Interior Minister Nicos Nouris on Monday admitted mistakes in the management of the citizenship-by -investment scheme, but said that by late 2020 – when the programme was nixed – many flaws had been corrected compared to the situation at its inception in 2007.
His remarks came during a Q&A session following a presentation to the media of the work of the interior ministry over the 2018 to 2023 period. Nouris himself took over as interior minister in December 2019.
“We have to say a mea culpa,” the minister admitted in relation to the now-defunct passports programme.
Due diligence checks on applicants were particularly weak at the scheme’s start, he said, but over time these got tightened up – particularly just before the scheme was terminated in 2020, soon after the Al Jazeera reveals.
“Had the checks been better than non-existent during the initial stages of the programme…then yes we might have avoided many issues. But what happened, happened.”
In an approximately 7,000-word long presentation with slides, Nouris gave a rundown of the ministry’s work in various areas. He highlighted the reform of local government – the consolidating of municipalities so that they become financially self-sufficient – noting that the new system would be fully rolled out in 2024.
Nouris described local government reform as “the crown jewel” of the administration.
Elsewhere, the ministry introduced computerisation at the land registry office, which helped reduce the number of pending title deeds to 9,845 in 2022 from 45,000 back in 2015.
The various reforms and incentives given also led to an uptick in building applications, thus boosting economic activity.
In the Q&A, journalists relayed to Nouris criticisms by presidential candidate Andreas Mavroyiannis of the management of irregular migrant flows. Mavroyiannis had pointed out that the current administration is “bequeathing” more than 33,000 pending asylum applications.
Responding, Nouris said Mavroyiannis was not being fair as he was not comparing like with like. In the period referred to by Mavroyiannis, asylum seekers ranged from 500 to 1,200 a year, but currently the numbers have shot up to 21,000.
Defending his ministry, Nouris said that the efficiency of processing asylum seekers has “quadrupled” but that this is still not enough. Authorities have cracked down on sham marriages and the influx of fake college students, and have cut down on arrivals by sea.
But crossings through the ‘green line’ from the north of the island remain the single largest problem.
“The generative cause of the migrant problem in Cyprus is well known, and goes by the name of Turkey,” he noted.
“Over the past 18 months Turkey has systematically altered the demographics of migration – whereas the top 10 countries of origin used to be mainly Asian countries, now they are countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
“Obviously migrants don’t get here from sub-Saharan Africa swimming or on boats. They fly to the airport in Istanbul, next arrive at Tymbou airport in the north, and then traffickers funnel them through the green line.”
The government is trying to discourage human trafficking with more severe penalties, recently amending the law and raising jail time for such offences to 12 years.
Meanwhile Nicosia is pushing for a uniform EU-wide policy governing the management of asylum seekers but matters “are moving very slowly”, Nouris said.
The minister also appealed to the Turkish Cypriot people to exert pressure on their own authorities to stem the influx of irregular migrants into the north.
The change in demographics on the island would be detrimental to a settlement of the Cyprus problem, he added.
“So they [Turkish Cypriots] must decide if they want to manage these people only for financial gain – because this thing in the north happens through so-called universities which sell supposed student visas – and weigh that against the possibility of solving the Cyprus problem.”