The esplanade of barracks and small white cabins borders one of the island’s idyllic bays in the distance. The place, however, is hideous up close. There is no electricity or water at all times of the day. It is cold and at night the humidity crushes the bones. Here you live indefinitely. But worse is Moria, the other refugee camp, which burned down on October 9, 2020. Or stay in Afghanistan. Or let’s not say die at sea, like some of the 20,000 migrants who in recent years have tried to cross the waters that separate Turkey and this Greek island in precarious boats. Jila Alizahi came here after traveling on foot from Kabul. She is 16 years old and has been trapped in Lesvos for nearly three years. Half-life. What sums up this succession of growing calamities his days in Mavrvovouni, the place where he survives with 2,200 other people.
In Mavrovouni, almost nothing happens. Neither forward nor backward. The place is part of a set of refugee camps that were built in Greece with European funds after the 2015 crisis. “We don’t know anything about our papers. We have to get out. My wife is sick and we need a good hospital,” laments Mohamen Amini, a 36-year-old Afghan. An increasingly invisible place. Except this Sunday, when the pope appeared with the press from all over the world and asked to stop “this sinking of civilization”. It is rare for a pontiff to repeat a fate. And less if you are in a small corner of Europe. But that’s Francisco’s main obsession. “I am here again to meet you; I am here to tell you that I am close to you; I’m here to see their faces, to look them in the eye: eyes full of fear and hope, eyes that have seen violence and poverty, eyes streaked with too many tears,” he said. announced surrounded by rural dwellers.
Lesbos, the third largest island in Greece, has become a symbol of this pontificate. Many refugees have been trapped here since 2016. Children, like Jila herself, who have not been able to go to school. Lives blocked in a mountain of documents on the table of a European court. Asylum requests rejected up to five times while they remain locked up, as the rural African community denounced to the Pope on Sunday. The five islands of the Aegean Sea thus became huge open-air prisons from 2015, at the height of the landings. A year later, Francisco visited the island. So long that some, like the Afghan majority, have even been able to witness the unimaginable return of the Taliban from a distance. “Five years have passed since the visit I made. After all this time, we see that little has changed on the issue of migration,” the pope lamented.
Some things are not exactly the same. The former Moria camp (which was the largest in Europe), where thousands of families lived crammed together in miserable conditions, burned down in 2020. A group of Afghan refugees burned a container to protest the conditions in which they were living and the fire spread rapidly through the shacks where the migrants slept. The accordions are still there. But the new settlement is a bit better and the refugees are living in a much more dignified way. Something the pope acknowledged, with nuances. “I acknowledge the commitment to fund and build decent reception facilities and I sincerely thank the local people for all the good they have done and the many sacrifices they have accepted. But we have to note with bitterness that this country, like others, is currently going through a difficult situation and that there are still people in Europe who persist in treating the problem as something that does not concern them.
The EU has invested €276 million to build five new fields on the islands. Like Mavrovouni’s. Closed centres, without freedom of movement. With turnstiles and an algorithm that controls entry and exit, allowed today only for a few hours a day or for reasons such as visiting the doctor. That was the problem. This is not what was agreed with the European Union. But the plan was increasingly to make the problem invisible, the Pope criticized. Since 2016, the EU has paid 6 billion euros to Turkey – just 20 kilometers from Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos – to stop the migratory flows that reached the Greek coasts. “It is sad to hear that the use of common funds is proposed as a solution to build walls. Fears and insecurities are understandable. Fatigue and frustration, exacerbated by the economic and pandemic crisis, are perceived, but it is not by erecting barriers that the problems are solved, but by uniting to take care of others according to the real possibilities of each one and respecting legality, always putting in the foreground the inalienable value of the life of every man”.
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The Pope thus underlined once again the two main priorities of his agenda. First, he spoke of climate change with some optimism, a subject in which he assured that “something seems to be moving”. But regarding immigration, the other front that opened up as soon as it reached Pedro’s chair in 2013, denounced that “everything seems terribly opaque”. “People, human lives, are at stake. Everyone’s future is at stake, and they will only be serene if they are integrated. When the poor are rejected, peace is rejected,” he said.
The migration problem, Francis told the group of refugees listening to him, is far from solved. He repeated it at all stages of his journey: “We must welcome”. “Closures and nationalism – history teaches us this – lead to disastrous consequences […]. It is an illusion to think that it is enough to protect oneself, to defend oneself from the weakest who knock at the door. […] Let’s stop this sinking of civilization.”
The increase in immigration at the beginning of the last decade was accompanied by the emergence of far-right parties. It happened in France in 2005. Also in Italy with the massive arrival of ships on its coasts in 2013. And finally this policy also landed in Spain. The pope held them responsible for the hatred. “It is easy to influence public opinion, to foment fear of the other; Why, on the contrary, in the same tone, do we not speak of the exploitation of the poor, or the forgotten and often generously financed wars, or the economic agreements which are made at the expense of the people, or the occult maneuvers weapons and make their trade proliferate? We must face the distant causes, not the poor who pay the consequences, also serving as political propaganda.
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