By George Psyllides
Russia has contacted certain EU countries including Cyprus, offering to take back Syrian nationals who had fled the war-torn country and shelter them in so-called safe zones in co-operation with President Bashar al-Assad, the Sunday Mail has learned.
It is understood that a letter guaranteeing the safety of those who return was sent by Russia last year and although a taboo for the EU, it is perhaps the only solid proposal presented so far in the migration crisis.
No other information on the matter was immediately available.
The issue falls under the remit of the external dimension of the Common European Asylum System, which is handled by EU foreign ministers, and was not something discussed during the Informal Home and Justice Council summit held in Bucharest this week where member-states once more discussed the migration crisis which is increasingly affecting Cyprus.
In 2018, the total number of applications for asylum exceeded 7,000.
To Cyprus’ frustration nothing concrete was put on the table during the summit, giving the impression that the EU was once more kicking the can further down the road, comfortable with the current arrangements.
This includes what the EU views as a successful arrangement with Turkey, agreed in 2016, which allocated €3bn in aid to Turkey to help Syrian refugees.
Cyprus strongly disagreed with the summit’s reference that “maintaining the current low level of irregular arrivals in the Eastern Mediterranean route”, had been achieved through cooperation with Turkey.
Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides told ministers that Turkey’s refusal to cooperate with Cyprus posed significant challenges.
In 2018 alone, the minister said, more than 1,000 people arrived in Cyprus from northern Cyprus via Turkey.
The Romanian Presidency said it was exploring the concept put forward by the European Commission last year for development ‘temporary arrangements’, a concept rejected by Cyprus then and now.
“It is not accepted by Mediterranean countries and others,” Petrides told the Sunday Mail.
Some vague suggestions were made regarding voluntary relocation and cash to front line countries like Cyprus in a bid to persuade them to host control centres, the minister said.
The intention is to develop ‘control 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 ostensibly 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.
Cyprus believes such an arrangement would end up being permanent and insists on the creation of an automatic mechanism for redistributing asylum seekers.
It also opposes breaking up a package of seven legislative proposals and says leaving out the reform of the Dublin system would create additional problems.
The proposals are: reform the Dublin system to better allocate asylum applications among member states and to guarantee the timely processing of applications; reinforce the Eurodac regulation to improve the EU fingerprint database for asylum seekers; establish a fully-fledged EU asylum agency; replace the asylum procedure directive with a regulation to harmonise EU procedures and reduce differences in recognition rates among member states; replace the qualification directive with a regulation to harmonise protection standards and rights for asylum seeker; reform the reception conditions directive to ensure that asylum seekers benefit from harmonised and dignified reception standards, and create a permanent EU resettlement framework.
“We do not accept this,” Petrides said, adding that without reforming Dublin, it would increase the states’ responsibilities.
“Cannot be done without a solidarity mechanism,” he said.
With the total number of applications for 2018 exceeding 7,000, for a country the size of Cyprus, with a well-known political problem, and a population of some 800,000,
“I am sure you understand the significance we attach to the notion of fair burden sharing,” the minister told colleagues.
He said investment in third countries would take time to yield results.
Unless ways were found to guarantee a conflict-free Middle East and Africa, to name but two, and unless the EU found ways to completely halt departures from third countries, a way to dismantle all smuggling networks, and most importantly, to achieve these results immediately, problems will persist, he said.
Due to their geographical proximity, the Mediterranean member states will bear the brunt.
The only way to enable a swift application of the procedure, while at the same time support the member states that face disproportionate challenges, would be the creation of a mechanism that is based on the principle of fair responsibility sharing and solidarity, in terms of a solid, sustainable, and predictable framework, he said.