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Our View: Hard not to sympathise with Lebanese and Cyprus government for turning them away

Pournara reception centre

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for the desperate Lebanese, leaving their economically devastated country and boarding boats that would bring them to Cyprus, where, presumably, they hope they would be able to make a living. A stay in a country that is very close to home and has been welcoming to the Lebanese in the past, until things improve in Lebanon, does not seem like a big risk for them to take.

Unfortunately, Cyprus is in no position to welcome more economic migrants, given the numbers that have been arriving on the island in the last few years, either as refugees from war-torn Syria or as political asylum seekers. The country has reached breaking point. On Monday Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said, “we can no longer afford to receive additional numbers of economic migrants simply because the reception facilities are no longer sufficient and the country’s capabilities are exhausted.”

Cyprus is a small country that already has the highest number of refugees/asylum seekers as a proportion of its population of all EU member-states. It is having difficulty coping with the immigrants on the island and therefore unable to accept more. To make matters worse we are going through the coronavirus-created economic crisis that has put a huge strain on public finances and is causing unemployment to rise. A country with a rising number of jobless cannot be a destination for immigrants looking to earn a living.

Twice in the past Cyprus has offered sanctuary to the Lebanese. In 1976, when the civil war broke out, thousands came to Cyprus, moving their businesses here, temporarily. A large number arrived here again in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon, but the majority went back when it was safe to return. This time, however, they are not fleeing a war but a total collapse of the economy that has caused abject poverty and offers no hope of improvement.

The authorities here are now involved in the thankless task of stopping boats carrying people from Lebanon reaching our shores; some came through the buffer zone after arriving in the north. Although the government said it had come to an arrangement with the Lebanese authorities on how to manage the migrants arriving from the Lebanon, Nouris said Cypriot officials would also be visiting Beirut for more talks about the matter.

What will be agreed remains to be seen, but the minister has also asked the EU to send ships from its Frontex force to help Cyprus deal with the increased flow of migrants, presumably because he does not expect the problem to go away any time soon. How would it, given the desperate situation so many people find themselves in, in the neighbouring country.

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