Cyprus calls for EU rethink on Syria migration as refugee numbers rise


Nicosia (Reuters) – As record numbers of Syrian refugees reach the shores of Cyprus, the Nicosia government wants the European Union to consider declaring parts of their war-torn homeland safe to repatriate them to, the Cypriot interior minister said.

“Starting a discussion to re-evaluate the issue of Syria is crucial for us,” Minister Constantinos Ioannou told Reuters in an interview.

The foreign ministry was preparing to raise the matter formally with Brussels, he added.

Amid growing conflict in the Middle East, the Mediterranean island is bracing for a further influx of refugees and asylum-seekers, further straining resources, he said.

“We have five times more migrants than any other frontline member state,” Ioannou said. Data shows most are from Syria.

Cyprus has said it is expanding its capacity to host refugees but it wants its EU partners to revaluate its 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 this year which said two Syrian governates – Damascus and Tartous – were assessed 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. Although the conflict has now settled into a stalemate, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in control of most of the country, refugees keep leaving.

Cyprus became a migrant hotspot after the Turkish springboard to the Greek islands closed in a 2016 EU deal with Ankara.

Asylum applications in Cyprus peaked at around 21,565 in 2022, the highest since records began in 2002. Cyprus saw 1,043 Syrians arrive by boat in October, a three-fold increase on last year. In November, it recorded 795 arrivals, almost triple that of Nov. 2022.

Part of the surge is down to the anomaly on Cyprus itself. From 2019 to 2022, the island became the frontline of a new migrant route from Africa, when thousands entered the unrecognised Turkish Cypriot north on student visas, and were then smuggled through a ceasefire line to the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot south.

That backdoor has been virtually sealed by tightened security along a 180-km “green line”, bringing overall arrivals down by two-thirds this year. But authorities worry that with one door shut, another might open.

Authorities say arrivals of Syrian refugees is gathering pace. In calm seas, it can take a small fishing boat 18-20 hours to get from Lebanon to Cyprus.

“In the last two years there has been a dramatic increase, with its peak since August this year,” said Superintendent B’ Ioannis Artemiou, head of the port and marine police unit of Famagusta.

Migrants frequently come ashore at the jutting outcrop of Cape Greco in the east of Cyprus, traversing the 100 mile (185 km) distance from Syria or Lebanon.

Ioannou said Cyprus was in close contact with Lebanon, which had intercepted “a lot” of vessels. Cyprus has offered Lebanon technical assistance and joint patrols and believes the EU should offer its neighbour more direct assistance, he said.

He also floated the idea of “safe zones” outside the EU where asylum requests could be examined. Italy, he said, has already announced a plan to build centres in Albania.

The European Commission did not reply to a request for comment.

In Geneva on Wednesday, the United Nations refugee chief told an international forum on refugees that the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza could spur more displacement in the wider region.

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