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AG knocks foreign ministry edict on tourists staying in the north

And on the status of EU nationals, the AG is clear: “It is not permitted to take other measures beyond informing them [of the policy] upon their entry into the Republic”

By Elias Hazou

THE FOREIGN ministry directive barring entry to non-EU nationals arriving at Cyprus airports if they intend to stay on Greek Cypriot properties in the north is still in force, the Sunday Mail has learned, despite an opinion issued two months ago by Attorney-general Costas Clerides suggesting the policy is deeply flawed legally, a development which appears to have been kept under wraps.

Though writing in dry legalese, in his opinion, obtained by the Sunday Mail, the AG quite definitively dismantles the foreign ministry’s directive: he argues that no legal basis exists for barring entry into the Republic on the grounds that a foreign national plans to stay in a Greek Cypriot property.

The foreign ministry directive was issued in June. In late September, some 35 Israeli visitors were initially denied entry at Larnaca airport by immigration officers after they said they were going to stay at hotels operated on Greek Cypriot land in the breakaway regime. When the Israelis made a fuss, they were allowed to enter after their embassy contacted the foreign ministry.

On the same day, around 15 Lebanese tourists were turned away after stating to passport control that they too intended to stay at a similarly owned hotel in the north. Shortly after the incident with the Israelis, the measure was suspended for two weeks.

Non-EU nationals arriving in Cyprus are asked to state their place of residence in the government-controlled areas during their visit. If they state they intend to stay on property belonging to Greek Cypriots in the north, they are denied entry. Officers at the airport have lists with these properties, prepared by the foreign ministry, with the name of each hotel, and the area they are located in, in the north.

But speaking to the Mail on condition of anonymity, a source said that should authorities somehow get wind that an EU national plans to stay in a Greek Cypriot hotel, he or she will be barred entry into the Republic, too. It is just that this is extremely unlikely to happen because in practice at passport control, EU nationals are not asked where they will be staying.

As a Greek Cypriot man earlier told this paper, this measure is nonsensical and inconsistent as travellers can simply lie at the airport.

And it’s understood that immigration police at the airport have no way of verifying arriving tourists’ stated destination; thus, any incoming tourist from a non-EU country stating their intent to stay in the government-controlled areas would be waved through, irrespective of their subsequent actual movements.

Many non-EU nationals travelling in groups state they will be staying at a hotel in the south of the island, only to be later bussed to the north.

The Mail understands that, following the September incident with the Israelis, a number of brainstorming meetings took place involving foreign ministry officials with the aim of modifying the travel directive.

But the directive is still very much in force.

This is despite an opinion delivered by the attorney-general, which the Mail has obtained.

The document, dated October 10, is marked ‘Urgent’ and addressed to the foreign minister.

In it, the AG cites Council Regulation (EC) 866/2004 of 29 April 2004  (also known as the Green Line Regulation), which regulates the movement of persons to and from the areas over which the Republic exercises effective control.

Regarding non-EU nationals, the Regulation states that they are allowed entry to the north provided two conditions are necessarily met: first, they possess a residence permit issued by the Republic, a valid travel document and, if required, a visa; and secondly, that “they pose no threat to public order and safety.”

As such, the AG appears to indicate that placing movement restrictions on non-EU nationals goes beyond the spirit of the Green Line Regulation.

The AG cites a relevant foreign ministry document dated June 12, 2017, thereby confirming earlier reports that the directive originated in June.

On the absence of controls at the checkpoints used to travel to and from the north, the attorney-general has this to say:

“Therefore, neither in the case of EU citizens who travel to the north, nor in the case of non-EU nationals, are any checks carried out on the line [Green Line] regarding the issue of their place of stay in the north.”

To prevent confusion, Clerides says it would be advisable for the embassies of the Republic to inform non-EU nationals applying for a visa “that the process cannot be completed and that entry into Cyprus shall not be permitted in the event they declare they will stay in premises in the north belonging to a Greek Cypriot owner.

“This will serve to avoid further inconvenience [to tourists] and avert legal action claiming damages in the event of barring entry during passport control at the airport.”

And on the status of EU nationals, the AG is clear: “It is not permitted to take other measures beyond informing them [of the policy] upon their entry into the Republic.”

Clerides goes on to take a swipe at the foreign ministry, pointing out that immigration affairs are outside its jurisdiction.

“The ministry responsible for matters pertaining to the entry of foreign nationals in the Republic is the Ministry of the Interior,” he notes, citing the applicable law.

According to Sunday Mail sources, interior ministry officials are furious with the foreign ministry, partly because immigration, which is the purview of the former were “given their marching orders” directly from the latter. “Some use the Cyprus problem as excuse to impose restrictions on everything but there is no legal basis [for this],” said the sources. 

Clerides in his legal opinion also notes for example that it is extremely difficult to prove that a foreign national possesses “guilty knowledge and wilfulness” that he or she will be staying in a property without the permission of the registered owner – that is, the original Greek Cypriot owner.

Moreover, even if the foreign national does possess this knowledge, “it could be argued that the offence [staying in a Greek Cypriot property] has yet to be committed, and furthermore even if it is deemed that a legal basis does exist to prosecute, this does not afford the ability to bar entry on this basis alone.”

The AG’s most significant observation is that the sole legal basis for preventing entry would be Article 32 of the Constitution, which states:

“Nothing in this Part contained shall preclude the Republic from regulating by law any matter relating to aliens in accordance with International Law.”

Reading between the lines, Clerides is arguing that no specific law exists that bars entry, and that therefore the foreign ministry’s directive, as a standalone regulation, is legally defanged.

But a government source, who asked not to be named, gave a different narrative as to the reason behind the foreign ministry directive.

The directive was enforced “primarily for the safety of Israeli citizens travelling to the north.”

According to the source, Nicosia has advised the Israeli government that citizens of theirs visiting the breakaway regime do not have access to consular services “and also that the Republic is unable to guarantee their safety while there.”

The 35 Israelis who were turned away in September were subsequently allowed into the Republic because it transpired they were unaware of the directive. Thus an exception was made, in the interests of keeping up good relations with Israel.

By contrast, the same source said, in a more recent incident in late November, a group of 30 Israelis were denied entry at the airport because they were part of a group whose tour operator had already been advised of the directive.

“This group were heading to the north to take part in a poker tournament. Our embassy [in Israel] had warned them they would be barred from entering, but they came anyway. That is why we turned them back.”

The source said the Israelis in question were to be fully comped in the hotel booked for them in the north.

“Everything, including accommodation, was free. You must understand that we cannot facilitate these groups to stay in the north where Greek Cypriot hotels are concerned.”

But the same source appeared to be giving out mixed signals.

Asked what was the reasoning behind the directive – the safety of Israeli nationals or for political or economic reasons – the source said: “All of the above. But it has nothing to do with fanaticism or undue nationalism within the foreign ministry, as the local press has reported.”

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