By George Psyllides
The authorities have started processing requests from some 340 refugees rescued from a fishing trawler last week, as Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos reiterated they had not entered Cyprus illegally and they can be afforded temporary visitor status and leave the country if they wanted.
The minister’s comments came as police arrested five more people suspected of being part of the operation that attempted to smuggle the refugees from Syria to Italy.
So far, police have arrested nine people and have issued an international arrest warrant for the alleged mastermind, believed to be in Syria.
Reports suggested the suspects were part of a people smuggling ring operating in the region.
Refugees said they paid as much as $6,000 per head for the trip.
The 337 refugees can also apply for asylum but it appeared on Tuesday that only a handful would do so. Most want to go to Italy and from then on to other EU countries including Sweden and Holland.
“These people are not illegal and can – through an application to the Republic – be afforded visitor status for one, two, or three months, and during this time they can leave the country if they so wish,” Hasikos said.
Those applying for asylum would be moved from Kokkinotrimithia to a reception centre in Kofinou.
They had been asked on Monday to put their requests on paper.
“Today we will assess these one by one,” the minister said.
Some cases will be more difficult than others as the refugees did not have any documents.
There was also the issue with the unaccompanied children. The minister said they will be put up in a place suitable for minors where they will receive proper care.
“Our services are in a position to respond to all cases,” he said.
Hasikos said there has been no communication with Syrian authorities because the reason these people left the country was because they were afraid.
“We are obliged to respect their fears and their desire to remain anonymous,” he said.
Red Cross director Takis Neophytou suggested that all refugees should be transferred to Kofinou irrespective of their status.
He said Kofinou had better facilities and a capacity to house 400 people.
Red Cross people work around the clock at Kokkinotrimithia to cover the refugees’ basic needs.
Neophytou said the Syrians felt grateful for the hospitality and their rescue and apologised for the trouble they caused.
“We are talking about people who, in their majority, are educated, well off, they have arrived with certain ambitions and plans to go to Europe through Italy,” he said. “They are concerned about what would happen to them and they do not want to stay in Cyprus.”
By George Psyllides