"Refugees aren't numbers," pope says as he leaves for Greece's Lesbos

Pope Francis issued a call against indifference towards the plight of refugees, as he left Saturday for a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, one of the flashpoints in Europe's migration crisis.

"Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such," Francis wrote on Twitter.

The pontiff was due to arrive in Lesbos at 10:20 am (0720 GMT) and visit a "hotspot," one of the controversial migrant sorting centres backed by the European Union that separates those with legitimate asylum claims from others who need to be repatriated.

The Moria hotspot facility in Lesbos is instrumental to a new EU-Turkey migrant-swapping deal denounced by humanitarian groups, and a Catholic volunteer on the site told Vatican Radio he hoped the pope would join in the criticism.

"I hope he may talk also perhaps about the injustice of the deportations,” Leonard Meachim, who works on the Greek island for the Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Services charity organization, said in a Friday interview.

Orthodox church leader, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronymos, were due to accompany the pope on the Greek island, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived from Turkey over the past months. More than 4,000 are currently there, the government reports.

After visiting Moria and sitting down for lunch with some refugees, the three men were due to meet the local population at the port, and each say prayers and throw laurel wreaths in the sea to commemorate the migrants who have died on their risky journeys.

Francis is an outspoken champion of migrant rights.

His first visit outside the Vatican, in 2013, was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, another landing point for migrants and refugees bound for Europe. A year later he told the European Parliament: "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast graveyard."

At least 732 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year as they tried to flee poverty and violence, the International Organization for Migration said Friday.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49
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