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European migrant crisis draws global attention, papal visit

As controversy mounts over the EU’s deal with Turkey to deport migrants in Greece back over the Aegean Sea, world leaders are focusing their attention on the refugee crisis: Pope Francis is due to visit the island of Lesbos Saturday to inspect the camps in which migrants are being detained. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how Greece is preparing for the Pontiff’s visit.

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    Speaking of the pope, he is due to head to the Greek island of Lesbos tomorrow to see for himself the extent of the refugee crisis.

    He plans to visit a detention camp where some of the migrants are being held, pending possible deportation. That's according to terms of a deal signed last month between the European Union and Turkey.

    So, just how important is this visit?

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Lesbos.


    Another day of uncertainty begins on an island that once offered hope to hundreds of thousands seeking security, protection or prosperity.

    But the estimated 4,000 migrants currently stranded on Lesbos worry that their foothold in Europe is more tenuous than ever. This island is now a place of despair. Human rights groups regard it as an open prison for people desperate to avoid being sent back across the stretch of water that claimed so many lives.

    George Kosmopoulos of Amnesty International:

  • GEORGE KOSMOPOULOS, Director, Amnesty International Greece:

    We hope that the visit of the pope will highlight both the solidarity, the great solidarity shown by the Greek people and people from all over the world to refugees in Lesbos, in Mytilini, but also will shed some light additionally to the problems, to the big problems with regards the implementation of the E.U.-Turkey deal, in the rushed attempt of Greece to proceed with a deal that is both dangerous and illegal, in our view.


    In preparation for the pope's visit, they were whitewashing the walls of the detention camp and covering up graffiti expressing support for the migrants.

    Whenever dignitaries come to look at the refugee crisis for themselves, the Greek authorities do what they can to sanitize the situation. When actress and U.N. Refugee Agency special envoy Angelina Jolie visited, the razor wire for the detention center was conveniently taken down and put straight up as soon as she left.

    In the run-up to the pope's visit, all deportations to Turkey have stopped. But I'm told by sources at the E.U.'s border agency, Frontex, that they will resume early next week.

    Human rights advocates are highly critical of conditions in this so-called hot spot, where asylum-seekers are supposed to be processed. The police weren't keen on us getting too close.

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    Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch was also prevented from entering, but interviewed people through the fence.

    Her organization and others believe the detentions are arbitrary and unjust.

  • EVA COSSE, Human Rights Watch:

    What's wrong? First, there are large, large numbers of vulnerable groups being detained there.

    We interviewed families with young children, people with disabilities, people with mental health problems, pregnant women who are really suffering inside there, because there are no services. Since the implementation of the E.U.-Turkey deal, NGOs withdrew from the detention facilities, in line with their policies not to work in closed facilities. So there is a big lack of services for those people.


    An alarm goes off at the phone recharging center at another, more relaxed and better-equipped refugee camp. It's the Muslim call to prayer.

    Sitting nearby is Murteza Hasainzada, a tailor from Kabul. Having spent $10,000, he arrived in Lesbos after Europe made it clear through the deal with Turkey that it was no longer wide-open to all comers. He's not too sure what the pope can do, but he will take any help that will stop him from being deported.


    I don't want to go back. I say, until they open the borders, I am — stay here, and I don't want to go back.


    The same unwillingness to accept the new reality is evident in a conversation between a visiting Danish politician and a Palestinian asylum-seeker, Yousef Hammad, who fled Gaza after being jailed for six months by the radical Hamas government. He also arrived in Lesbos after Europe pulled down the shutters.

  • YOUSEF HAMMAD, Refugee:

    I don't like to think about the situation about going back, maybe, like, stay here just good.


    The Danish politician, former center-left Interior Minister Morten Ostergaard, is concerned that asylum-seekers' rights under international law are possibly being breached, but doubts whether Pope Francis is the catalyst for change.

  • MORTEN OSTERGAARD, Leader, Radicale Party, Denmark:

    At least what I think that the pope can do is perhaps shed a bit of hope in the people who are desperate. But, politically, it's up to people like me and the political leaders in the European Union to make a difference. We can't let — leave that to the pope.


    And this is Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, who was instrumental in inviting the pope to draw attention to the plight of the refugees and the islanders' burden.


    It is a visit of enormous symbolic importance. And we hope that all governments will follow the pope's lead and finally move in the right direction for all the peoples of Europe.


    On a religious level, the pope's visit is fraught with difficulties. The Catholic and Orthodox churches split cataclysmically 1,000 years ago, and are still unable to resolve differences.

    There are some forces within orthodoxy that are seeking reconciliation, but leading theologian Panayotis Tsagaris is skeptical.

    PANAYOTIS TSAGARIS, General Secretary, Panhellenic Union of Theologians (through interpreter): We consider that the pope's visit is little more than a public relations exercise which will not provide any real solution to the refugee problem facing not only my island and country, but also extending to Europe.


    The fraught history between the two churches has even led some ultra-conservative religious leaders to call the papal mission a stab in the back. One archbishop expressed concern that hiding among the migrants are Islamic extremists on a mission to undermine Europe and its traditions.

    But on the waterfront in Greece's main port, Piraeus, their Orthodox Church is demonstrating its willingness to reach across the religious divide. Every day, the church's charity, Apostoli, distributes 1,000 meals to asylum-seekers living rough on the harbor.

    Spokeswoman Despina Katsivelaki rejects the Islamophobic wing of orthodoxy.

  • DESPINA KATSIVELAKI, International Orthodox Christian Charities (through interpreter):

    We help human beings, regardless of their race, religion, color, nationality. That's what we do. That's our role and aim, and that's what we try to succeed in doing.


    Although the islanders are desperate for the human tide to diminish, there's profound empathy for people escaping conflict and trying to improve themselves, because Greeks have a similar history.

    Father Athanasios Giousmas is the chief priest at the Exquisite Church in Mytilini, Lesbos' main town.

  • FATHER ATHANASIOS GIOUSMAS (through interpreter):

    This is why we have such mixed feelings within ourselves, not only pain for these refugees, but also agony about what is likely to happen generally, and in this country, together with disgust — and forgive me for saying so — but disgust, not only for the world leaders, but also those here in Greece.


    Despite misgivings about the E.U.-Turkey accord, it seems to be working as its deal-makers intended. The numbers of arrivals are substantially down.

    Spanish lifeguards have returned from patrols empty-handed for nearly two weeks. The Turks are either upholding their end of the bargain, or the boats are being intercepted by the E.U. border agency.

    The big question is, will the despair on Lesbos filter back down the migrant trail and deter the throng, or will they find new routes to reach their goal?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.


    And there will be more on the pope's visit to Lesbos on "PBS NewsHour Weekend," right here on most of these PBS stations.

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