By Sarah Mac Donald - 16 April, 2016
Ahead of his one-day visit to the Greek island of Lesbos in a show of solidarity with migrants and the Greeks who have welcomed them, Pope Francis visited the Roman basilica of St Mary Major on Friday.
He prayed before his favourite image of the Virgin Mary – the ‘Salus Populi Romani’ and left a bouquet of flowers in the blue-and-white colours of the Greek flag.
According to the only Catholic parish priest on the island Lesbos, Pope Francis’s visit today (16 April) is a show of solidarity for migrants “who are people; they have a history, they have dreams, they have names.”
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Fr Leon Kiskinis emphasised that migrants need “to be treated with dignity, as human beings.”
The International Migration Organisation estimates that since the beginning of this year, more than 170,000 migrants and refugees have made the treacherous journey by sea to Greece and Italy.
Since Pope Francis was elected to the papacy, Fr Kiskinis said, he has always shown his closeness to “those on the margins, those deprived of their dignity.”
He recalled that the Pope’s first journey at the start of his pontificate was to the Italian island of Lampedusa in solidarity with the tens of thousands of refugees arriving on its shores.
Pope Francis’ visit to the Greek island is taking place at a time when many European countries are closing their borders to refugees.
It also comes amid growing criticism of the March 18 EU-Turkey deal, which stipulates anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
Fr Kiskinis says he thinks the Pope’s choice to visit Lesbos was not by chance as the island community did not “close doors or raise barriers”.
“Lesbos is an island of call for these people who come from the Turkish coast; I do not think that this decision is random. Because, despite the presence of the authorities, institutions, non-governmental organisations, the local people, simple people, have shown a brotherhood, a humanity never seen before in these parts,” the parish priest said.
The citizens of Lesbos “did not close the door, did not close their hearts, did not create borders or barriers,” he continued.
Rather, they “welcomed these people in the hope that they can receive warmth and welcome in Europe, this Europe that it is the home of human rights.”
Meanwhile, Trócaire has said that the EU regards refugees as little more than ‘commodities for shipping’.
The agency has expressed deep concern at the recent EU-Turkey deal that facilitates the large-scale return of asylum seekers to Turkey, saying that the EU is more concerned with blocking people’s access to Europe than in upholding international law.
Trócaire’s Executive Director, Éamonn Meehan, welcomed the Pope’s visit but warned that more needed to be done to ensure the rights of refugees were upheld.
“I welcome the visit to Lesbos by Pope Francis and it is entirely in keeping with his very obvious concern for the welfare of those who are facing incredible difficulties and challenges in finding safety for themselves and their families,” said Éamonn Meehan.
“Hopefully the visit will help highlight the serious concerns felt by many human rights organisations, including the UN Human Rights Council, regarding the recent deal done between the EU and Turkey.”
“The EU’s focus is on containing the flow of displaced people into Europe instead of upholding international law and offering protection to those fleeing war,” Éamonn Meehan continued.
“The deal states that all new ‘irregular migrants’ crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands will be returned to Turkey, but then tries to assert that these will not be collective expulsions.”
“The EU regards Syrian refugees as commodities for shipping rather than desperate and exhausted human beings. The deal with Turkey fails to take appropriate account of the fundamental right to seek asylum.”
The agency is currently providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians in seven countries.
Trócaire has been providing food, shelter and psycho-social support to people displaced by conflict in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon since 2013. The organisation also supports refugees in Greece, Macedonia, Croatia and Serbia, providing food and other essential items, as well as translators.
“This plan was agreed in the shadow of Europe’s failure to realise commitments made last September to relocate 160,000 refugees,” Éamonn Meehan said.
“The deal ignores the systems, structures and resources required to assess claims in a fair and legal way, the time required to investigate claims, and the right to appeal a rejected claim.”
“Last Sunday we saw a very worrying escalation in the methods being used to prevent people crossing the frontier between Greece and Macedonia at Idomeni. This resulted in hundreds of people, including children and older people, having to be treated for the effects of teargas and injuries caused by rubber bullets. Many of these people have already had to flee from violence in their home countries only to encounter it again when they thought they were relatively safe.”
Trócaire has been providing food and shelter to people in Syria, as well as Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, since 2013.
The agency is also providing psycho-social support, a vital lifeline to refugees who are struggling to cope with the impacts of displacement and war.
Trócaire also supports humanitarian programmes in Greece, Macedonia, Croatia and Serbia aimed at supporting refugees both through the distribution of food and other essential items as well as through social support, including providing translators for refugees.
Trócaire has called on the Irish Government to:
• Enhance legal channels for migration, including reducing the barriers for family with a particular focus on vulnerability.
• Expedite the selection and arrival of those identified under the Relocation and Resettlement schemes in 2016.
In addition, the agency believes the Irish government should give additional consideration to the following recommendations:
• Establish a Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Statelessness for Ireland.
• Ireland must refrain from exploring and supporting stabilisation proposals and the creation of ‘safe areas’ inside Syria for refugees. Safe zones can only be deemed safe by those who will freely live in them. There can be no question of civilians being forced to return to Syria.
• Greater resources should be allocated to meet the short-term and also the medium and longer-term needs of displaced people and host communities through support to livelihoods and educational opportunities in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
• The European Union and Member States cannot choose whether to respond or not, to the needs of those using their legal right to seek asylum in Europe. Humanitarian funding is not an alternative to fulfilling domestic asylum obligations and providing adequate support to relocation plans in Europe. Humanitarian assistance should not be diverted to cover the costs of refugee supports in European countries.