VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, will visit the Greek island of Lesbos next week to highlight the plight of refugees, the Greek government said, as refugees and other migrants are being deported back to Turkey under the European Union’s controversial program to ease Europe’s migrant problem.
Under the EU’s deal with Turkey reached last month, those arriving on Greek islands from March 20 onwards who do not apply for asylum in Greece or whose application is rejected or deemed inadmissible will be deported back to Turkey. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, another Syrian there will be relocated to a European country.
But after the initial return of 202 people Monday from the islands of Lesbos and Chios, most of the roughly 4,000 people earmarked for deportation were submitting asylum applications, leading to delays in the system.
No deportations were carried out Tuesday, and a Turkish interior ministry official said no further returns were expected until Friday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has been outspoken about Europe’s moral obligation to welcome refugees and his visit to Greece will likely embarrass EU leaders already under fire from human rights groups over the deportations.
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, the decision-making body of the Greek church, said Francis had asked to come to highlight the plight of refugees. It said the request had been accepted and the island of Lesbos suggested, adding it had also extended an invitation to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, to visit the island on the same day.
The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate confirmed Bartholomew would visit the island.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Tuesday that no decision had been made but in an email to The Associated Press he said “I don’t deny that there are contacts about a possible trip.”
The Greek government issued a note saying the pope and patriarch would be visiting Lesbos on April 14-15 along with Athens Archbishop Ieronymos, and that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would join them.
Francis has made the plight of migrants a priority of his three-year pontificate, insisting in particular that Europe and other countries open their doors and hearts to people fleeing persecution and poverty.
He told the Vatican’s diplomatic corps in January that Europe had the means to welcome refugees without compromising its security or culture and that the continent bore the “moral responsibility” to care for others who have fled their homes to seek a better life.
Europe’s deal with Turkey has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups and aid organizations, who accuse European countries of ignoring their commitments to protect vulnerable refugees.
Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe director at Human Rights Watch, said Monday that trying to close the Aegean migration route by shipping people “back to uncertain fates in Turkey” would just make them seek potentially more dangerous and expensive ways to reach the EU.
“This whole deal involves throwing human beings down legal loopholes,” she said. “Turkey is not a safe country, and rights on paper are not the same as rights in practice.”
The deal and its accompanied closing of land borders to migrants have also led to more than 52,000 people being stranded in Greece.
European officials have billed the deal as the only way to deter people from risking the dangerous if brief sea journey from the Turkish coast to Greek islands.
Maria Stavropoulou, director of Greece’s Asylum Service, told state TV that some 3,000 people held in deportation camps on the islands are seeking asylum, with the application process to formally start by the end of the week.
Asylum applications typically take about three months to process, she said, but would be “considerably faster” for those held in detention.
“There will be a difficult few months ahead,” Stavropoulou said. “We are dealing with people who speak 70 different languages and many have traveled to Greece without papers because they are escaping war.”
Only 30 of 400 migration officers from other EU countries have arrived in Greece so far, Stavropoulou said, while additional locally hired staff would take “several months” to train and integrate into the Asylum Service.