Pope set to visit refugees in Greece as expulsions stall

4 min

Athens (AFP)

Pope Francis has expressed a wish to visit refugees in Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church said Tuesday, as the European Union grapples with a controversial accord to send migrants back to Turkey.

The papal trip would likely pile pressure on EU leaders already criticised for the deal, which aims to defuse Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II by curbing the influx of people.

The Greek Orthodox Church said it had approved plans for a papal visit to Lesbos island after the pope expressed a desire to "draw the attention of the international community to the need for an immediate ceasefire in the conflicts" in the Middle East.

The pontiff also wished to "shed light on the major humanitarian problem" of the migrant influx, the statement said, adding that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, had been invited on the same day.

The statement did not give a date for the trip but the religious news website Dogma said it could be April 15.

The pope has previously spoken out on the migrant crisis, using his recent Easter address to criticise the "rejection" of refugees.

More than a million people arrived in Europe in 2015, many of them from war-ravaged Syria.

- Operations stalled -

News of the papal visit came as a last-minute rush of asylum applications stalled operations to return migrants from Greece to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal signed in March, although officials said the forced returns would continue Wednesday.

The procedure has been slowed "by an increase in asylum requests" in the last few days by migrants on Chios and Lesbos, the Greek Aegean islands in the front line of the migratory wave, said Greek official Yiorgos Kyritsis.

Kyritsis, the spokesman for the Greek government panel coordinating the migration crisis, said no operations were planned for Tuesday, but a Turkish official said around 200 more migrants would be received on Wednesday in the Turkish harbour town of Dikili on the Aegean sea.

The source in the governor's office of Izmir province on the Aegean coast did not give details on the logistics or the nationalities of the migrants who were to be returned.

All "irregular migrants" arriving in Greece since March 20 face being sent back, although the deal calls for each case to be examined individually.

Out of around 6,000 migrants who arrived on Chios and Lesbos after the March 20 deadline, more than 2,300 had applied for asylum, Kyritsis said. Greece on Monday expelled 202 migrants under the deal.

- Fears for deported -

The EU border agency Frontex said Monday's returns had taken place in a "very calm... orderly" operation, but on Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) raised fears for some of those deported.

"We are concerned that 13 people, most of them Afghans, who expressed the wish to request asylum were unable to be registered in time," the UNHCR's representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, told AFP.

The UNHCR is checking with the Turkish authorities to see if the 13 request asylum protection, Leclerc said.

Under the deal, for every Syrian refugee returned, another Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with numbers capped at 72,000.

The Netherlands on Tuesday took in 31 refugees arriving from Turkey as part of the controversial EU deal.

"All I can say is that these are vulnerable people, notably due to health problems," Janet Takens, a spokeswoman for the Dutch justice ministry told AFP, giving no details on names or nationalities.

The idea is to encourage Syrians seeking to flee to Europe to stay safely in Turkey, with the prospect of asylum, rather than try to make the dangerous sea crossing in the hands of ruthless smugglers.

Under the one-for-one part of the deal, Germany on Monday accepted 32 asylum-seekers from Turkish soil, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will also next week inaugurate a centre for Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Kilis built with EU funds, the Turkish premier said.

Critics of the March 18 deal include Amnesty International, which says Turkey is not a safe country for refugees -- a charge Ankara rejects.