Catholic Church groups are pleading for a “united Europe of humanity” in the face of the refugee tragedy on Greece’s land and sea borders.

– “Refugees are being used as a tool”

A 6-year-old Syrian boy who drowned when a boat full of refugees heading to a Greek island capsized March 2 and a Syrian man trying to enter Europe who was shot and killed near Turkey’s land border with Greece have become just the latest casualties of the situation of absolute chaos that has followed Turkey’s decision to open its borders to refugees and push them on to the EU.

March 4 Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades to deter migrants crossing over the border, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised to keep up the pressure on the EU until it provides an extra 3 billion euros in aid to refugees on top of the 5 billion Turkey has already received to that end.

“What is tricky is that they [Syrian refugees] are being used as a tool”, Father Emanuel Youkhana, priest of the Assyrian Church of the East and director of the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq for Syrian refugees, told CNS.

“It’s a very clear game by Erdoğan.

“Of the refugees we are seeing on TV trying to reach Greece, the majority of them are not Syrians, but Afghans, Iraqis, etc.

“Erdogan claims Syrian refugees, but he is pushing and facilitating even for non-Syrians to flee to Greece. It is really terrible”, Youkhana denounced.

– A third of the migrants are children

Meanwhile, Superior General of the Scalabrinian Missionaries Sister Neusa de Fatima Mariano denounced to the Fides agency that a third of the estimated 12,500 migrants stranded on the Turkey-Greece are children.

“It is the sign of how the international crisis is becoming stronger, and how often families allow their most precious things to leave, their children, because there is no hope for adults.

“It is a fact that must make us think and that must put governments, including the Greek one, before the evidence that these are people who need help”, Mariano said.

The situation is no better for refugees on the Greek islands, where about 10,000 of the 40,000 people migrants trapped are also minors, the religious deplored.

“I hope that European countries will not forget, in this moment of crisis dictated by an epidemic affecting many countries of the world, the role they must necessarily play in protecting migrants”, the nun decried.

– Cardinal Hollerich: “You can’t just let people sit there in need”

But the migrant crises on both Greece’s land and sea borders shows no sign of letting up, with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis holding firm that “this is no longer a refugee problem” but “a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda”.

That’s one of the reasons why Catholic Church campaigns all throughout Europe are heating up in order to take some of the pressure off Greece and in the face of the EU’s inability to come to an agreement with Turkey.

Andrea Riccardi, head of Italian Church group Sant’Egidio, met March 3 with French President Emmanuel Macron to explore, among other issues, the possibility of opening “humanitarian corridors” to France for refugees trapped in Greece, Turkey and Syria.

The Bishops of Switzerland, who have expressed their “deep concern” over the situation in Greece, are also supporting humanitarian corridors for refugees to their country, which are currently being negotiated by Mario Gattiker, Swiss State Secretary for Migration.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and President of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, has also backed the idea of safe passage for refugees to Luxembourg in particular and to Europe more generally.

“You can’t just let people sit there in need”, Hollerich said today to the German edition of Vatican News.

The cardinal praised the announcement by Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn that ten unaccompanied minors would be admitted to Luxembourg from the Greek islands, but criticised the “hypocritical” attitude of the EU, which has blasted US President Donald Trump’s moves to tighten border controls with Mexico but then carries out the same policy on the border with Turkey.

“I can understand that the EU wants to isolate itself from the flow of refugees, but I consider closing the borders to be a dangerous trend”, Hollerich warned, adding that “I have big problems when the European Union speaks of the great values ​​of the European Union, which then only apply internally and no longer externally”.

Also criticising the EU to its failure to properly address the migrant situation on the Greek land and sea borders has been Catholic relief, development and social service agency Caritas Europa, which in a statement March 4 demanded a “swift and humane reaction from Brussels to the Greece-Turkey refugee tragedy.

Caritas also added its voice to a call from over 60 European civil society organisations, including the European branch of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), to urgently relocate unaccompanied migrant children from the Greek islands.

Children on the islands “are deprived of access to their most basic rights such as shelter, water, food, medical and psychosocial care, as well as education”, Caritas, the ICMC and the other NGOs warned in their appeal.

“If each EU Member State relocated just 70 unaccompanied children, these children would no longer be homeless and living in inhumane conditions on the Greek islands”, the groups urged.

– Full text of the statement of Caritas Europa: “Appalling and desperate” situation in Greece

Migrants should not be seen as a security threat; they are individuals in a vulnerable situation who need our help.

In response to the latest dramatic developments at the Greek-Turkish border, Caritas Europa calls for a united Europe of dignity and humanity to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable.

The appalling and desperate events of the past days at the border between Turkey and the EU demand a swift and humane reaction on the part of the upcoming extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council and the EU Foreign Affairs meetings.

Consequently, Caritas Europa calls on the EU and its Member States to urgently find a humane and dignified solution to the dramatic humanitarian situation that is now unfolding at Greece’s external border, both on the islands and in the mainland, after Turkey opened its external border towards the EU.

People trying to reach Europe in search of protection should be treated with dignity and respect, and never be greeted with tear gas, guns or hatred. Europe must champion values like humanity and solidarity, which are at the core of the founding of the EU.

Maria Nyman, Secretary General of Caritas Europa

Focusing exclusively on border controls results in the criminalisation of people on the move and fuels irrational panic.

The EU and its Member States must come up with a strong collective plan to provide humanitarian support for the thousands of people, including families, women and children, who have fled wars, persecution and hunger and who are now stuck at the EU’s external border.

We cannot accept children dying when trying to reach the safety of the EU. And we cannot watch passively when our coast guards attack and push back migrants on-board a dinghy in difficulty, trying to reach dry land, as has happened in Greece this week.

In the words of Pope Francis, we must tackle the ‘globalisation of indifference’. Europe must own up to its responsibilities and founding values.

In addition, Europe must show solidarity towards Greece and asylum seekers left in limbo, especially on the Greek islands. EU States should urgently relocate asylum seekers, starting with the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied minors.

We are reiterating this call with 64 other European civil society organisations, which further stresses the urgency of the inhumane situation.

According to UNHCR, 40,000 migrants are cramped in official camps on the Greek islands, which are designed to accommodate only 6,000 people. Thousands more are living in makeshift camps without any access to services or healthcare. Frustration is rising among the migrant population left in limbo and the islanders who feel abandoned by the Greek authorities and the rest of Europe. This has led to several demonstrations, increased tensions, violence and racism towards migrants.

An increasingly toxic atmosphere towards NGOs and volunteers supporting migrants has also led to several attacks.

Similarly to UNHCR, Caritas urges all parties to refrain from using violence against migrants and the NGOs rescuing and supporting them. We strongly condemn the restrictions applied to accessing asylum and refoulement that are taking place in Greece and along the Turkish border.

Acknowledging that the current situation is connected to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the neighbouring countries, it is all the more imperative that the EU does not turn a blind eye; instead, it should step up its diplomatic efforts to broker an end to the war in Syria and provide humanitarian support to the newly displaced persons in the region of Idlib.

Let us not forget that over 12 million people have been displaced by repression and violence in Syria since 2011. It is high time that these people receive some humanity and peace.

As the EU-Turkey deal is about to reach its 4-year ‘anniversary’ on 18 March, these dramatic events confirm that this deal is not – nor ever was – a sustainable measure to respond to the increasing number of people in need of protection.

The EU and its Member States cannot keep on externalising their asylum and migration policies to neighbouring countries like Turkey or Libya.

Instead, they should design humane policies that are anchored in EU values, such as solidarity and responsibility sharing, and that fully comply with fundamental rights.

Let us learn from our mistakes of failing to devise sustainable solutions to human mobility and recognise the need to implement long-term, comprehensive policies that address the drivers of forced migration.

– Full text of the joint call to action to the EU to relocate unaccompanied children on the Greek islands

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(Source: Caritas Europa)

Novena’s coverage of the Turkey-Greece migrant crisis:

Church groups, NGOs warn EU over Turkey-Greece migrant crisis: “This game, played by the powerful, is putting human lives at risk”

Greek Church deplores migrant pincer on Turkey border as Catholic support for refugees floods in from Europe

Jesuit Refugee Service denounces “wicked” EU refugee deal with Turkey “has condemned millions to misery, despair and death”

Angelus 1/3: Pope Francis “saddened… so many chased away by war” as Greece blocks at border 10,000 Syrian refugees


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.