Cypriot minister blames Turkey for ’emergency’ migration

Nicosia (AFP) – The small Mediterranean island of Cyprus has an outsized problem of irregular migration, says the interior minister of the EU member state closest to the Middle East.

“For us, it’s a state of emergency,” Nicos Nouris told AFP, adding that 4.6% of the country’s population are now asylum seekers or beneficiaries of protection, the rate the highest in the EU.

The Greek Cypriot minister accused Turkey, whose troops have occupied the northern third of the island since 1974, of encouraging much of the influx of Syrian refugees and arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa.

Rights groups and observers have criticized Cyprus for squalid conditions at its overcrowded main migrant camp, which has been rocked by clashes this month, and for the alleged brutal treatment of some arrivals.

But Nouris countered that “what Turkey has done to us is brutal” as new asylum applications soared to more than 13,000 last year in the country of 850,000.

“The migration issue in Cyprus is a huge problem because it has been exploited by Turkey,” accused the minister of the conservative Democratic Rally party.

Migrants at the center of Pournara, in Kokkinotrimithia, about twenty kilometers from the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on November 22, 2021 Amir MAKAR AFP/Archive

The Republic of Cyrus remains strongly at odds with Turkey, which under an agreement with the EU is hosting millions of Syrian refugees, and which disputes the potential offshore oil and gas reserves claimed by Cyprus.

Nouris accused some 60-80 irregular migrants, guided by smugglers, crossing the 184-kilometre (114-mile) long UN-patrolled Green Line every day that dissects the island, 85% of asylum seekers the last year having arrived in this way. .

“Imprisoned on the Island”

The top country of origin for pending asylum applications in 2021 remained Syria, followed by Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Somalia, according to the ministry.

Cyprus
Cyprus Paz PIZARRO, Aude GENETAFP

Many of the new arrivals, Nouris said, fly via Istanbul to the small northern breakaway state recognized only by Ankara. “From there, together with the smugglers, they find a way through the Green Line.”

It’s only once they’ve crossed south that many find they’re not inside the European Union visa-free Schengen area.

“They’re trapped on the island,” Nouris said. “They cannot go to Germany or France, where they want to go, because Cyprus is not part of the Schengen area.”

Cyprus stresses that the Green Line is not a border but simply the ceasefire line, beyond which are “areas which are not under government control“.

Nonetheless, Nouris said, his government – having recently fortified a section of the line with barbed wire – will soon build fences, step up patrols and, starting in the summer, install an Israeli-made surveillance system.

A UN peacekeeper in the long-abandoned village of Variseia (Varisha) in the buffer zone separating the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied north, January 27, 2022
A UN peacekeeper in the long-abandoned village of Variseia (Varisha) in the buffer zone separating the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied north, January 27, 2022 Mario GOLDMAN AFP/File

The head of the European border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, is due to travel to Cyprus on Wednesday, the minister said.

Nouris said Cyprus would like Frontex to patrol the waters south of Turkey, “from where every night, especially during the summer, we have illegal departures of migrants”, but he acknowledged that this would require approval from Ankara.

Violence in migrant camps

Cyprus is also asking the EU to expand the list of so-called safe countries of origin for migrants and to conclude agreements to facilitate repatriation.

Nicosia recently returned more than 250 Vietnamese migrants on a special flight and cooperated with Belgium to repatriate 17 Congolese.

Nouris accused Turkey, whose troops have occupied the northern third of the island since 1974, of orchestrating much of the influx of Syrian refugees and arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa, some of whom are smuggled to across the UN patrolled green line dividing the island.
Nouris accused Turkey, whose troops have occupied the northern third of the island since 1974, of orchestrating much of the influx of Syrian refugees and arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa, some of whom are smuggled to across the UN patrolled green line dividing the island. Amir MAKAR AFP/Archive

A joint flight with Germany is scheduled for March 8 to bring back a group of Pakistanis, Nouris said, in what would be a “forced” rather than voluntary return.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have accused Cyprus of sometimes brutal methods against migrants, including pushing asylum seekers back at sea.

Nouris insisted that “Cyprus has never, ever done a pushback”, but had exercised its right to intercept boats, which were usually escorted to Lebanon.

The Pournara reception center outside Nicosia, where tents and prefabricated structures initially set up for several hundred people now house around 2,500, is a hotspot for the Cypriot migration issue.

Syrian refugees sit near an empty swimming pool in the Saint Nicolas residential complex, where around 700 refugees live, in the Cypriot village of Chloraka in the Paphos district on January 31, 2022
Syrian refugees sit near an empty swimming pool in the Saint Nicolas residential complex, where around 700 refugees live, in the Cypriot village of Chloraka in the Paphos district on January 31, 2022 Christina ASSIAFP/File

Tensions exploded into violence last week involving Nigerian, Congolese and Somali men, leaving dozens injured. Police were also looking for a 15-year-old boy accused of stabbing a 17-year-old.

The incident proved that Cyprus needed “solidarity” and help from the EU, Nouris said.

“In a crowded place with so many people, and especially so many nationalities, it was something that was expected,” he said.

Sharon P. Juarez