Only six of the 339 refugees rescued from a boat off the island’s coast two weeks ago have applied for asylum in Cyprus, the UNHCR said on Monday.
“Most of them are reluctant to do so out of fear that their application for asylum in Cyprus will remove their reunification prospects with family in other EU member states,” said an announcement from the UNHCR. It said others are concerned that by lodging an asylum claim they would be unable to bring their family members left behind in Syria because of the restrictive family reunification policies in Cyprus.
Speaking to one of the refugees identified as Ahmet, the UNHCR said the 55 year-old Palestinian refugee and a successful football coach in Syria said he had no choice but to flee.
“I was born in Homs and I wanted to live there until the end,” he said. “But this vicious war left us no other choice but to leave all behind…”
Three weeks ago Ahmet with his wife, daughter and son sailed on a flimsy boat from Syria to Italy. “For the sake of my children’s future we had to take the risk,” he said and explained that he had to pay the smuggler eight thousand US dollars for each member of his family to embark on the perilous journey.
“I’ve never done anything illegal in my whole life, but there was no other solution…”. Italy was the promised destination. From there, it would have been easy to move on to Germany ten easy to move on to Germany to unify with their brothers and two eldest sons – at least this is what the family was led to believe.
But smugglers abandoned the fishing boat off the coast of Cyprus. He is now staying with his family in a tent at a refugee camp near Nicosia, which was set up to host temporarily the 339 survivors; children, women and men, all Palestinian and Syrian refugees.
The UNHCR said that like Ahmet, many others were aiming to reach family members in other European countries. “I put myself in the death boat to see my children,” says a 50- year old Palestinian lady. “We are grateful to the Cypriot authorities that saved us but we need to live with our families.”
Others without family members in other European countries were also adamant to make their way to other European countries, led by the hope of a better education and future for their children.
The relief they initially felt when they were saved was substituted by disappointment and anxiety for their future.
The UNHCR and its partners said they have been advising the survivors to apply for asylum in Cyprus, as their only viable safe alternative. “Attempting to travel in other countries of Europe through irregular channels will only endanger their lives further, as numbers indicate,” it said. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 3,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean in 2014 alone.
The UNHCR has circulated a comprehensive information leaflet at the camp to assist refugees to reach an informed decision. It explains the rights associated with applying for asylum and the consequences if they don’t apply; the circumstances under which they can join family members in other European countries as well as family reunification in Cyprus.