By Evie Andreou
CYPRUS is willing to take in any number of asylum seekers, out of the 114 refugees who landed on the shores of Akrotiri three days ago, a senior foreign ministry official said on Friday, as the British authorities seem hesitant to accommodate them.
Since Wednesday, when the refugees landed their two make-shift boats at Lady’s Mile, within the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) territory, a heated debate began on who’s responsibility was to take them in – the U.K. or Cyprus. The British ministry of defence rushed to issue an announcement a few hours after the refugees’ arrival, that it was Cyprus’ responsibility as per a 2003 bilateral agreement on cases where refugees enter the island through SBA territory.
But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), followed by Cyprus government officials, said that the agreement stipulates that the refugees are in fact Britain’s responsibility and that they would be granted access to services in the republic at cost to the SBA.
“The intention of Cyprus, even though it is not an obligation, is to house the asylum seekers,” said Omiros Mavrommatis, head of the foreign ministry’s crisis management centre.
The recording of the demands of the refugees by state officials have continued for the second day, officials said, and the next steps would be decided based on their requests.
“We are jointly trying to complete the process of the initial interviews and see how these people will be accommodated in the future,” Mavrommatis said. “So far, the number of applicants has been small, but it is expected to increase”.
Sky News’ defence correspondent tweeted earlier in the day that as far as he heard, “as few as two people have claimed asylum. Two. Out of 114”.
A bases spokesperson could not confirm the number.
According to the deal, Britain must cover the costs of processing and housing asylum seekers. A state official in Nicosia said that Britain “will endeavour to resettle people recognised as refugees in countries willing to accept them” within one year of their application’s approval.
Mavrommatis was quoted by Politis as saying that those eligible to apply for asylum will be transferred to ‘Pournara’ reception centre in Kokkinotrimithia.
He added that according to the agreement, Britain is legally responsible for handling asylum seekers who arrive directly on SBA territory and that the Republic of Cyprus offers a helping hand, if asked.
“We implement the 2003 memorandum of understanding (MoU), whose provisions do not seem to be questioned by the British authorities,” Mavrommatis, said, quoted by Politis.
He also said that in the case some refugees are deemed as ineligible, “it remains unknown as to how they will be handled”.
In an attempt to alleviate concerns at home, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said on Friday that they were not going to allow the SBA to become “some kind of new route of migration into Britain”, stressing that any asylum claims would be processed by Cyprus.
On the same tone, Defence secretary Michael Fallon said: “We have an agreement with the Republic of Cyprus who will now be processing their claims for asylum in Cyprus. We are not going to allow this to become some new route of migration into Britain. That would be the wrong thing to do. We mustn’t encourage even more people to set out on what is a very dangerous route.”
“They washed up in Akrotiri almost by accident; there is evidence to suggest they were heading elsewhere in Greece. We are not going to allow a new route to open up.”
But even if Cyprus takes in asylum seekers, confusion remains as to what will happen to those who will not file for asylum. The possibility of British taxpayers having to foot the bill for those who will remain in the SBA has sparked a heated debate in the UK.
The SBA is already financially supporting a number of people with ‘failed asylum seeker’ status, €70 per week per adult and €30 per child. They are among the group of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds that washed up by chance on the shores of the British base in 1998, and their children who were born in Cyprus. They live at the Dhekelia base and are fighting a legal battle to be allowed to live in the UK.
But Britain refuses to take in even the 29 people of the original group that arrived in 1998 and who were granted refugee status over a decade ago, out of fear of setting a precedent that could encourage other asylum seekers to regard the SBAs as a fast track to the UK from the Middle East and North Africa.
Despite its proximity to Syria, Cyprus has seen little of the influx of refugees received by Greece, where arrivals have topped 500,000 this year. Refugees avoid the island because of its relative geographical isolation, which makes it difficult to travel on to other parts of Europe.
Asked if the migrants may have sailed to Akrotiri on purpose, Mavrommatis said that according to information they have, this was not their destination. “The information we have is they were heading for the island of Rhodes.”
Most of the individuals said they were either Syrians or Palestinians, Mavromatis said. The refugees – 28 children, 19 women and 67 men – were spotted by fishermen in the early hours of Wednesday. The two boats were later located by the coastguard and they anchored at Lady’s Mile, at Cape Gata. Since their arrival, they are being accommodated in an aircraft hangar at Akrotiri, and they will remain there, until the interviews process is over, officials said.
A base for Tornado bombers, Akrotiri has traditionally played a supporting role for military operations in the Middle East and in recent months has been a launchpad to bomb Islamic State targets in Iraq.