The European Union must urgently reconsider its controversial deal to repatriate migrants to Turkey, a Catholic bishops’ commission has declared just days ahead of the Pope’s one-day visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The effective closure of the Greek border to migrants will result in more people embarking on perilous crossings from Africa and falling prey to gangs of people smugglers and other criminals, it was claimed.
The COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, said the EU needed to reappraise the deal in the context of the fundamental human rights of the migrants and their families.
“COMECE would wish to add its voice to those requesting a fresh look at the EU’s arrangements with Turkey,” said Fr Patrick Daly, the commission’s general secretary.
“We would plead that the dignity of human beings, their fundamental rights, including the right to seek protection, the humane treatment, the best interests of children, the ‘non-refoulement’ obligation and the right to family life, be respected under all circumstances,” he said.
“The insufficient safe and legal ways to enter the European Union in search of protection forces asylum seekers and migrants to rely on smugglers, thus in danger of falling easy prey to traffickers in human beings and other criminals,” he continued.
“Thousands of them have already died in their dangerous journey in the Mediterranean Sea,” Fr Daly added.
The EU deal was struck with Turkey in an attempt to halt a huge flow of migrants from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia which resulted in more than a million people last year arriving in Germany alone.
The arrangement involved Turkey receiving £4 billion from the EU, the right for 77 million Turkish citizens to travel unchecked through Europe under the Schengen agreement, and a guarantee that the wish of Turkey for EU membership will be granted.
In exchange, Turkey agreed to accept the return of any migrant not registering for asylum in Greece.
The deal went into effect on March 20 and came a month after the closure of the Macedonian border which prevented migrants from travelling north overland to the wealthy industrialised parts of the continent.
Pope Francis will make a one-day trip to Lesbos on Saturday in a show a solidarity with the migrants encamped there and will be joined by Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, Primate of the Church of Greece.
Fr Daly said the Pope’s visit, made in an ecumenical context, was a “humanitarian gesture of extraordinary significance” and a “benchmark moment in Europe’s outreach to our suffering migrant brothers and sisters”.
“At the very outset of his pontificate, in visiting the rocky Italian outpost of Lampedusa, Pope Francis displayed his concern for those many migrants who put their lives at risk in order to seek refuge in Europe,” he said.
“The fate of migrants and asylum seekers has long been a central concern of COMECE and we repeatedly saluted the way in which the Holy Father, in word and deed, has drawn attention to the plight of those fleeing the dangers and suffering of war and violence and/or desperate poverty in their home countries to reach a better life in Europe.”
On Wednesday, Pope Francis used his General Audience to ask the Church to pray for the success of his visit to Lesbos.
Because of the EU deal with Turkey, the number of migrants entering Greece has dropped dramatically from 6,000 a day in October to under 60 a day during April.
The Catholic Church, however, is among those concerned that the closure of Europe’s south-eastern border will shift the humanitarian crisis elsewhere.
Earlier this week, some 4,000 migrants – mostly Africans – were rescued from boats in the Mediterranean as they attempted to cross from Libya to Italy.
About 20,000 migrants have already made the crossing this year and at least 300,000 more are expected to attempt it in the months ahead.
The 185-mile crossing is the most lethal of the migrant routes with one drowning per 54 successful voyages compared to one drowning for every 893 successful crossing by boat from Greece to Turkey.