UNHCR chief lauds Pope's solidarity with refugees
Filippo Grandi hails "powerful demonstration of solidarity" as Pope Francis returns to Rome from Greece with three Syrian refugee families.
LESVOS, Greece, April 16 (UNHCR) - The UN Refugee Agency welcomes the Pope's demonstration of solidarity with the world's refugees today on his visit to the Greek island of Lesvos and by offering a home to three Syrian families.
Pope Francis travelled back to Rome from Lesvos on Saturday (April 16) with 12 Syrians, including three women, three men and six children aged from four to 14 years of age. Two families are from the capital, Damascus, and one from the city of Deir ez-Zor.
The Vatican is sponsoring the group's move to Rome and ensuring a home for the refugees who had arrived on Lesvos on March 18, and had been waiting for relocation to another European country.
The Syrian families arrived just days before the EU-Turkey agreement came into force on March 20, to stem the large-scale arrival or refugees and migrants to Greece and beyond into Europe.
"The Pope's latest gesture is a powerful demonstration of solidarity. It must inspire governments and societies in a world where the desperate plight of record numbers of forcibly displaced is too often met by barriers, rejection and fear," said United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
War, conflict and persecution have forced around 60 million people worldwide to run for their lives, the largest number since World War II. Nearly 20 million of these are refugees and more than half are children.
The conflict in Syria is the main driver of this global crisis, forcing more than 4.8 million Syrians to become refugees in its neighbouring countries alone, with more seeking safety further afield.
The Pope visited refugees and migrants at a centre in Moria, Lesvos, and greeted children, women, and men who had fled war and human rights violations. At least two refugees broke down in tears as they approached the Pontiff to get his blessing.
During the visit, Pope Francis together with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece called on world leaders to respond with courage in facing this massive humanitarian crisis and its underlying causes, and to provide protection and long term solutions for refugees fleeing war and violence.
UNHCR has long been calling for countries around the world to take in a greater share of refugees from the world's largest humanitarian crisis, and to provide safe and organized ways for Syrians to find safety in third countries, including in Europe.
Last month, the agency hosted a high-level meeting in Geneva calling on governments to provide new 'pathways' for legal entry to the countries, including boosted resettlement, private sponsorship, family reunification and work and study visas.
UNHCR is aiming for 480,000 places to be available in the next few years, representing 10 per cent of the current registered refugee population of 4.8 million in the countries neighbouring Syria. The UN Refugee Agency is also calling on EU governments to increase and quicken the pace of relocation of refugees from Greece to EU member states.
So far, only 2,958 relocation places have been pledged by EU member states despite EU commitments to relocate 66,400 persons from Greece, and only 615 persons have been transferred to EU countries under the relocation scheme.
By Boris Cheshirkov in Lesvos, Greece