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Paths out of the migrant crisis

migrants gather outside the kokkinotrimithia refugee camp on the outskirts of nicosia
Migrants outside Pournara camp

The government looks to the EU to solve the issue, but could it be doing more by itself?

By Theo Panayides

 

Whatever the solution for our current migration crisis, one thing’s for sure: it’ll have to pass through the EU.

Our status as a European border, after all, is the main reason why migrants and asylum seekers are arriving here in increasing numbers.

That may have been less true of the Syrian refugees from some years ago, who were fleeing a war zone and heading to the nearest safe place – but it’s certainly true of the current influx from sub-Saharan Africa, coming via Istanbul and smuggled in through the buffer zone.

Eight thousand such asylum seekers have arrived in the past eight months alone, according to Interior Minister Nicos Nouris, speaking to state broadcaster CyBC last week.

Nouris quoted a letter from President Anastasiades to the president of the European Commission, calling on the EU to understand that “the Republic is in a state of emergency, we want actual support and not [just] in the form of releasing funds”.

Alexandra Attalides, an MP with the Cyprus Greens-Citizens’ Cooperation who was also for 12 years the spokesperson of the Office of the European Parliament in Cyprus, largely agrees that the EU is instrumental to solving the problem – but only up to a point.

Our own government could be more proactive, she told the Cyprus Mail, especially in speeding up the system and dividing asylum applications into “safe and unsafe countries”.

She points, for instance, to the fact that, since 2017, some 4,000 applications (around a fifth of the outstanding total) have come from Indian nationals who – with rare exceptions – are not fleeing a dangerous situation at home. These are clearly opportunistic, aimed at allowing the applicant to remain here for years while being processed.

That said, fast-tracking such applications wouldn’t necessarily solve the issue with African asylum seekers, many of whom – especially those from Cameroon – can plausibly claim to be fleeing a conflict in their home country.

The larger issue stems from the so-called Dublin Regulation, enacted by the EU in the early 2000s and laying down the concept, to quote Attalides, that “the country that’s responsible for examining the asylum application is the country of entrance”. That’s why, despite our small size, Cyprus is legally obligated to process all asylum seekers who enter the EU here, rather than relocating them to larger member states.

“There is a decision by the European Parliament to change this,” explains Attalides, “in order to provide solidarity to countries of first entry when they’re overwhelmed.” This reform would allow for redistribution of applicants throughout the EU when the number of applications reaches “a certain percentage of the population”.

This would clearly be a game-changer for Cyprus – but the reform is part of the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is still being discussed.

“The Parliament has not approved the Pact,” notes Athanasios Athanasiou, press officer for the European Commission Representation in Cyprus. What the Parliament has approved is merely “its negotiating position, ahead of the trilogues for the approval of the Regulation that would be implementing the Pact.” A ‘trilogue’ is a formal meeting between the EU Parliament, Commission and Council.

So how long will the process take? Years?

Not years, says Athanasiou – “but even months is a long time, seeing as the Pact is on the table for a year and a half now.

“Normally, this should’ve been done by now… But we’re not there yet. And that’s the responsibility of the member states.”

The other potential European solution involves article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU which, if activated, would allow asylum applications to be suspended for a while as part of “provisional measures” to combat an “emergency situation”.

This was done in the Evros region of Greece in early 2020, when Turkey unilaterally opened its land border, and was effective in defusing the crisis. Nouris confirmed last week that our government has also requested the activation of article 78(3).

That said, it’s hard to see how this could work as a deterrent when most of our asylum seekers are trafficked and smuggled with little idea of where Cyprus is, let alone what its asylum policies are. “Take a bus to Solomou Square [in Nicosia], then you take a train and go to Paris,” is what they’re often told, according to a Cameroonian source speaking to the Cyprus Mail some months ago.

Athanasiou says the EU’s legal services will have to rule on the matter. Still, he believes, “the situation in Evros was totally different”.

Indeed, he adds – speaking from the perspective of the EU rather than Cyprus – “we don’t have a migrant crisis right now, that’s for sure. We’re not living in 2015”.

Clearly, our problem looms larger for Cyprus than it does for the rest of the bloc. A certain lack of urgency by the EU may be part of the issue – yet in fact Cyprus isn’t the only country where migrants are being ‘imported’. An even worse situation is taking place on the border of Poland with Belarus, whose president “has been accused of pushing migrants to the border to destabilise the EU,” according to a recent BBC article.

Attalides actually sees this as an opportunity – since opposition to changing the Dublin Regulation was always most intense among eastern European nations, which objected to quotas and didn’t want to take refugees from the south.

Now, however, countries like Poland and Hungary are facing their own crises, and calling for solidarity. Attalides argues that our government should be more proactive and take advantage of the situation to convince the eastern European holdouts, thereby facilitating the approval of the Migration Pact.

Once that happens, believes Athanasiou, our migration issue should ease significantly. Meanwhile there’s much that could be done, from better surveillance to quicker processing of applications, and third-country agreements for the return of those whose applications are rejected.

“The applications themselves, the relocations and re-admissions and return flights – all that is part of the same package,” says Athanasiou. “And for that there is funding already, on the table.”

“Use the funds,” he urges. “We [the EU] are here. And if you need more, we are still here.”

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