One of the key moments of Pope Francis’ journey will be his visit on Sunday to the refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece where Caritas Hellas runs a humanitarian assistance program. The project director sheds light on the situation and on the work of the Catholic aid agency.
By Tracey McClure & Fr. Felipe Herrera
Pope Francis is scheduled to travel to the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea on Sunday to visit the refugee camp where vulnerable men, women and children await the processing of their applications for asylum in the European Union.
Caritas Hellas runs a humanitarian assistance program there. Anastasia Spiliopoulou, director of the project, says the Holy Father will be visiting a different camp from the one he saw on his last trip to the island in April 2016. She explains that the first camp burned to the ground last year, leaving the refugees and migrants without any refuge.
Conditions improved but “basic”
Greek authorities responded to the crisis by setting up the current camp that the Pope will visit; it currently hosts some 2,300 people. Anastasia says the situation has improved since it first opened but “remain basic. Most people are living in containers but some continue to live in tents,” she explains. But cooking and hygienic facilities are in short supply.
Yet “the situation has improved over 1 year ago, and even over 2-3 years ago,” Anastasia observes. “People have been living in these conditions for a very long period of time.”
According to Anastasia, some 60% of the asylum seekers come from Afghanistan, but there are also migrants from Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. Entire families have arrived, as well as single men and single women. “At the moment,” she notes, “there are about 900 single women and about 45 single-family units – so, single women with children.” Besides the need to improve their living conditions, the refugees and migrants also need to “proceed with the asylum process as soon as possible,” Anastasia stresses.
Members of the Church, organizers, aid workers and the refugees are all excited about the Pope’s arrival: “It’s an opportunity for them to share their experiences and discuss with a person who has shown that the main priority is to bring people together and to develop connections between all the people regardless of their background, religion, nationality and characteristics,” says Anastasia.
The Pope’s visit “is very important for us, particularly given the refugee situation of the moment.” Currently, the situation does not appear to be in the spotlight, she observes. “We definitely believe that it should remain a focus because migration is an ongoing issue. It is not going to stop, especially given the circumstances of the moment. Movement is going to increase in coming years.”
Given our experience over the last few years, we believe that it is vital to focus on the issues that bring us together, Anastasia emphasizes. And “as Pope Francis has put it himself, it is an opportunity for our own response which must be articulated in four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.” In carrying out its work every day, Caritas Hellas does its best to apply these in its mission, stresses Anastasia, “and it is important that Greece and Europe as a whole also focus on those four verbs.”
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