NICOSIA – Cyprus wants the European Union to declare parts of war-torn Syria safe enough for refugees fleeing to the island to be returned to their homeland for repatriation and reduce the numbers who keep coming.”
“Starting a discussion to re-evaluate the issue of Syria is crucial for us,” Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou told Reuters in an interview, adding that the issue would be raised with EU officials in Brussels.
With Israel’s war with Hamas and invasion of the Gaza Strip adding to the worry about Palestinians fleeing – and with Israelis welcome on the Greek-Cypriot side, there’s concern Cyprus could see more refugees and migrants wanting to come.
“We have five times more migrants than any other frontline member state,” in the 27 countries of the EU, Ioannou said. Data shows most are from Syria and Cyprus wants the EU to reevaluate its asylum policies.
Ioannou said this included starting a discussion on the status of Syria and whether it is safe for refugees to return there, as well as better support for Lebanon, which hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees.
He cited a report by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) in February which said two Syrian governates – Damascus and Tartous – to have “no real risk for a civilian to be personally affected by indiscriminate violence”.
More than 5 million people are estimated to have fled Syria during more than a decade of civil war, with most going to Lebanon and Turkey, which they use as a jumping off point to get mostly to Greek islands and cross the land border.
The Syrian civil war is in a stalemate but President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in control of most of the country and refugees keep leaving, many trying to reach Greek islands on boats supplied by human smugglers, drownings frequent.
BOATS ACROSS THE WATER
The EU and Turkey struck a swap deal in 2016 which has essentially been suspended and Turkey is letting traffickers keep sending more to Greece, especially five islands near Turkey’s coast.
Asylum applications in Cyprus peaked at around 21,565 in 2022 when health restrictions were lifted with the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing more refugees and migrants trying to get into Greece.
Cyprus saw 1,043 Syrians arrive by boat in October, a 300 percent increase over 2022 and November another 759 came, almost triple that of the same month in 2022, the autumn generally seeing fewer attempts.
Cyprus also from 2019-22 has seen more refugees and migrants arriving from Africa, many crossing the dividing line border from the Turkish-Cypriot occupied north where they first went on student visas and smuggled across the line.
Security has been significantly tightened on the so-called Green Line where they are legal border crossings along its 180 kilometer (111.84 mile) length separating the Greek and Turkish sides.
Authorities told the news agency that more Syrians are set to keep coming as in calm seas they can get to Cyprus in about 20 hours from Lebanon, another jumping-off point for them.
“In the last two years there has been a dramatic increase, with its peak since August this year,” Superintendent B’ Ioannis Artemiou, head of the port and marine police unit of Famagusta told Reuters.
Migrants frequently come ashore at the jutting outcrop of Cape Greco in the east of Cyprus, following a 100-mile traversing the 100 mile (161 kilometers) distance from Syria or Lebanon.
Ioannou said Cyprus was in close contact with Lebanon, which had intercepted vessels and that Lebanon was offered technical assistance and joint patrols and believes the EU should offer its neighbor more direct assistance, he said.
He also suggested the idea of “safe zone” outside the EU where asylum requests could be examined. Italy, he said, has already announced a plan to build centers in Albania, which hopes to get into the EU.
Source : The National Herald