First boats carrying people from Greece to Turkey arrive as part of controversial deal to stem flow of people to Europe.
Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos, the Greek island on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis for people seeking to reach Western Europe on boats from Turkey.
Francis, who took off from Rome’s Fiumicino airport at 05:20 GMT on Saturday, arrived on the island at about 07:00 GMT for a visit expected to last five hours.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants have arrived in Lesbos in recent months on flimsy boats, while hundreds have died on the way.
In a move bound to turn the spotlight on Europe’s controversial deal with Turkey to end the unprecedented refugee crisis, Francis was due to visit a processing centre.
The EU-Turkey deal as well as the processing centre have been criticised by rights groups, who claim refugees in Lesbos have been treated in a way that breaches basic human rights.
Francis’ stay will also include lunch with a handful of refugees in one of the adapted containers used to accommodate them, hearing their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe.
‘Father, bless me’
Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from Lesbos, said the refugees told their stories to Francis, with many of them describing the processing centre “a prison”.
“One male adult refugee broke down before the pope and said ‘Father, bless me’,” he said.
“The Vatican insists that the visit is of humanitarian nature, not political. However, Greek media reports say he offered to take eight Syrian refugees back to Vatican.”
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos.
The refugees were detained and brought to shore in the main port of Mytilene.
Municipal crews had scrubbed the walls of the port after graffiti reading “Papa Don’t Preach” was sprayed in black at several points on the seafront in Mytilene.
The Vatican insists Francis’ visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political or a “direct” criticism of the EU plan.