Cyprus has been included in a list of EU member states where so-called controlled centres could be located to process migrants and refugees disembarking on EU soil.
It is part of the ongoing attempts to forge a common migration policy within the bloc.
With 15,000 documented asylum seekers – mostly Syrian – already on the island, and Cyprus now a well-established “ideal” human smuggling destination via Turkey, the government has expressed its strong reservations over the possible plan.
It argues that Cyprus has already taken in enough refugees according to its population. Last year, Greece and Cyprus had the highest number of asylum seekers per million population in the EU with 5,295 and 5,235.
Cyprus topped the list in the first three months of 2018 with 1,551 applicants per million population.
There are also fears that these centres, while supposedly geared to distinguish between economic migrants and genuine refugees quickly and efficiently, will become little more than sprawling, long-term detention camps.
The processing facilities formed part a ‘concept paper’ circulated by the Austrian EU presidency based on the conclusions of the June 28 European Council on migration.
Sunday Mail sources have told the newspaper that the document was only circulated among some EU members. Even though Cyprus would be directly affected, the government was never officially given a copy.
The ‘concept paper’ called for the development of ‘controlled centres’ in EU countries across the Mediterranean on a voluntary basis – a new approach based on shared efforts for the processing of persons who, following their rescue at sea, are disembarked within the EU.
The aim of the centres is to improve the process of distinguishing between individuals in need of international protection, and irregular migrants with no right to remain in the EU, while speeding up returns.
The controlled centres would be facilities that provide adequate living conditions according to EU standards and ensure the management of migrants after disembarkation until a decision on the asylum claim or on return is issued.
They will be under the control of the member state where they would be located with a reinforced presence and assistance provided by EU agencies.
The EU budget will cover all infrastructure and operational costs and will also grant €6,000 per person relocated and €500 in transfer costs per person.
According to the document, “to avoid unnecessary movements of people that might be returned and ensure immediate assistance to those just disembarked, such centres could be set up in Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Croatia, Greece, and Cyprus.”
The paper goes on to say that for the time being, migrant arrivals occur mainly in Spain, Italy and Greece, but with some 15,000 asylum seekers already in Cyprus, most from war-torn Syria, authorities believe it has reached its capacity considering its small population.
Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides told the Sunday Mail that Cyprus insists on the creation of an automatic mechanism for redistributing asylum seekers, the position expressed during the European Council on migration.
“We have serious reservations regarding the operation of large centres in Europe, especially in the absence of this mechanism,” he said. “There must be a holistic approach and not one that deals with the issues in piecemeal fashion.”
The EU has sought a common migration policy since 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, entered the bloc, putting a heavy burden on countries like Greece and Italy at the edge of the Schengen area.
The Czech Republic and central European countries like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have long opposed a Brussels-prescribed quota system to redistribute asylum seekers.
The idea was officially dropped at the EU summit in June, replaced with agreements to share out refugees on a voluntary basis and other measures to deal with asylum requests.
The Bulgarian EU presidency had proposed establishing a formula that took into account a member state’s size, population and economic capacity but that was opposed by countries like Italy, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Finland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.
In Cyprus, the concern is that as the war continues in neighbouring Syria, more and more people will seek refuge on the island, especially when many now appear to have family living in the country – either as asylum seekers or having international protection – making it the final destination.
This is in contrast to the big wave of migration in 2015 when Syrians largely avoided Cyprus – despite it being by far the closest EU member state to Syria – because of the country’s migration policies and because the island was not part of the Schengen area, the EU’s passport-free zone.
Most European countries make little distinction between asylum and subsidiary protection. However, in 2014, Cyprus amended its laws so that those who are granted subsidiary protection are not able to bring family members from their home countries or other nations to which they’d escaped — known as the right to family reunification — or to travel freely outside Cyprus.
Many never registered with authorities so that they could more easily apply for asylum elsewhere in Europe. Put simply, Cyprus was not attractive to asylum seekers.
With mainland Europe now harder to enter, this has changed somewhat in the years since 2015. Family members of those already here are arriving illegally via sea or through the north over the buffer zone.
Official statistics now show a 56 per cent rise in asylum applications in 2017 and around 40 per cent in the first five months of this year.
Between 2002 and 2017, the island afforded international protection – asylum and subsidiary protection – to some 10,000 foreign nationals. There are 3,000 pending applications since last year plus a further 2,435 in 2018.
The majority of international protection applications in Cyprus in recent years concerned Syrian nationals.
Cypriot authorities say they have established that a people smuggling ring is now operating a route between Syria and Cyprus through Turkey.
“In the last arrival of 61 Syrians from Turkey on June 13, preliminary interviews by asylum service were conducted during which it was said that Cyprus is considered and promoted by traffickers as an ideal destination in relation with Europe and Turkey,” an interior ministry memo said.
UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, figures showed that Syrian nationals topped the list of nationalities who received international protection in Cyprus between 2002 and 2017 with 5,274. They are followed by Palestinians, 1,964, and Iraqis, 854.
Between 2011 and 2017, according to UNHCR, Cyprus received 6,231 applications from Syrian nationals and it granted refugee status to 140 and afforded subsidiary protection to 4,934.
Syrians again topped the list of applications in 2017 with 1,770 people, followed by India, 435, and Vietnam, 350, Bangladesh, 280, Egypt, 270, and ‘others’ 1,370.
In the first five months of this year, 471 Syrians applied for asylum.
The stats show that 2,135 people arrived in the Republic since 2014; but while all were via the sea until February 2017, from then on there has been a steady influx of arrivals through the Turkish-occupied north of the island.
Out of the 21 clusters of migrant arrivals since, half had crossed the buffer zone into the Republic after arriving in boats in the north.
In July, 30 people died after a Cyprus-bound vessel carrying 150 migrants sank off the coast of Karpasia.
In May, eight bodies were washed up on the shores of the north, believed to have been Syrian migrants.
According to the UN migration agency, at least 1,500 migrants had perished in the Mediterranean in 2018 (end July) with the route between Libya and Italy being the deadliest, claiming the lives of one in 19.