What happened during the Pope’s trip to Greece

Credit…Petros Giannakouris / Associated press

The last time Pope Francis visited Lesvos, in 2016, he found misery and despair in Moria, one of the largest refugee camps in Europe at the time.

The island had become a main landing point as a vast migration was underway, with hundreds of thousands of migrants, desperate to live in Europe, arriving in Greece.

During the Pope’s moving visit at the time, the children presented him with drawings. One showed children drowning in the sea. The other showed the sun crying.

“Children have these things in mind, and it will be a while before these memories are gone,” he said. “If the sun can cry, so can we. A tear will do us good.

In the years following his visit, the situation worsened. The camp’s population grew to 20,000 and it became notorious for what volunteers described as a mental health crisis. Refugees lined up for a day for food, dozens shared a single toilet, and incidents of violence, including sexual assault, increased.

Amid dire living conditions and restrictions imposed by the pandemic, some of the migrants set the camp on fire in September last year, destroying the facility and leaving the 12,000 people homeless, most of them Afghans, who lived there.

Today, only around 2,000 migrants live on Lesvos in what Greek government officials describe as vastly improved conditions. But for groups supporting migrants on the island, the emptier camp symbolizes a new era of migration to Europe – one of tighter border security, tighter deterrence tactics, and negotiations with neighboring countries to prevent migrants from coming.

“Their plan was to make a camp more beautiful, but it is still not at the level of the living conditions that people should have access to,” said Marion Bouchetel, a lawyer at the Lesvos Legal Center, which provides legal support to the asylum seekers.

After many migrants have been transferred to other camps, granted asylum or repatriated, only a temporary camp remains, called Mavrovouni. And while the government notes that migrants receive three meals a day, sleep in metal containers, and have access to medical, legal and psychological assistance, local activists point to damaging conditions such as insufficient shelter from rain and snow. cold, and restrictions on asylum. movements of researchers.

As the Pope arrived in Mavrovouni on Sunday, a look inside one of his prefabricated buildings revealed that it was uninhabited, empty except for the bunk bed frames. But many were excited.

At container 345, Wais Rostami, a 25-year-old Afghan, came out with his 2-year-old son, who was born in the camp. Mr Rostami had left Kabul, where he claimed to be a police officer, two years ago, but said his asylum application had been refused twice.

He said he didn’t know much about the Pope and that he hoped the return of the Taliban to control Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan would persuade the authorities to let him stay in the European Union.

“I am waiting,” he said.

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