take in the problems of the majority of humanity.”
Migrants, he said, “are victims of humanitarian emergencies they did not create yet have to endure as the latest chapter in a long history of exploitation.”
It is easy to rouse public opinion by instilling a sense of fear of others, he said, “Yet why do we fail to speak with equal vehemence about the exploitation of the poor, about seldom mentioned but often well-financed wars, about economic agreements where the people have to pay, about covert deals favoring the proliferation of the arms trade?”
“The remote causes should be attacked, not the poor people who pay the consequences and are even used for political propaganda,” he said, and called for coordinated global action.
There are no easy answers to what is arguably an complex problem, he said, insisting that societies must “accompany processes from within, to overcome ghettoization and foster a slow and necessary integration, to accept the cultures and traditions of others in a fraternal and responsible way.”
Calling the Mediterranean a “grim cemetery” full of graves without tombstones, Pope Francis said the sea, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, now resembles “a mirror of death.”
“Let us not permit this ‘sea of memories’ to be transformed into a ‘sea of forgetfulness.’ Please, let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!” he said.
God, as a father who loves all of his children, “is offended when we despise the men and women created in his image, leaving them at the mercy of the waves, in the wash of indifference, justified at times even in the name of supposedly Christian values,” he said.
Rather, faith demands compassion, mercy, and an approach of hospitality, he said, and prayed for humanity to be given a gaze “that regards all human beings as children of God, sisters and brothers to be welcomed, protected, supported and integrated. And to be loved tenderly.”
“May the All Holy Mother teach us to put the reality of men and women before ideas and ideologies, and to go forth in haste to encounter all those who suffer,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen