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Barbed-wire controversy grows (Updated)

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The barbed wire at Astromeritis is set to stretch along to the old Nicosia airport – for a length of about 11km

The interior ministry is on the defensive following widespread criticism over its installation of barbed wire along rural sections of the buffer zone in Nicosia to deter the uncontrolled crossing by irregular migrants.

In a second prong to the saga, the European Commission said on Friday it had not been informed, just days after Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said prior to installing the razor wire, it had briefed the representative of the European Union in Cyprus and the United Nations, to whom a map was submitted.

But a Commission spokesperson said this was not so. “The European Commission has not received notification from the Republic of Cyprus about the construction of new fencing or a change in its policy in surveillance of the Green Line”, European Commission Spokesperson Vivian Loonela told CNA.

Asked whether Cyprus had an obligation to notify the Commission, Loonela said that Article 10 of the Green Line Regulation provides that “any change in the policy of the government of the republic of Cyprus on crossings of persons or goods shall only become effective after the proposed changes have been notified to the Commission and the Commission has not objected to these changes within one month.”

She recalled that “Green Line Regulation Article 3 provides that “Effective surveillance shall be carried out by the Republic of Cyprus all along the line, in such a way as to discourage people from circumventing checks at the crossing points referred to”. Loonela said the Commission was looking into the new and situation on the ground and discussing that with the authorities in Cyprus.

Nouris has insisted that that placing of the razor wire fence along a segment of the buffer zone was not, nor could it be construed as, erecting a border.

The minister is reportedly due to visit Astromeritis to meet with members of the community, primarily farmers, who have strongly condemned the decision to place razor wire.

“As a community we are against the barbed wire because it greatly impedes our farmers whose land unfortunately lies within the buffer zone, their livelihood depends on that land,” Pambos Panayiotou, vice president of Astromeritis’ community council, told the Cyprus Mail on Friday.

“We have, for decades, been sending our children to universities with money earned from this land,” he said.

Farmers and community leaders say that they were not consulted on the policy or given prior warning, but the interior ministry earlier this week said that discussions had taken place.

Addressing criticism earlier this week, Nouris said that: “The dividing line remains the big problem… When 75 per cent of the migrant flows come through the dividing line, we ought above all to adhere to what the Green Line Regulation states, that is, effective management and prevention of any illegal entry.”

He has also reiterated that the Republic ranks top within the EU in the number of migrant arrivals as a proportion to the population.

Panayiotou further explained that the razor wire has cut people off from their land, cut through their land and has thrown into question as to how and when people will be able to farm it – while others also have plans to build houses on the land, which is now also in doubt.

“We have to wait and see what is said otherwise we will definitely demonstrate because our people want to work and help raise their families,” he said.

And while the main focus of criticism towards the barbed wire appears to be on the practical implications for farmers, many others have ridiculed the fence as being ineffective in achieving its stated goal.

“You have to see what they’re doing, it’s laughable, a child could pass through it – a waste of money,” an Astromeritis resident told the Cyprus Mail.

Many have pointed out that irregular migrants and refugees who often make grueling journeys across continents to reach the Republic are unlikely to be deterred by barbed wire.

In any case, others have pointed out that as the Republic is the sole UN-recognised authority on the island it is responsible for handling asylum cases and may face legal challenges if it were to turn people away.

A reporter from Alpha News also demonstrated that the razor wire can be easily crossed within 20 seconds by placing a plank of wood over the fence, and in other cases it can simply be pulled apart.

But Pantelis Kakoulli, community leader of Peristerona, is keeping an open mind on the issue.

“Barbed wire has not yet been placed near our area but there hasn’t been any major reaction against the policy here yet, sure there are always reactions though [to new changes],” he told the Cyprus Mail.

Asked as to whether they were consulted on the issue, Kakoullis said that the community was told of the policy and promises have been made that farmers will be able to work without any impediments whatsoever.

On the issue of the fence’s effectiveness, he said that for the government to have thought up the policy then it will surely be useful to some extent.

Some have wondered whether farmers in the area will now be subject to a permanent curfew, as it is not yet clear how, when and who will open proposed gates in order for farmers to access their fields.

The ministry has also faced criticism from opposition party Akel which questioned the effectiveness of the fence but also potential political implications.

For his part, Nouris has said that the fence is in harmony with the Green Line Regulations and rebutted criticism from parties in the north.

“It would be interesting to hear, especially from certain Turkish Cypriot parties, what they are doing to stop Turkey which systematically channels migrants to the occupied part of Cyprus and from there to the Republic through the dividing line,” he said.

“We would have no intention of installing this obstacle if there was control on behalf of Turkish Cypriots. Apparently, there isn’t any.”

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