Pope Francis will travel to Lesbos on Sunday to meet asylum seekers at a migrant camp there, on his second visit to the Greek island that was at the fore of Europe’s refugee crisis.
Francis is on a five-day visit to Cyprus and Greece, during which he highlights the struggles of refugees and migrants, an issue that has become a cornerstone of his papacy.
On his last trip to Lesbos in 2016, at the height of Europe’s migration crisis, Francis walked through the squid and dangerously overcrowded Moria camp and famously brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome with him.
Moria, at its worst point the size of a city of 20,000 people, burned down last year after symbolizing Europe’s stumbling response to a crisis that left most of the burden borne by small islands such as Lesbos.
On Sunday, Pope will visit a makeshift camp that was hurriedly set up after the fire, in an old army firing range, home to some 2,300 Afghan asylum seekers.
Dozens of police officers were stationed inside and migrants queued to enter the tent where the Pope was to speak.
“The issue of migration cannot disproportionately affect countries on EU borders,” Migration Minister Notice Mitarachi said on Sunday.
Greece, like other Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain and Cyprus, has long been a gateway to the European Union for people fleeing war, poverty or oppression in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
While the number of people moving from Turkey to Greece has dropped dramatically in recent years, the government, fearing a possible wave of refugees from Taliban-conquered Afghanistan, is tightening its migration policy. Public attitudes towards migrants have also become increasingly hostile.
Greece has come under fire from rights groups for building “prison-like” closed holding centers for migrants and stopping migrant boats at sea on five islands close to Turkey, including Lesbos.
Before the Pope’s visit, about two dozen asylum-seekers, some of whom have been in limbo on Lesbos for years, gathered for Mass in a small Roman Catholic church.
“We hope that with this visit, maybe something can change,” said Landrid, a 42-year-old man who fled the separatist insurgency in Cameroon.