Sunday 25 September 2016

Lesbos hopes Pope's visit will shine light on refugee crisis

Helena Smith reports on mixed moods on the Aegean island as it prepares for the arrival of the Pontiff

Helena Smith

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Volunteers help migrants and refugees as they arrive at Lesbos (AP)
Volunteers help migrants and refugees as they arrive at Lesbos (AP)

The island of Lesbos tends to go to town when celebrities descend. The last time it welcomed a VIP, the razorwire running along large parts of its infamous detention centre was hastily removed.

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Angelina Jolie got a brief glimpse of it as she walked in, but reportedly not as she later walked around the camp greeting migrants and refugees. The superstar special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was instead given an edited view of the camp, volunteers say.

It will be different when Pope Francis flies in on Saturday. The purpose of the Pontiff's visit is to see the migrant emergency up close, and the authorities are keen that no blinkers are involved. This time, the island on the frontline of the biggest movement of people in modern times intends to show it as it is.

"We won't be changing anything," says mayor Spyros Galinos when asked if municipal workers will at least clean up the graffiti on the camp's walls. "His visit has huge symbolism. It is what we have wanted, what we have seen in our sleep, what we have dreamed of for years," he said.

For four hours, Francis will grant that wish when he arrives in Greece for what will be a rare papal visit. The leader of the worldwide Catholic church will be accompanied by the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, and Ieronymos II of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox church.

It will be a whirlwind tour of the island traversed by many of the 1.1 million men, women and children who streamed into Europe last year - mostly from Syria but also from other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

By highlighting the "precarious living conditions for thousands of refugees and migrants" who have reached Lesbos, Francis hoped to offer a "Christian response to the tragedy that is unfolding".

It is a response that will begin in Moria, the hilltop village beyond which the island's barbed wire topped detention centre stands. The camp - sealed off from the outside world and guarded around the clock - opened as a registration centre but under a controversial plan that saw its first detainees being deported back to neighbouring Turkey last week, is now a closed facility more resonant of a high security prison.

Amnesty International, given access on Tuesday, described conditions as appalling, saying the 3,150 people locked inside were victim to "growing uncertainty, fear and despair" under the deal the EU has done with Turkey.

In an excoriating report, the human rights group said inmates - including more than 1,200 migrants and asylum seekers held in equally squalid conditions on the island of Chios - had no access to lawyers, or adequate healthcare, blankets and a respectable quality of food. Detainees, who included up to 100 vulnerable people, needed urgent medical care.

Standing outside the camp last week, Maria Manavi and Giota Tasiou, volunteers with the international humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, shook their heads in disbelief. Until the group's decision to withdraw from the facility - for fear of being associated with a system of mass expulsions - Moria had chemical toilets and cleaning staff.

"When we moved out we took all the toilets and 47 cleaning staff with us," sighed Tasiou. "Before, Syrians and Afghans had separate showers. There was a sense of peace and cleanliness. Now we're hearing nightmare stories about what's going on inside."

Lesbos's mayor says he hopes the Pope will help illuminate the message of peace and solidarity that the island wants to share. "We are a speck on the map but through this crisis we have come to see ourselves as a lighthouse of human values," he says. "Europe is at a critical juncture. It either treats these people humanely and follows a path of solidarity and cooperation or takes a dark, fascistic turn."

Galinos is the first to say he would like to see Moria closed. "It is," he insists, "very difficult to see people who are decent, who have risked their lives to get here, who have been exploited by human smugglers, being treated like this. They're not dangerous, they're not criminals."

Not everyone is convinced that Francis can ultimately do much to change the fate of those now poised to be forcibly returned to Turkey.

"His visit is not going to do anything for one single refugee in this country," laments Alison Terry-Evans who runs Dirty Girls, a people-powered organisation in Lesbos that launders blankets distributed by the UNHCR and the wet clothes of arriving refugees.

"It is so hypocritical that a man who heads a multi-billion dollar corporation like the Vatican is unlikely to take any action that will contribute financially. That is the pity of it. "

© Observer

Sunday Independent

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