By Andria Kades
Thirty-eight of the original 114 migrants and refugees who were washed ashore off the British base at Akrotiri nearly three weeks ago have applied for asylum in the Republic, a British government spokesman said on Monday.
The spike in numbers from just six on Friday was in apparent response to the letters the group received over the weekend that they would be deported back to Lebanon if they did not apply for asylum in the Republic.
“It’s not a surprise. It’s what we’ve been saying all along ever since they arrived,” a government spokesman told Reuters.
“We’ve made it clear that there were two options – either they claim asylum in Cyprus or we take them back to where they came from.”
Some of the migrants at the British base at Dehekelia where they have been put up in makeshift camps have vowed to fight the looming threat of deportation.
Later on Monday, a 31-year-old husband and father of two attempted to commit suicide by swallowing several pills.
“He kept saying ‘I have nothing in Lebanon, I have sold my house, and even if I am not killed in the war, even if I am not jailed for leaving Lebanon, what will I do?’ We have been trying to calm him down, but it seems our efforts were in vain,” Ibrahim Marouf, a spokesman for the group told the Cyprus Mail on Monday night.
The man was treated in an ambulance just outside the camp, but was not in any danger.
It is clear that the threat of deportation is having its effect on the group with dozens applying for asylum on Monday.
“We have said that those migrants who do not claim asylum could face removal to their place of origin. We have now formally notified the migrants who have not claimed asylum that we do intend to remove them,” bases spokeswoman Connie Pierce told the Cyprus Mail.
“The UK government will not allow a new migrant route to open to the UK.”
Upon initial receipt of the letter a group of the migrants had threatened to go on a hunger strike, a move that was later rescinded.
“We are going to fight this decision. We are not going to Lebanon. Let them do it by force. They will take us to the hospital, with wheelchairs at the airport, we will not accept going back,” said Marouf. “We thought England would see us as humans not as Muslims or Arabs.”
Marouf, who says he is of Palestinian origin but grew up in Lebanon, claims he had no rights to a normal life like working or buying a house and got on the boat in hopes of finding a better life in Belgium where his brother and sister are.
Asked why he did not apply for asylum in Cyprus, he stressed he had nothing on this island and wanted to be reunited with his family in Belgium.
“If not UK at least Germany, Netherlands or Switzerland,” that offer a “decent and peaceful life”.
Should he be returned to Lebanon he is likely to be imprisoned or “slaughtered in the civil war no one knows about” as he will be a primary target due to his origins, he said.
The 28 children, 19 women and 67 men landed at the Akrotiri Royal Air Force Base in two fishing boats on October 21 and were later transferred to Dhekelia.
Their stay has been plagued with claims that they were being badly treated and kept in what felt like a prison.
The bases have maintained that United Nations staff visited the scene and said the facilities exceeded the standards of comparable sites. The migrants have access to three meals a day, shelter, privacy, and communications.
The arrival of the refugees sparked a debate as to whose responsibility it was to take them in – the UK 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 part of a 2003 bilateral agreement on cases where refugees enter the island through British bases 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 but that they would be granted access to services in the republic at cost to the British government.