Pope arrives on Greek migrant camp visit

A girl at the Moria camp, Lesbos, 16 AprilImage copyright

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A girl at the Moria camp prepares a poster for the Pope’s visit

Pope Francis has arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos to show support for refugees who are trying to reach northern Europe.

The Pope is heading to a detention camp holding more than 3,000 people, some of whom may face deportation to Turkey.

Francis said his Greek trip was to witness “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War”.

Thousands are now stuck on Lesbos after last month’s EU-Turkey deal to try to ease the flow of migrants.

The Vatican insists that the Pope’s visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature and should not be seen as a criticism of the deportations.

However, the Vatican official in charge of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, has said the EU-Turkey plan treats migrants as merchandise and fails to recognise their dignity as human beings.

Pope Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 to show similar support for migrants after dozens died trying to reach it.

‘A cemetery’

On his plane journey to Lesbos, the Pope told reporters: “This is a voyage marked by sadness… We will witness the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.

“We will see so many people who are suffering, who are fleeing and do not know where to go. And we are also going to a cemetery, the sea. So many people never arrived.”

The Pope was met at Lesbos Mytilene airport by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Archbishop of Athens Ieronimos II.

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Pope Francis was met by PM Alexis Tsipras (C) and Archbishop of Athens Ieronimos II

At the Moria detention camp, the Pope will meet unaccompanied migrant children, and will later observe a minute’s silence for those who have died making dangerous sea crossings in search of a better life.

On the eve of the visit, one Syrian attempted to kill himself at the camp after being told he would be deported back to Turkey but was prevented by police.

Migrants later demonstrated, demanding better treatment and to stay in Europe.

Analysis – BBC diplomatic correspondent Caroline Hawley

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This is a short, but highly symbolic visit designed to draw attention to what the Vatican has described as a difficult situation.

The Pope has repeatedly called for compassion to be shown to people fleeing terror, turmoil and hardship. He will be hoping his trip to Lesbos will stir Europe’s conscience.

It comes as the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis faces intense criticism from aid agencies and human rights groups. The Pope will meet refugees at a camp where more than 3,000 people are now effectively incarcerated in conditions aid workers say are deplorable.

He will then hold a ceremony to remember those who have died trying to reach Europe’s shores. The Pope is coming with a strong moral message – but no solutions.

The Greek authorities have not yet commented on the suicide attempt, which was confirmed by non-governmental organisations on the island.

The man was among four Syrians who have now appealed against their deportation orders.

However, some Syrians on Lesbos say they are terrified by the thought of returning to Turkey because of reports that hundreds of Syrians have been forcibly returned from Turkey to Syria.

Turkey has denied sending back any refugees against their will.

Refugees and migrants also complain of overcrowded conditions and a lack of food.

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Key points from EU-Turkey agreement

  • Returns: All “irregular migrants” crossing from Turkey into Greece from 20 March will be sent back. Each arrival will be individually assessed by the Greek authorities
  • One-for-one: For each Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian migrant will be resettled in the EU. Priority will be given to those who have not tried to illegally enter the EU and the number is capped at 72,000
  • Visa restrictions: Turkish nationals should have access to the Schengen passport-free zone by June. This will not apply to non-Schengen countries like Britain
  • Financial aid: The EU is to speed up the allocation of €3bn ($3.3 bn; £2.3 bn) in aid to Turkey to help migrants
  • Turkey EU membership: Both sides agreed to “re-energise” Turkey’s bid to join the European bloc, with talks due by July

The Turkey-EU statement in full

A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

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