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Placing hope in the Pope: The unlikely partnership fighting for asylum seekers

Visiting a refugee centre on Greek island Lesvos, Pope Francis positioned himself as one of the few leaders willing to speak out against hard borders

phoebe greenwood
17 December 2021, 12.01am
Pope Francis meets migrants and refugees on the island of Lesvos
Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

As Pope Francis approached the Orthodox Archbishopric in Athens, he was accosted by an elderly Orthodox priest.

Pope, you are a heretic!” the white-bearded, black-clad man shouted angrily in Greek.

“The Pope should repent! He is unacceptable in Greece!” he cried out to reporters as he was frogmarched off by police.

The Greek Orthodox establishment is yet to forgive the Great Schism of 1054, when Christianity split into Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. There are only 50,000 Catholics in modern Greece and they tend to remain discreet.

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So on 4 December, few Athenians had any idea why the city’s main roads were closed or why helicopters were circling the capital. Were the unions protesting again? No. Pope Francis was in town to deliver an unwelcome message.

“Please let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation,” the Catholic leader told Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou, European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas, Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi and a few dozen carefully selected refugees at the Mavrovouni holding centre in Lesvos.

The Pope last visited the Greek island in 2016, when more than a million people, mostly fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan had crossed from Turkey into Greece since the start of the year before. On that occasion, he stunned his hosts by taking 12 refugees on his jet back with him to Rome. Five years on, he complained, “little has changed”.

“It is distressing to hear of proposals that common funds be used to build walls and barbed wire as a solution,” the pontiff said on his most recent visit, standing among the camp’s white UN containers, fenced with barbed wire.

“Problems are not resolved, and coexistence [is not] improved by building walls higher, but by joining forces to care for others according to the concrete possibilities of each and in respect for the law,” he added.

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Thermal cameras

The number of arrivals in Greece has fallen dramatically since 2016, but anti-migrant sentiment and resentment at the lack of European support has grown significantly. And it’s not just in Greece but across Europe, that responses to the migrant crisis have become increasingly militarised.

Belarus stands accused of ‘weaponising’ migrants, luring refugees from the Middle East only to dump them on EU borders in retaliation against EU sanctions. The humanitarian needs of asylum seekers have been eclipsed by the perceived economic and security threats they pose to European voters.

Amnesty International argues that the fall in refugee arrivals to Greece is in large part due to a shift in policy under conservative prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The human rights organisation describes a ‘de facto border policy’ of violence and illegal pushbacks.

Greece now deploys thermal cameras and sensors along its land border with Turkey. In June, it deployed a vehicle-mounted sound cannon that blasts ‘deafening bursts of up to 162 decibels to force people to turn back along this same stretch. Poland plans to copy much of this approach on its border with Belarus; in October, its Parliament approved a €350m wall that will stretch along half the border and reach up to 5.5 metres (18 feet), equipped with motion detectors and thermal cameras.

The camp Pope Francis visited on Lesvos is only a temporary holding centre. Asylum seekers here will soon be moved to a ‘controlled, closed’ camp, currently under construction. Similar centres have already opened in Samos, Leros and Cos. On Samos, the new €38m (£32m) facility is monitored by military-grade fencing and CCTV to track people’s movements. Access is controlled by fingerprints, turnstiles and X-rays and it’s policed by a private security company as well as 50 uniformed officers.

Red cards

Rights groups say these new centres are in fact detention centres where asylum seekers are illegally denied freedom of movement. Mohammed, 18, an asylum seeker from Iran, told openDemocracy that this has certainly been the case for his family. The six of them haven’t been able to leave Lesvos for more than two years while Greek authorities process their asylum claims. They have been turned down twice and are now waiting to hear the outcome of their third application.

“They [the Greek authorities] give out two kinds of cards. There’s a red one, which means you can’t leave the island, and a blue one, which means you can leave the island, but you can’t leave the country,” he said.

“I think there are around 2,400 refugees in Lesvos now and most of us have red cards. My family all has red cards. I’m sure the Pope didn’t know about any of this, because only new arrivals were allowed to talk to him.”

Greek migration officials have not responded to requests for clarification on this card system. But following the Pope’s visit, Mitsotakis went on CNN to defend his policies.

“We’re happy we have managed to significantly reduce arrivals by more than 80% since I took over as prime minister. This sends a message to smugglers but also to their customers ‘Don’t try this. This is a very, very dangerous journey’,” he told Christiane Amanpour.

“Uncontrolled migration, what we saw in 2015, when essentially we opened our borders to anyone – that is clearly also not the solution and that also will not be tolerated by European public opinion.”

Greek authorities have consistently denied reports of illegal pushbacks in the Mediterranean. It is clearly a sore point for the prime minister, who recently lashed out at a Danish journalist who accused him of lying about them.

“I won’t accept that in this office, you insult me or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that aren’t supported by material facts when this country has been dealing with a migration crisis of unrepresented intensity [and] has been saving hundreds if not thousands of people at sea,” Mitsotakis barked. But it is more difficult to shout down the Pope.


Francis flew into Greece directly from Cyprus, where in May the government declared a state of emergency as the number of asylum seekers exceeded 4% of the local population. In the ten months to the start of November, new arrivals to the island were up 38% compared with all of 2020. Authorities in the Republic of Cyprus have also been accused of violent pushbacks.

He told war-partitioned Cyprus: “We should not experience diversity as a threat to identity; we should not be jealous or defensive. We need to work together to build a future worthy of humanity, to overcome divisions, to break down walls.”

While he was there, the Pope arranged for 50 vulnerable refugees to follow him back to Rome – another strikingly political act for a religious leader. Ten of the 50 had been in jail for illegal immigration. The Cypriot interior ministry, nonetheless, thanked him for “the significant initiative”.

The Pope visited Lesvos in answer to a letter signed by 36 NGOs appealing for his intercession amid the “growing refusal of EU member states to contribute in a concrete and effective way to the protection of human lives”.

It is certainly the case that European leaders who prioritise a humane response to the migration crisis are increasingly hard to come by. Europe’s erstwhile figurehead for moderation on migration, Angela Merkel, has exited the stage. Emmanuel Macron is busy fighting off the far-Right nationalism of Eric Zemmour with yet more nationalism. And Brexit Britain may no longer have a say in EU border policy, but the draconian Nationality and Borders Bill currently making its way through its Parliament indicates that on this point at least, it is aligned with Europe.

And so, while it may be understandable that aid agencies and human rights organisations turn to the Pope for support, is it not morally complicated for them to rally behind a religious leader? And not just any religious leader, but the head of a Church that opposes same-sex unions, contraception and abortion, and is accused of tacit complicity in endemic, institutionalised child abuse.

“We are happy to see the intervention [the Pope] made, we welcome it,” said Adriana Tidona, migration researcher for Europe at Amnesty International.

“And I think that’s really a sign of the times we live in. There is a lack of political will of EU leaders to treat this as a human phenomenon. It comes at a very pressing time when EU states are responding so violently to migration.”

Migration is not the only thorny issue the Pope has waded into. He chided politicians ahead of last month’s COP26 summit in Glasgow for their failure to address the “unprecedented threat” posed by the climate crisis. He also raised the issues of unequal access to food and healthcare, calling on leaders to make “radical decisions that are not always easy”.

“We can confront these crises by retreating into isolationism, protectionism and exploitation or we can see in them a real chance for change,” he told world leaders.

In their letter to the Pope, the 36 NGOs on Lesvos described his outspoken defence of refugees as “comforting”.

“Regardless of personal views towards matters of faith and religion, the fact that the Roman Catholic Church addresses fellow human beings, searching for common ground, is one of the most comforting signs of our times,” they wrote.

Spiritual issues

This pope certainly seems to have no qualms about excoriating politicians or ruffling the feathers of Orthodox priests. Perhaps this is exactly what has endeared him to his growing ranks of secular supporters? Theodoros Kodidis, the Archbishop of Athens, offers a more existential theory.

“Climate change, the migrant crisis, these are not just political or economic issues. They are spiritual issues. They affect us on a very deep level. Really, what is the meaning of our life? What is the meaning of our human relationship with the earth?” he said.

“These questions don’t just affect people of faith; they are common to everyone. We all need figures and voices that go beyond the borders of religion, of countries. Voices who speak for every human person.”

Francis lived through the Peronist era in Argentina as well as its military dictatorship and does not seem interested in overstepping the boundary between church and state. Instead, he has repeatedly warned world leaders that they face a global crisis of faith in democracy. Ironically, it could be argued that is exactly what is helping his message to resonate so widely.

The author Paul Vallely, a biographer of Pope Francis, argues that the reason Francis is more popular than his predecessors is simply that he’s used to working with people. Unlike other recent popes, he worked for several decades as a parish priest.

“Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVII also spoke out against capitalism and trickle-down economies, but they come from very different backgrounds,” Vallely told openDemocracy. “John Paul was a philosopher and Benedict was a theologian. Francis worked among the very poorest people. His language is more demotic, plainer, much bolder.

"Francis is undoubtedly more liberal than his predecessors socially, even if in terms of theology he is just as conservative in some areas. But this is because he lived a long while in the real world.”

Vallely points out that Francis comes from a migrant background himself. “He was raised by his grandmother, who came to Argentina from Italy in the Second World War. He feels very strongly about how inured we have become to people being forced to move around the world in huge numbers also because it is personal to him.”

He may have no democratic authority but for non-believers lacking a better political alternative, Pope Francis is emerging as one of the world’s few leaders who speaks out in clear objection to hard borders and prioritises the importance of humanity and compassion above all. The global spread of populism has created a vacuum of compassion in politics that the Pope has been left to fill.

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