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Migrants in spotlight for pope’s eastern Mediterranean trip

Pope Francis hopes to refocus the world's attention on an unresolved migrant crisis, which has become one of his highest priorities

Since becoming the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has sought to hammer home his philosophy on migrants: “Welcome, protect, promote, integrate.”

In returning to the Greek island of Lesbos this week, Pope Francis hopes to refocus the world’s attention on an unresolved migrant crisis, which has become one of his highest priorities.

The pontiff used his weekly Angelus prayer on Sunday to express his pain over the recent drowning of 27 migrants in the English Channel and those blocked in desperate conditions at the border between Belarus and Poland.

In a video message a day earlier, he said the Mediterranean had become a “huge cemetery” for migrants, deploring that refugees in Europe receive not “hospitality but hostility and even exploitation.”

The pope, himself from a family of Italians who settled in Argentina, has since the beginning of his mandate in 2013 advocated welcoming thousands of “brothers and sisters,” whether for religious, economic or political reasons.

On December 5, Francis is set to return to Lesbos, where in 2016 he made the unprecedented move of bringing back on his plane three Syrian Muslim families whose homes had been bombed.

He may repeat the gesture in Cyprus.

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According to the Cypriot government, negotiations are under way with the Vatican to organize the transfer to Rome of migrant families now on the Mediterranean island.

The pope’s latest appeal comes as France and Britain trade barbs following the Channel tragedy and while thousands of people mass at the Belarusian border in a desperate bid to enter the EU.

Pope Francis intends to “remind all of Europe in a strong way that it has a common responsibility, linked to the humanist and Christian roots of the continent,” said Roberto Zuccolini, spokesman for Italy’s lay Catholic association Sant’Egidio.

Since 2016, the group has led efforts to bring about 4,000 refugees to Europe, notably from Greece and Syria.

‘Cannot remain passive’

“Europe has been unable to come up with a united response” to the arrival of migrants at its shores and borders, Zuccolini told AFP.

While some countries have hoped to ignore the problem, others, including Poland, have decided to build a wall, he said.

Vatican observer Marco Politi said the pope “is convinced that the issue of migrants is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.”

“For him, there is a moral responsibility on the part of countries. We cannot remain passive in the face of this reality,” he said.

Unlike the pope’s 2016 visit, however, Pope Francis’s appeal is “likely to have less resonance” as post-pandemic economic and social recovery preoccupies Western European public opinion, Politi added.

Although the number of migrant crossings is far below its 2015 peak, nearly 1,600 people have gone missing or drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year according to United Nations statistics as of November 30.

On Tuesday, 36 NGOs requested a meeting with Francis to inform him of migrants’ living conditions in Greece. NGOs have denounced the Greek government’s alleged mistreatment of migrants and slow processing of asylum applications.

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