Pope Francis (R) meets a child refugee at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on December 5, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Lesbos Island: Pope Francis on Sunday returned to the island of Lesbos, the migration flashpoint he first visited in 2016, calling the neglect of migrants the “shipwreck of civilisation”.

“In Europe there are those who persist in treating the problem as a matter that does not concern them,” the pope said as he visited Lesbos’ Mavrovouni camp where nearly 2,200 asylum seekers live.

On the second day of his visit to Greece, he met a small group of mostly child asylum seekers standing behind metal barriers, with one bystander saying “love you”, prompting the pontiff to affectionately greet the infants.

The pope’s trip to Lesbos will be shorter than his last, officials said, as he will fly back to Athens on Sunday to hold a mass for some 2,500 people at the Megaron Athens Concert Hall.

On Lesbos, the pontiff will deliver an Angelus prayer in a camp tent in the presence of Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, EU vice-president Margaritis Schinas and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi.

“His visit is a blessing,” said Rosette Leo, a Congolese asylum seeker carrying a two-month-old baby as she waited in line for the ceremony.

This handout photograph taken by the Vatican Media and released on December 5, 2021 shows Pope Francis shakes hands with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou as they arrive to meet refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Image Credit: AFP

“He has power, he can influence people to see refugees differently,” she told AFP.

‘Terrible modern Odyssey’

Francis has long championed refugees, whom he called the “protagonists of a terrible modern Odyssey” in a speech to Greek officials and Schinas on Saturday.

He was speaking in Athens during the first papal visit in 20 years.

Ahead of the Lesbos visit, 31-year-old Cameroonian camp resident Christian Tango said he hoped the pope would “carry the voice (of refugees) to the whole world”.

As with other residents, Tango is only allowed to leave the camp once a week. But on Sunday, he will get to speak to the pope.

The Mavrovouni tent camp was hurriedly erected after the sprawling camp of Moria, Europe’s largest such site at the time, burned down last year.

Pope Francis gestures before meeting refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, December 5, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

Greek authorities blamed a group of young Afghans for the incident and security has been substantially enhanced ahead of the pontiff’s visit with 850 police officers deployed.

In Cyprus, where the pope visited before Greece this week, authorities said that 50 migrants will be relocated to Italy thanks to Francis.

Greek officials have not ruled out the possibility that some migrants from Mavrovouni could accompany him back to Italy.

He took 12 Syrian refugees with him during his last visit to Lesbos in 2016.

EU ‘torn by egoism’

At the start of his Athens visit on Saturday, Francis said Europe was “torn by nationalist egoism” instead of acting as an “engine of solidarity” on migration.

“Today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy,” he said, warning against populism’s “easy answers”.

In 2016, Francis visited Moria with Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Archbishop Ieronymos II, head of the Church of Greece.

In a ceremony later held at the port of Mytilene, the three leaders held mass to bless the thousands who had died trying to reach Europe.

The Mavrovouni camp currently holds 2,193 people and has a capacity of 8,000, the facility’s deputy chief Dimitris Vafeas told ERT state TV this week.

“Everyone is staying in containers in good conditions. Asylum procedures are significantly improved, no one spends more than three to four months in the camp - except exceptional cases,” he said.

With EU funds, Greece is building a series of “closed” facilities on Greek islands with barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, X-ray scanners and magnetic gates that are closed at night.

Three such camps have opened on the islands of Samos, Leros and Kos, with Lesbos and Chios to follow next year.

Once migrants receive asylum they are no longer eligible to remain in the camps with many then unable to find accommodation or work, drawing criticism from NGOS and aid agencies.

The groups have also raised concerns about the new camps, arguing that people’s movements should not be restricted.

Thirty-six groups active in Greece this week wrote to Francis raising the plight of people in the camps and requesting his help to halt illegal pushbacks of migrants allegedly by Greek border officers.

Greece vehemently denies the claims, insisting its coastguard saves lives at sea.

The pope will return to Rome on Monday.