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In Greece, the pope demands the world focus on the plight of asylum-seekers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Pope Francis was in Greece over the weekend. There, he demanded that the world focus on asylum-seekers. He said that migrants have to endure racism, persecution and death as they seek refuge in Europe. But the West is indifferent, the pope said. Joanna Kakissis has more from Athens.

(CHEERING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Cheers and tears erupted when Pope Francis arrived on a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. He squeezed hands and hugged children. He spoke to a little boy from Afghanistan.

POPE FRANCIS: What's your name?

MUSTAFA: Mustafa.

FRANCIS: Mustafa?

MUSTAFA: Mustafa (non-English language spoken).

FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

KAKISSIS: "I'm here to see your faces and look into your eyes," Pope Francis said later during a speech on the island. "Your eyes that have seen violence and poverty, eyes streaked by too many tears." The pontiff last visited Lesbos in 2016 when it was the main gateway into Europe for hundreds of thousands fleeing war and persecution.

FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

KAKISSIS: He said that very little had changed since then and that the world is now living behind walls and barbed wire.

FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Let us stop ignoring reality, stop constantly shifting responsibility, stop passing off the issue of migration to others as if it mattered to no one and was only a pointless burden to be shouldered by somebody else.

KAKISSIS: The European Union has failed to adopt a workable asylum policy since 2015. That's when more than a million migrants arrived in Europe, most of them from Syria. Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch blames a vocal, anti-immigrant minority in several European countries for the failed policies.

JUDITH SUNDERLAND: And so we're seeing these really distressing practices, you know, pushbacks and allowing people to drown in the English Channel, allowing them to drown in the central Mediterranean, in the Aegean Sea.

KAKISSIS: The EU is also proposing the suspension of protections for asylum-seekers trying to enter Poland from Belarus. Several have died in the frozen woods on the border between the two countries.

SUNDERLAND: So given that context, to have Pope Francis continue to raise his voice, I think, is incredibly important.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Last week, when Francis visited a church on the island nation of Cyprus, he lamented so many migrants still face exploitation, and the worst thing, he added, is that we have all gotten used to it. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "WHO LIVED HERE?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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