THE latest arrival of six immigrants on Tuesday evening in Akaki, was the fourth group to cross on foot from the north so far this year, a growing phenomenon, police said on Wednesday, and these were only the ones authorities were made aware of.
The six immigrants – one man, three women and two children – were picked up by police on Tuesday evening in Akaki, after being informed at around 10pm of the arrival of six individuals in the Nicosia area.
According to deputy police spokesman Stelios Stylianou, this was the seventh mass arrival of immigrants so far this year, and the fourth involving people crossing from the north through the buffer zone. The other three incidents concerned arrivals by sea.
The latest arrival brings the number of people crossing on foot through the buffer zone to 54 in total – 39 men, five women and 10 children since the beginning of the year.
Early Tuesday morning, police had picked up 17 immigrants in the Kaimakli area of Nicosia and taken them to Omorfita police station. Three unaccompanied minors were picked up in the same area of Kaimakli ten days ago.
Large swathes of Kaimakli are interspersed with parts of the buffer zone. The same is true for Akaki, where seven teenage migrants– five boys and two girls – from Somalia were picked up by police and are now under the care of the social welfare department.
All immigrants are believed to have entered the government controlled areas through the north.
These numbers concerns cases where the police were notified, Stylianou said, as there are others that cross without being noticed or others whose cases become known after they take to the state services by themselves, to file for asylum.
But according to Stylianou, the aim is not to prevent immigrants from crossing from the north but assisting them once here.
“Despite the fact there are patrols, it is impossible to be everywhere. It is not however, about not letting them cross over, but about picking them up and follow the prescribed procedures, take them for medical examinations, verify their identity and assist them in filing for asylum. Most of them file for asylum,” Stylianou said.
He added that the group of 17 that arrived on Tuesday morning said that they had each paid US$2,200 to a people smuggler to transfer them by boat from Mersin to the north, “near a mountain and from there some people picked them up in cars and took them to Mia Milia in Kaimakli from where they said they walked and crossed over”.
Stylianou said that the immigrants, during the first 48-hours of their arrival, are first taken to the temporary reception centre until the medical checks and other required procedures are over, and then those who have family or friends in Cyprus usually leave the centre to move in with them. After filing for asylum, those who have no place to live are taken to the Kofinou reception centre.
He said that the latest arrivals concerned people from Syria and Somalia.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there has been an increase in the numbers of people filing for asylum in Cyprus, from just over 2,000 in 2015, to some 2,800 last year.
During the first quarter of 2017, according to UNHCR data, some 1,000 persons applied for asylum, of whom 262 arrived by boat from Turkey through the north.
The increased arrivals of Syrians in Cyprus, the UNHCR said, is due to the ongoing escalation of violence there, the further deterioration of reception conditions in the neighbouring countries and the closing of the Balkans route. It added that most of the Syrians who have come over the past two years or so have immediate family members or close relatives living in Cyprus as refugees, or with other forms of legal residence.
According to the UNHCR Representative for Cyprus, Damtew Dessalegne, since Cyprus joined the EU, it has accepted nearly 8,000 people as refugees or beneficiaries of humanitarian/subsidiary protection.
“That’s about one per cent of the population. It is not a small number, but let’s not forget that we have today five million Syrian refugees – just Syrian refugees – and in Lebanon, for example, one in five people is a Syrian or Palestinian refugee,” Dessalegne said.
The UNHCR also stressed the importance for the government to draw a contingency plan to ensure that priority preparedness actions are in place in order to build readiness to scale up the required response in the event of increased refugee arrivals. It added that it has the expertise to assist the government in drawing up such an action plan.
Before the agreement in March 2016 between Turkey and the EU which closed down the route to northern Europe via the Balkans, Cyprus had remained immune to the thousands of Syrians and other migrants and refugees pouring through Turkey and then by boat into Greece, even though Cyprus was far closer to Syria. The EU-Turkey agreement made Greece and Italy far less attractive.
Being an island, Cyprus offers no direct, easy access to mainland Europe and the wealth of the northern countries. Equally significant, Cyprus is not part of the Schengen area. Although the overwhelming numbers of migrants and refugees in 2015 forced many Schengen countries to tighten border controls, in theory once migrants enter a Schengen area country – like Italy and Greece – they could not be prevented from moving freely into other Schengen countries.
To leave Cyprus, however, a migrant needs travel documents. To an undocumented migrant or refugee fleeing a war-zone, being in Cyprus almost equalled staying in Cyprus. Added to that was Cyprus’ tough asylum policies: asylum status was hard to come by as was financial help.