NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Pope Francis arrived in Cyprus on Thursday to draw attention to the plight of migrants on Europe’s borders and the disconnect between his Gospel-driven call for countries to welcome and integrate them and front-line governments that are increasingly unwilling or unable to let them in.
The eastern Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has seen such a spike in migrant arrivals this year — a 38% increase in the first 10 months compared to all of last year — that it has formally asked the European Commission to let it stop processing asylum claims altogether.
Francis is expected to raise the migration question — and Cyprus’ nearly half-century ethnic division — on the first leg of his five-day trip. The visit will also take him to Greece, where he will return to the eastern island of Lesbos. Francis made headlines there in 2016 when he brought a dozen Syrian migrants home with him from a refugee camp there.
The pontiff was formally greeted on his arrival by Cyprus’ Parliamentary Speaker Annita Demetriou — the country’s first woman to hold the post. He stopped to speak to some of the 30 Catholic schoolchildren clutching Cypriot flags and chanting “We love you” and “Welcome to Cyprus,” who lined the red carpet leading to the airport terminal building.
In a sign of the importance of migrants for the trip, Francis met with a group of asylum-seekers at the Vatican and another group near Rome’s airport before boarding for Cyprus. The Vatican said some had been part of the group who accompanied Francis to Rome from Lesbos in 2016.
Francis is arranging a similar transfer this time around: Around 50 migrants in Cyprus have been identified for transfer to Italy, though they won’t join him on the plane home but will be resettled in coming weeks, Cypriot officials say. And the Vatican hasn’t ruled out that some more migrants from Lesbos might be relocated to Italy as well following Francis’ visit.
“It was like a gift,” said one of the Syrian migrants who come to Italy after Francis’ 2016 visit to Lesbos, Malak Abo. Now, Abo works at a donation center run by the Catholic Sant’Egidio charity group in Rome that helped facilitate his 2016 transfer.
In war-divided Nicosia, Francis will immediately come face-to-face with the reality of the island’s ethnic cleave, which is also helping to fuel its migration influx. Francis will be staying in the Vatican nunciature, or embassy, which is located in the United Nations-controlled buffer zone that divides the Greek Cypriot south from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the north. U.N.-led efforts to resume reunification talks are proceeding at a snail pace amid a Greek Cypriot rejection of Turkish Cypriot call for a two-state deal.
Around 80% of all migrants in Cyprus first arrive in the north and then cross the porous U.N. buffer zone to seek asylum in the internationally recognized south, which is a member of the European Union. The Cypriot government claims that Turkey systematically sends asylum-seekers to the north so that they then pressure the island’s southern government.
Among the possible candidates for transfer to Italy after the pope’s visit are Grace Enjei and Daniel Ejuba, two Cameroonian asylum-seekers who crossed from the north about six months ago and got stuck in the buffer zone, where they have been living in a tent ever since.
“If help can come from anywhere, I will grab it,” Enjei said on the eve of Francis’ arrival. “And if I’m given the opportunity to like, make a choice, of course, anywhere in Europe will be OK.”
She and Ejuba said they paid hundreds of euros to someone in the north who showed them the way to cross through the U.N. line six months ago. They would face deportation if they returned to the north, but have been blocked from crossing into the south amid Cyprus’ crackdown on migrants, which has recently included a 27.5 million-euro ($31.8 million) deal with Israel for a camera system to monitor the 180-kilometer-long (110-mile-long) buffer zone.
Despite the precarious life they are living in a tent on the U.N. green line, Grace says remaining in southern Cameroon wasn’t an option: Her home was burned down and random shootings and violence made her flee.
“I don’t regret leaving home. I don’t,” she said. “Even in my present situation, I still don’t regret it.”
Francis has made the plight of migrants a hallmark of his papacy, making his first trip outside Rome as pope to the island of Lampedusa, the destination of choice for Libyan-based migrant smugglers. He has since prayed at the U.S.-Mexican border, toured a refugee camp in Bethlehem and met with Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.
In a message this week marking the International Organization of Migration’s 70th anniversary, Francis insisted that refugees are people deserving of dignity and denounced how their desperation is exploited, a message he has repeated in reference to the standoff at the EU’s border with Belarus.
“The debate on migration is not really about migrants,” Francis said. “Even more regrettable is the fact that migrants are increasingly being used as bargaining chips, as pawns on a chessboard, victims of political rivalries.”
Francis is also meeting with the Orthodox leaders in both Cyprus and Greece, as well as the small local Catholic communities in each country.
The visit comes amid new pandemic travel bans across much of the world due to the omicron coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa.
The pope, who turns 85 on Dec. 17 and has only part of one lung, is fully vaccinated but generally eschews face masks. Asked what if any precautions had been taken to protect him and others during the trip, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said “prudence” as well as prevailing health pass requirements that are in place in most of Europe.
Asked if the pope and Vatican delegation had received booster shots, Bruni said “I would presume” anyone traveling on the papal plane who wanted one could get one.
Cyprus has in recent weeks seen a spike in daily COVID-19 infections, which on Thursday prompted authorities to mandate PCR tests for all arriving passengers as of next week, on top of compulsory mask-wearing and weekly testing for schoolkids over 6 as well as the cancellation of all Christmas events.
Menelaos Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus.
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