On Sunday, Pope Francis visited a razor-wire-fenced camp for asylum seekers on this Aegean Sea island, telling the people detained there that Europe’s response has been defensive and brutal, falling short of its ostensible values.
“Human lives, real people, are at stake!” Francis said.
The pope’s visit pierced the bubble that kept those at the camp isolated from the outside world and hidden their situation. Asylum seekers waited in line before the pontiff arrived, reaching out to touch or hug him as he exited the popemobile.
The pontiff spent 20 minutes shaking hundreds of hands while unmasked and at times leaning on a nearby priest for assistance walking.
However, by returning to this island at the forefront of Europe’s immigration response for the first time in five years, Francis confronted the limits of his ability to influence perceptions and affect policy. His ideas, which were previously part of a European debate about handling the migration from Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries, now obviously contradict the continent’s political majority.
And a recent incident on the border with Belarus exemplified the bloc’s prevalent sentiment: keep migrants out.
Speaking in a white tent with several dozen migrants, Francis vented his frustration. Progress on migration, he said, has been “terribly absent.” “Let us stop ignoring reality,” Francis said. “How many conditions exist that are unworthy of human beings? How many hotspots [are there] where migrants and refugees live in borderline conditions, without glimpsing solutions on the horizon?”
The pope’s last journey to Lesbos was in 2016 when Francis made the bold decision to fly back to Rome with 12 Syrians aboard the papal jet. It arrived in the immediate aftermath of a massive migrant wave, just as the consequences of that inflow were beginning to manifest.
Lesbos, five years later, is as good a place as any to see what has changed.
Greek security personnel is accused of sending migrants back into Turkish waters in breach of international law, near communities where fishers once assisted migrants in coming ashore. Those migrants who make it to Greek land are sent to a closely restricted camp, where most are only allowed to leave twice a week.
The wind-whipped camp is located near the sea, roughly five minutes from the island’s principal city. It was built in a hurry after a fire last year destroyed the previous facility, a sprawl of tents that hold up to 19,500 people at one point and was described as the most terrible location in Europe.
In comparison, the replacement is not overcrowded. It accommodates thousands of people, but the living conditions are abysmal.
After the speech, Francis went directly into his white Fiat, and the motorcades, photographers, and throng vanished. No migrants had been spirited away to board flights bound for Rome; this time, the Vatican intends to relocate people from Cyprus.
“It’s good that someone is still thinking about refugees,” said Josue Makalalulendo, 18, an asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I’ve been here for a year, and this is the first time I saw cameras. I think the pope came to a breakthrough.”
Makalalulendo hoped that conditions might change as a result. But it was too early to tell.