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Will The Pope's Focus On Migrants Change The International Debate?


Let's head back to Greece now. We want to hear more in the aftermath of Pope Francis's visit to the island of Lesbos yesterday. His visit made headlines after he invited three families of Syrian refugees to return to Rome with him.

That move may be one of the pope's most poignant efforts to call attention to Europe's ongoing migration crisis, a crisis that hits Greece particularly hard as it is the point of entry to the European Union for tens of thousands of people fleeing war and civil strife.

Joanna Kakissis has been covering the crisis throughout, and she's with us on the line now from Athens. Joanna, thanks so much for joining us.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: You just returned, actually, from the island of Lesbos. On the program yesterday, we heard from our colleague, Sylvia Poggioli, about what an emotional visit this was for the pope. So I'd like to ask you - what was the reaction in Greece to his visit?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, the pope told refugees at the main migrant camp on Lesbos that they are not alone. And the Greeks felt like, you know, that he was speaking to them, too, just by being on that island. They see him as an ally. And that's really critical right now because, you know, many Greeks feel like the European Union is not their ally, and they're a member state.

Historically, Catholic countries like Poland and Hungary have really hammered on Greece for failing to keep refugees out of Europe, and the pope has pull in those countries. You know, taking in 12 Muslim refugees sends a really strong message to those countries' leaders because they refuse to take in migrants and they've used very strongly xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric against them.

So the Greeks, you know, welcomed that the pope took in those 12 Syrians because right now, there are more than 52,000 migrants in Greece living in terrible conditions because the country doesn't have resources to help them and the EU isn't offering help to them, even though Greece is an EU member state.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you more about that. Could you just tell us more about the situation in Lesbos? And tell us, how does this fit into the bigger issue of what's happening on the Greek islands right now?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, Lesbos used to be kind of like the Ellis Island of Europe. More than half of the hundreds of thousands, nearly a million, refugees who passed into Europe last year through the Aegean route passed through Lesbos. Now Lesbos is essentially a detention camp. The migrants who've arrived after March 20 are kept in this fenced-in center and they can't leave, and the EU's focus now is to deport people.

And there are other Greek islands like Ios, like Samos, like Kos. Now the focus is on whoever lands on those islands, they have to be deported because the EU wants to put up this wall. So the Greek islands are feeling that, and Lesbos is especially affected because Lesbos really wanted to welcome refugees. This is an island that has roots - the people are descended from refugees from Turkey a century ago.

MARTIN: But what about the rest of Greece? A lot of people might remember that the country has been struggling with tremendous economic problems for some time now, really a depression. So how has the country been coping with taking care of migrants on top of that?

KAKISSIS: So far, it's been coping quite well. But, you know, that's a big question that the Greek government doesn't have answers to right now because the resources are not there. And taking care of more than 52,000 people when you have no resources and no assistance from the European Union, who has forced this policy that's resulted in border closures, there's very little that you can do.

And Greece doesn't want to be this - the prime minister once called it a warehouse of souls. It doesn't want to turn into that for migrants who have arrived in Europe because the Greek government also has to take care of Greeks, who are still facing 25 percent unemployment and a deep economic depression that's in its sixth year.

MARTIN: So, Joanna, just a final thought - what is the status quo for migrants in Greece right now? I mean, how would you describe it?

KAKISSIS: Well, those who've arrived before March 20, before the EU and Turkey decided on this - essentially this deportation deal, they're stuck here. And they have essentially two choices. They can apply for asylum in Greece and then possibly apply for a relocation program that could take months to a year to even two years to get through - and this relocation program would send them to another European Union country - or they can go home.

I mean, it's a depressing place right now if you go to camps in Greece and you talk to people who've completely lost hope because they know that their choices are either go home, stay in this country where there are no jobs, and that's it.

MARTIN: That's reporter Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Joanna, thank you for speaking with us.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.