The small Mediterranean island of Cyprus has an outsized problem with irregular migration, says the interior minister of the EU member state located closest to the Middle East.
“For us, this is a state of emergency,” Nicos Nouris told AFP, adding that 4.6% of the country’s population now are asylum seekers or beneficiaries of protection, the highest ratio in the EU.
The Greek Cypriot minister accused Turkey, whose troops have since 1974 occupied the island’s northern third, of encouraging much of the influx of Syrian refugees and arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa.
Rights groups and observers have criticised Cyprus for squalid conditions in its overcrowded main migrant camp, which was rocked by clashes this month, and for alleged brutal treatment of some arrivals.
But Nouris shot back that “brutal is what Turkey has been doing to us” as new asylum applications had multiplied to over 13,000 last year in the country of 850,000.
“The migration issue in Cyprus is a huge problem because it’s been instrumentalised by Turkey,” the minister from the conservative Democratic Rally party charged.
The Republic of Cyrus remains sharply at odds with Turkey, which under a deal with the EU hosts millions of Syrian refugees, and which contests potential offshore oil and gas reserves claimed by Cyprus.
Nouris charged that every day some 60 to 80 irregular migrants, guided by smugglers, cross the UN-patrolled 184-kilometre long Green Line that dissects the island, with 85% of asylum seekers last year having arrived in this way.
‘Trapped on island’
The top country of origin for pending asylum applications in 2021 remained Syria, but next came Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Somalia, according to the ministry.
Many of the newcomers, Nouris said, fly via Istanbul to the northern breakaway statelet recognised only by Ankara. “From there, with the smugglers, they find a way through the Green Line.”
It is only once they have crossed south that many discover they are not inside the European Union’s visa-free Schengen area.
“They are trapped on the island,” said Nouris. “They cannot travel to Germany or to France, where they want to go, because Cyprus is not a member of the Schengen zone.”
Cyprus stresses that the Green Line is not a border but merely the ceasefire line, beyond which lie “areas not under government control”.
Nonetheless, said Nouris, his government — having recently fortified one section of the line with razor wire — will soon build fencing, step up patrols and, from the summer, install an Israeli-made surveillance system.
The head of EU border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, is due to visit Cyprus Wednesday (16 February), the minister said.
Nouris said Cyprus would like Frontex to patrol waters south of Turkey, “from where every night, especially during summertime, we had illegal departures of migrants” — but he acknowledged that this would require Ankara’s approval.
Migrant camp violence
Cyprus is also asking the EU to expand the list of so-called safe countries of origin for migrants, and to strike deals to facilitate repatriations.
Nicosia recently sent back more than 250 Vietnamese migrants on a special flight, and cooperated with Belgium to repatriate 17 Congolese.
A joint flight with Germany is planned for 8 March to take 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 heavy-handed methods against migrants, including pushing back asylum seekers at sea.
Nouris insisted that “Cyprus has never, never made a pushback” but had exercised its right to intercept boats, which were usually escorted to Lebanon.
A flashpoint site of the Cyprus migration issue has been the Pournara reception centre outside Nicosia, where tents and prefabricated structures initially set up for several hundred people now house around 2,500.
Tensions exploded last week into violence involving Nigerian, Congolese and Somali men, leaving dozens injured. Police were also searching for a 15-year-old boy accused of stabbing a 17-year-old.
The incident proved that Cyprus needs EU “solidarity” and assistance, said Nouris.
“In a place that is overcrowded with so many people, and especially so many nationalities, it’s something that was expected,” he said.