President Nicos Anastasiades on Wednesday conveyed to Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci the Greek Cypriot side’s grave concern over the increasing flow of migrants to the Republic, he said.
In a tweet, Anastasiades described the escalating situation as an “organised and increasing illegal flow of migrants to the Republic of Cyprus.” He also said he had stressed to Akinci that measures to avert this phenomenon must be taken.
Akinci, according to reports in the north, hit back at the insinuation that Turkish Cypriot authorities were deliberately helping migrants to cross the dividing line “as if we are guiding them… ,” Akinci reportedly said.
He said migrants were arriving in the south of the island either by boat or by crossing from the north “through illegal channels”.
He said Anastasiades spoke as if the Turkish Cypriot side was sending the immigrants to the south in an organised manner.
“This is a mistake, we don’t do that,” he said. He also said this was a humanitarian issue and that the Turkish Cypriot authorities would never exhibit this type of behaviour.
The communication between the two leaders came amid concerns that the migrant situation in Greece would also affect Cyprus given that hundreds of refugees have arrived in Cyprus since the end of last week after being blocked from entering Greece. Another 101 were rescued off Cyprus on Tuesday. The interior minister put the number prior to that at 223 over a period of three days.
On Tuesday, Anastasiades said the flow of migrants from Turkey was concerning and, also citing the situation in Greece, suggested it could be a deliberate attempt to alter the demographic character of Cyprus.
According to UNHCR data on Wednesday, based on information collected from the press, it said, 859 people arrived in Cyprus since January, 340 of them in the last two weeks. Most are from African countries, such as Cameroon and Somalia, Strovolidou said.
Cyprus’ Director of Operations at the immigration office at police headquarters, Petros Zeniou, told the Cyprus News Agency in an interview on Wednesday that though there were currently no vessels in the area carrying immigrants, according to his information, a large number who are currently in Turkey, are on standby to travel to EU countries, and especially Cyprus, as soon as they get the money needed to pay the people smugglers.
“The measures taken at the Turkish-Greek border affect Cyprus to some extent, since the immigrants who will have trouble crossing into Greece will seek other solutions, shifting the problem to other EU member states,” Zeniou said.
A 22-year-old man suspected of bringing over the 101 people from Syria to Cyprus by boat from Turkey was remanded in custody for eight days on Wednesday. Zeniou said the 22-year-old was the person who sailed the vessel from Mersin to Cyprus, but he is not the main trafficker. He said traffickers are in Turkey, gathering refugees or migrants, putting them in boats and sending them to Cyprus.
Zeniou said the 101 immigrants who arrived by boat in Paralimni on Tuesday were from Syria. Most, like in past arrivals, were men. “It is natural that at some point their wives and children, even their parents, would follow, so we are taking all necessary measures,” the senior immigration officer said.
He said that authorities offer every possible assistance to refugees and vulnerable groups. “But at the same time we have every obligation to take all necessary measures to protect the external borders of the Republic of Cyprus, and prevent irregular immigration,” he added.
As regards traffickers, Zeniou explained that in order to avoid arrest, they pick a person who knows how to sail a boat from Turkey and in return let that person travel free of charge. “However, the person who will sail the boat does not cease to be a trafficker,” Zeniou said.
He also said that as part of efforts to combat irregular immigration, the Cyprus police coordinate an operation with the participation of experts from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and Europol.
He added that the immigrants who arrived recently are interviewed and their travel documents were checked under the coordination of Frontex.
“The aim is to determine the routes or other actions the traffickers take, so that, as an EU member state, we can take all necessary measures to prevent or address the phenomenon of illegal immigration,” he said.
Zeniou also said that “members of the trafficking rings could be among the migrants, as could persons who had been involved in fighting in Syria or had participated in any way in organised crime or terrorist activities.”
“We are obliged to screen all these people arriving in Cyprus, because many of them may not be refugees,” he added.
He said the issue also concerned economic migrants, whose numbers, he said, are constantly increasing. “The Republic of Cyprus takes all necessary measures to repatriate them,” he said.
The spokesperson of UNHCR Cyprus, Emilia Strovolidou said Wednesday that focus should be on management, not deterrence, pointing out that the language used by the government “is mainly deterrence.” She also said that the UNHCR was assisting the asylum and migration service in setting up structures to allow the expediting of the application processes.
Strovolidou said that reinforcing the asylum and migration service in tandem with strengthening the application structures, could bring about the changes the Cypriot government was seeking, adding that this would send a message to people using the asylum application as a means of extending their stay in Cyprus.
She also said that the acceleration of procedures has already been applied in the case of applicants from Georgia and has shown that asylum applications from that group had declined.
“The most important thing is to examine asylum applications as quickly as possible in a fair and effective manner,” Strovolidou told CNA. She added that refugees should be separated from economic migrants.
“What we are suggesting, is to have a first check in order to separate the applications into patently well-founded and patently unfounded,” she said. More complex cases, she said should be dealt with in the usual way.
Citing official data, Strovolidou said that on average, 1,000 asylum applications per month were submitted in 2019, adding that there has not been any change to those numbers to-date.
On Greece’s emergency measures on immigration, Strovolidou said that neither the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provide any legal basis for suspending the registration of requests for asylum.
“All states have the right to control their borders and to manage irregular movements but must at the same time refrain from using excessive or disproportionate force and maintain systems to handle asylum requests in an effective and fair manner,” she said.
On Athens’ invocation of Article 78 (3) of the EU Treaty, that allows the adoption of provisional measures in the event of one or more member states are faced with a sudden inflow of nationals from third countries, she said this article does not allow the suspension of the internationally recognised right to apply for asylum and the principle non-refoulement, which is also part of European law.