Cyprus Mail
Cyprus

UK and Cyprus in refugee dispute

Some of the 114 migrants and refugees who arrived at Akrotiri

By Evie Andreou

The arrival of 114 Middle Eastern migrants at Akrotiri earlier this week is testing a 2003 accord between Cyprus and the UK as to which jurisdiction is ultimately responsible for refugees arriving on British Sovereign Base Area (SBA) territory.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the British bases said that the 2003 memorandum ensures “that Cypriot authorities take responsibility in circumstances like this” and that “we are working positively and cooperatively with the republic of Cyprus authorities to manage the situation.”

But a Cypriot foreign ministry official told The Associated Press on Thursday the agreement does not obligate Cyprus to accept asylum seekers arriving on the British Bases, whether their applications are accepted or not.

“For us it’s clear that responsibility lies with the British bases and the British government,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He said the agreement states that Cyprus must help British authorities screen, identify and house asylum seekers until their applications are examined, a process that could take weeks, if not months.

Moreover, Britain must cover the costs of processing and housing asylum seekers according to the deal, the official told the AP.

What is clear is that Britain “will endeavour to resettle people recognised as refugees in countries willing to accept them” within one year of their application’s approval, the official said.

This interpretation of the agreement was backed up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which in a statement said the 2003 UK-Cyprus memorandum made it clear that “asylum seekers arriving directly on to the SBA are the responsibility of the UK but they would be granted access to services in the republic at cost to the SBA.”

British authorities are concerned that its bases on the island could be used by traffickers as a back door to the UK for refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and other migrants.

The refugees, 28 children, 19 women and 67 men, were spotted by fishermen in the early morning hours of Wednesday The two boats were later located by the coastguard and they anchored at Lady’s Mile, at Cape Gata, which is located within the British Sovereign Base Areas (SBA). They spent the night at the Akrotiri base, where they were given food, clothing, and medical care.

The status of the migrant arrivals on the British bases was not immediately clear.

The next steps in the handling of the 114 refugees will be decided based on their requests, a spokesperson for the Civil Defence said.

Olivia Michaelidou said government officials were at the Akrotiri base to record and process the requests of the 114 refugees.

Following the arrival of the refugees at Akrotiri, state authorities began consultations with the British High Commission on how to handle the case.

The UNHCR said that it has contacted both the SBA and the republic “to offer support”, but that it had not been able to visit the refugees because they were on a military base, and they were expecting to be granted permission by the SBA administration.

“At the moment, officials from the asylum service, social welfare services, and health department are at the British bases recording and processing the requests of the refugees,” Michaelidou said. “There is an action plan and according to the results, it will be applied. The civil defence is prepared to provide its services if needed”.

So far, neither the bases nor state authorities have provided any official information as to the refugees’ point of departure and where they were headed.

The Cyprus News Agency reported that in a video released by the bases, two of the refugees claim to be Palestinians and not Syrians and that their final destination was Germany.

The two men, CNA said, claimed on camera that they were promised they would be taken to Greece and from there to Germany. They also said that before arriving at Akrotiri, they had been on the boat without any food and water for three days.

The British bases still host a small number of mostly Iraqi and Syrian Kurds who landed on a ramshackle fishing boat in 1998, and who are effectively stateless. It was to discourage further incidents like this that the British Bases negotiated the 2003 agreement.

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