By Linda Bordoni
On the 4th anniversary of Pope Francis’ visit to the Greek island of Lesbos where he met with migrants and refugees in the Moria detention centre, European Union Bishops released a statement calling for the relocation of asylum seekers on the continent to minimise the risks posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In its appeal, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), reminds EU member states that “human dignity is not in quarantine.”
It asks them “to show generosity” in accepting the relocation of refugees steeped in crowded centers and camps, in order to minimize the risk of new coronavirus infections among them and to provide adequate health treatment to those already infected.
Pope’s call to EU leaders
The appeal comes on the heels of the Pope’s Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi message in which he encouraged political leaders to “work actively for the common good,” and specifically spoke about “the EU facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world”.
According to the latest UNHCR figures, some 39,200 refugees and asylum seekers are held in detention centres on the Aegean islands awaiting asylum status in EU countries. The majority of them come from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. 23% of them are women and children.
Refugees amongst the most vulnerable populations
The Bishops point out that the coronavirus pandemic is strongly impacting societies from across the world, but say “it shows its darkest face when it comes to vulnerable populations, among them refugees who are living in overcrowded centres and settlements, with limited or even no access to adequate health services”.
“We are in our homes, afraid. I also think of the most vulnerable: how it must feel for those who are in refugee camps, who have nothing, not even medicine for the seasonal flu”, said COMECE President, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, in a recent interview.
COMECE notes that considering the lethal consequences that a Covid-19 outbreak would have in a refugee camp, international humanitarian agencies as well as Caritas Europa, have welcomed the relocation of a number of children in the past days.
In a press release on Thursday, Caritas Europa said it "welcomes the relocation of 12 unaccompanied children from the Greek islands by Luxembourg and 50 by Germany, where the national Caritas organisations are ready and pleased to support with reception. Now is time for the other EU Member States to show solidarity and to deliver on their promises to relocate refugee children. Caritas remains available to help in welcoming."
It continues to call for further release of the remaining migrant children and their families and those detained without a sufficient legal basis. Germany has said it will relocate 50 more children in the upcoming days.
The situation in Moira camp
However, the Bishops reiterate the need to relocate asylum seekers from the Greek islands because the situation there is particularly dramatic with around 20,000 people steeped in Moira camp, on the island of Lesbos, whose facilities are designed to accommodate only 3,000 asylum seekers.
The dramatic situation on the Greek islands is also due to the recent adoption of a controversial emergency degree suspending asylum procedures for one month, and the bishops remind politicians that the EU’s Schengen Border Code specifically states that measures to manage risks to public health in case of a pandemic may not prevent people from seeking asylum.
Thus, COMECE recalls the importance of respecting international legal obligations of asylum seekers and their families and encourages EU member states to show solidarity towards them, in particular in this context of the coronavirus pandemic.
COMECE is composed of Bishops delegated by the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the 27 Member States of the European Union, and in accordance with its mission, it monitors the political process of the European Union in all areas of interest to the Church.