Rome, 12 April 2016 – At a time when hundreds of thousands are risking their lives trying to reach safety in Europe, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is very pleased that Pope Francis will visit the Greek island of Lesbos, a major transit point, this Saturday, 16 April, to confront the emergency situation of refugees and the need for international solidarity among governmental and non-governmental actors head on.
Following the EU’s recent controversial deal to push back refugees and migrants arriving to the Greek shores to Turkey, the papal visit could not come at a more critical time, as the deal violates the international law and the principle of non-refoulement, or not pushing back people in need of protection.
In addition to the 820,000 people who entered Europe through Greece in 2015, more than 150,000 refugees and migrants have arrived to Greece this year, over half of whom arrived directly to Lesbos. The UN refugee agency has announced more than 22,000 unaccompanied minors are stuck in Greece and facing an uncertain future of possible violence and exploitation.
For many "these coasts (are) their only symbol of hope," said Cardinal Vegliò, President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants.
"During a time when push backs are seemingly the solution being put forward by the EU, we hope the Pope’s visit is not just a symbol of hope for refugees, but a concrete push for the Greek government and other European states to actualise those hopes," said Fr Thomas H Smolich SJ, JRS International Director.
Pope Francis has a history of commitment to interreligious ecumenical work, and will continue that as he is accompanied by Bartholomew I and Ieronymos II, head of Orthodox Christians and the Greek Orthodox Church respectively, on his journey. With a similar commitment to solidarity and interreligious cooperation, JRS serves those most in need, independent of religious affiliation or national origin.
JRS Greece is present in Athens, with a smaller presence in Lesbos, providing emergency assistance. In Athens, JRS runs a shelter for newly arrived or homeless refugees as well as an integration centre. JRS Greece cooperates with the UN refugee agency, the ecumenical group "Churches Together", the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, and other religious organisations including the Orthodox organisation APOSTOLI, to visit and provide food, clothes and other basic necessities to refugees in camps, prisons, detention centres and other sites across Greece.
"No one takes such a risky way just to leave home unless they have to," said Iva, a young Croatian woman who works for JRS with refugees who have passed through Greece. "We see people aged 80 years and more, people in wheelchairs… They want to see if they are lucky enough to get away from a situation of certain death to one where some will survive. Calling people economic migrants and forbidding them to cross borders is just closing your eyes to problems existing for so many years."
JRS believes that the way forward for Europe is for governments to:
- ensure effective access to protection to all refugees regardless of nationality;
- not detain and provide special attention to the needs of particularly at-risk people such as unaccompanied minors in transit; and
- consider cases for asylum on an individual basis.
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“During a time when push backs are seemingly the solution being put forward by the EU, we hope the Pope’s visit is not just a symbol of hope for refugees, but a concrete push for the Greek government and other European states to actualise those hopes.”