(AFP) – Pope Francis will travel to the Greek island of Lesbos on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis next week, Greece announced Tuesday, as a controversial EU accord to send migrants back to Turkey stalled.
The trip by the pope, who will be accompanied by the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, is likely to pile pressure on European leaders already criticised for the deal with Turkey, which aims to defuse Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II by curbing the influx of people.
“The Greek government will welcome Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as valuable defenders of support to refugees, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will go with (them) to the island of Lesbos,” a government source in Athens said, adding the trip would happen on April 14 or 15.
News of the visit came as a last-minute rush of asylum applications stalled operations to return migrants from Greece to Turkey under a deal signed in March.
The holiday island of Lesbos has served as a major gateway for refugees and other migrants hoping to start new lives in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of people sailing there in flimsy boats from the nearby Turkish coast over the past year.
The Greek Orthodox Church earlier said it had approved plans for a papal visit to Lesbos after Francis expressed a desire to “shed light on the major humanitarian problem” of the migrant influx.
The pope has previously spoken out on the migrant crisis, using his recent Easter address to criticise the “rejection” of refugees.
– Hunger strike –
The process of returning migrants to Turkey has been slowed “by an increase in asylum requests” in the last few days on Lesbos and another Aegean island — Chios, said Greek migration spokesman Yiorgos Kyritsis.
A Turkish official said the next transfer of migrants “has been postponed to Friday” at Greece’s request.
All “irregular migrants” arriving in Greece since March 20 face being sent back, although the EU 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 have now applied for asylum, Kyritsis said. Greece on Monday expelled 202 migrants under the deal.
Tensions were running high among migrants on the Greek islands.
On Samos, less than two kilometres (one mile) by sea from Turkey, Ali, a Pakistani, told AFP by phone that 100 migrants had gone on hunger strike.
“We risk our lives to come here, we don’t want to go back to Turkey because they are going to send us back to Pakistan. We don’t want to apply for asylum in Greece, we want to go to Germany,” he said.
– Fears for deported –
EU border agency Frontex described the first deportation operation on Monday as “very calm” and “orderly”, but on Tuesday the UN’s refugee agency said some of those sent back may not have had access to proper asylum procedures.
“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.
Under last month’s deal, for every Syrian refugee returned, another Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the European Union, with numbers capped at 72,000.
The idea is to discourage Syrians from making their way to Europe via the dangerous Aegean crossing.
The numbers have dropped since the deal came into force, with hundreds landing on the Greek islands per day as opposed to thousands.
This — along with a series of border closures further up the migrant route — has had a knock-on effect on arrivals into northern Europe.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Tuesday that his country could lift its temporary border controls brought in last year to stem the flow by mid-May if the arrivals continue to dwindle.
Critics of the March 18 deal include Amnesty International, which says Turkey is not a safe country for refugees — a charge Ankara rejects.
More than a million people arrived in Europe in 2015, many of them from war-ravaged Syria.