Pope urges compassion toward migrants in Lesbos, but doesn’t openly condemn Greek pushback

During a multi-day trip to the Eastern Mediterranean, Pope Francis on Sunday returned to the Greek island of Lesbos, which he first visited five years ago. As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, the pope highlighted the plight of asylum seekers and castigated Europe over its treatment of refugees and migrants during his most recent trip.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As part of a multiday trip to the Eastern Mediterranean, Pope Francis yesterday returned to the Greek island of Lesbos, a major hub for migrants which he first visited five years ago.

    As Malcolm Brabant reports, the pope sought to highlight the plight of asylum seekers and castigated Europe over its treatment of refugees.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Pope Francis returned to the front-line island of Lesbos at a time when Europe is doing its utmost to keep asylum seekers out.

    Six years into the refugee crisis, European politicians' attitudes towards migrants range from indifference to outright hostility. Among world leaders, the pope offers a rare compassionate voice.

    Pope Francis, Leader of Catholic Church (through translator): I am here to see your faces and look into your eyes, eyes full of fear and expectancy, eyes that have seen violence and poverty, eyes streaked by too many tears.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This footage from the Turkish Coast Guard is part of a growing body of evidence supporting accusations that for, more than a year, Greece's center-right government has been breaching international law at sea.

    The Turks, together with the U.N.'s Refugee Agency and independent nonprofits, allege that Greece is routinely pushing back migrants into Turkish territorial waters and putting them at risk.

    Pope Francis didn't directly address the issue of pushbacks, but his message was unmistakable.

  • Pope Francis (through translator):

    It is easy to stir up public opinion by instilling fear of others. Let us not hastily turn away from the shocking pictures of their tiny bodies lying lifeless on the beaches.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Panayote Dimitras is a veteran human rights activist who is suing the Greek government over pushbacks.

    What do you think of what the pope had to say?

  • Panayote Dimitras, Greek Helsinki Monitor:

    His speech was extremely strong and an implicit criticism, first of all, of the Greek government and also the European governments in general about the inhumane policy towards migrants and asylum seekers.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Some pro-refugee nonprofits were disappointed that, in his meeting with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the pope did not directly condemn the practice of pushbacks.

    Last month at a joint press conference with Dutch premier, Mark Rutte, Mitsotakis faced his most vehement criticism to date.

  • Ingeborg Beugel, Dutch Journalist:

    Prime Minister Mitsotakis, when at last will you stop lying, lying about pushbacks, lying about what's happening with the refugees in Greece?

    Please don't insult mine and neither the intelligence of all the journalists in the world. There has been overwhelming evidence. And you keep denying and lying.

  • Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek Prime Minister:

    What I will not accept is that, in this office, you will insult me or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that are not supported by material facts, when this country has been dealing with a migration crisis of unprecedented intensity, has been saving hundreds, if not thousands of people at sea.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Were you disappointed that the pope didn't mention pushbacks? Or wasn't it his place to do that?

  • Panayote Dimitras:

    It was his place, but he is a head of state. So he had to be diplomatic there to be able to focus or have people focus on all the things he said, as opposed to creating a backlash that: How dare he mention something that the Greek government outrightly rejects?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Do you think the Greek government is going to take any notice of what he had to say, or is it just going to continue with its policy?

  • Panayote Dimitras:

    Well, listen, the Greek government is not taking notice of the European Parliament and the European Commission.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    So it's doubtful the pope persuaded Mitsotakis to soften his stance.

  • Kyriakos Mitsotakis:

    We are doing this every single day, rescuing people at sea, while, at the same time, yes, we are intercepting boats that come from Turkey, as we have the right to do, in accordance with European regulation, and waiting for the Turkish Coast Guard to come and pick them up to return them to Turkey.

    So, rather putting the blame on Greece, you should put the blame on those who have been instrumentalizing migration systematically.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    While the pope may have been diplomatic, analysts are sure images like these helped to shape his speech.

  • Pope Francis (through translator):

    The Mediterranean, which for millennia has brought different peoples and distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones. This great basin of water, the cradle of so many civilizations, now looks like a mirror of death.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The pope's words may not move Europe's politicians, but they stirred Tango Mukaya from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Tango Mukaya, Congolese Asylum Seeker (through translator):

    I'd like to thank you for the solidarity and the humanity that you showed to us, your children, migrants, refugees who are in Lesbos, in Greece, and elsewhere in the whole world. May God acknowledge your actions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    No sooner had the pope left Lesbos than the regional governor said he hoped the papal visit would not lead to a new influx of migrants.

    The reality here is that there is no political appetite for making life any easier for asylum seekers, for fear of encouraging more.

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

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