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Pope Francis, visiting Greek razor wire-fenced migrant camp, challenges Europe to live up to its human rights ideals

Pope Francis greets children during a ceremony at the Karatepe refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Dec. 5. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AP)

LESBOS, Greece — Pope Francis ventured Sunday into one of the grimmest places in Europe, a razor wire-fenced camp for asylum seekers on this island in the Aegean sea, and told the people held there that Europe’s response has been defensive and inhumane and has fallen short of its purported values.

“Human lives, real people, are at stake!” Francis said, in some of his most pleading words on a topic that has defined his pontificate.

For many at the camp, sealed off from the outside world, their plight hidden, Francis’s visit punctured the bubble. Asylum seekers lined up before the pontiff’s arrival and reached to touch him or hug him when he exited his car. Unmasked, and at times relying on a nearby priest for support walking, the pontiff spent 20 minutes shaking hundreds of hands.

And yet in returning for the first time in five years to this island at the front line of Europe’s immigration response, Francis also confronted the limits of his own ability to influence opinions and shape policy. His ideas, once part of a European debate over the proper approach to migration from Afghanistan, Syria and other countries, now run clearly counter to the continent’s political mainstream. And a recent flash point on the border with Belarus showed the prevailing sentiment in the bloc: Keep migrants from entering.

Pope Francis spoke out against political exploitation of refugees on Dec. 5, as he visited the Greek island of Lesbos, a main entry point for migrants. (Video: Reuters)

Francis, speaking in a white tent with several dozen migrants, vented his frustration. Progress on migration, he said, has been “terribly absent.” He called it an “illusion” to think a society could safeguard itself without helping those who “knock at our door.” He said respect for human rights should be upheld — “especially on this continent, which is constantly promoting them worldwide.”

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“Let us stop ignoring reality,” Francis said. “How many conditions exist that are unworthy of human beings? How many hot spots [are there] where migrants and refugees live in borderline conditions, without glimpsing solutions on the horizon?”

The pope’s previous visit to Lesbos came in 2016, a trip most remembered for Francis’s dramatic move of flying back to Rome with 12 Syrians aboard the papal plane. It came in the immediate aftermath of a massive migration wave, as the repercussions of that influx were starting to emerge.

Five years later, Lesbos has become as good a place as any to see what has changed.

Near villages where fishermen once helped migrants come ashore, Greek security forces now are accused of pushing migrants back into Turkish waters, in violation of international law. Those migrants who do have the luck to reach Greek soil are taken to a tightly controlled camp where most are allowed to leave only two days per week. A new decree has reduced the likelihood that migrants will receive protection. Greek newspapers are increasingly referring to the arrivals as “illegal migrants” rather than asylum seekers.

The camp is about five minutes away from the island’s largest city. It was constructed in a hurry, after a fire last year ravaged the previous facility — a sprawl of tents, at one point holding as many as 19,500 people, that was described as the most hellish place in Europe.

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The replacement, by comparison, is not overcrowded. It houses several thousand people. But the conditions are uneven: Some migrants live in tents, others in prefabricated containers. Some migrants have heat, others do not. Residents said they watched camp officials working furiously to remove a month’s worth of garbage before the pope’s visit.

“So at least the pope got them that,” said Liza Papadimitriou, an advocacy manager for Doctors Without Borders. “Even if nothing else changes in the long term — hey, they cleaned it.”

Sunday, as the Vatican motorcade arrived at the camp, people came out of their tents and containers and lined up along any spot of fencing they could find. A bus carrying church leaders headed to the area created for the day’s event. But Francis, trailing in his car, directed his driver to stop right in the middle of the crowds.

As they came face-to-face with the pontiff, migrants tried to tell their stories. One presented what looked like an ID card.

Some at the camp have been there upward of two years. They have memories of the nighttime fights at the old camp, which had little security. Their children have missed multiple grades of school. They’ve spent winters in tents. They dealt with the aftermath of last year’s fire, when thousands were cast onto the streets until the new camp was built. Aid groups say mental health problems are rampant.

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On the day before the pope’s arrival, one Afghan migrant pointed to a stretch of pavement near a supermarket and described spending 10 nights there with his wife and two children after the fire. He reached into his pocket and showed pills to help him sleep and cope with depression, prescribed by a psychiatrist who treats people at the camp.

“My [7-year-old] son is seeing a psychiatrist too,” said the father, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that speaking would reduce his chances of gaining asylum.

From the podium where Francis spoke, one could see the full landscape of the camp: the grid of white containers, the police, the lapping Aegean Sea. Francis said a place like this shouldn’t be a “theater of conflict.”

“Let us stop this shipwreck of civilization,” he said.

After the address, Francis exited, this time getting directly into his white Fiat, and soon the motorcades, the cameras, the crowds were gone. No migrants had been whisked away for planes to Rome; this time, the Vatican is planning instead to relocate migrants 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 break through.”

Makalalulendo hoped that conditions might change as a result. But it was too early to tell.

His more immediate priority was managing the rest of Sunday, which he said was typically the hardest day of the week. On Sundays, migrants are barred from leaving the camp. He walked back to his home, container No. 123, where he planned to spend the rest of the day.

“It’s depressing,” he said.

Sayed Ahmadzia Ebrahimi contributed to this report.

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Pope Francis takes refugees back to Rome following provocative and emotional Lesbos visit