Police on Wednesday carried out busts against a “criminal organisation involved in the smuggling of irregular migrants to Cyprus”, with five arrests made.

The move came as President Nikos Christodoulides promised more action in the coming days and issued a harsh warning: “Anyone who seeks to exploit the system … is not welcome in Cyprus.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the president’s office said that key state authorities banded together – “about 40 people to carry out the operation, including the police, rapid response unit (MMAD), social services, the drug squad (YKAN)” and others.

The police’s efforts led to the arrest of five people, detailed to be of Syrian descent, with another four being sought. A later announcement said the operation was centred within the Limassol district.

It was further explained that the police have had to shift their tactics as the trafficking networks have also changed their methods. That has led to more boat arrivals with migrants via the sea, particularly from June onwards.

An interior ministry source told the Cyprus Mail that the changing pattern is a confluence of factors, one of which is fewer arrivals from Africa – who fly from Turkey, then the north and cross the Green Line into the Republic. Fewer arrivals from Africa are attributed to the government’s other policies on the matter.

The police stated that Wednesday’s arrests are linked to traffickers believed to be in contact and coordination with others in Lebanon and Syria.

The Cyprus News Agency (CNA) reported that the anti-money laundering unit (Mokas), cybercrime and financial crimes unit (MTFU) and other police departments helped located the suspected middlemen or other collaborators in the smuggling network in Cyprus.

Those arrested were reported to be of Arab descent, mainly from Syria, who have been living in Cyprus and appear to have connections with the networks in both Syria and Lebanon.

The operation was facilitated with information received from Lebanon, indicating that the interior minister’s recent visit to the neighbouring country on the matter is yielding results.

The government has focused on dismantling the trafficking networks by boosting its contacts with their counterparts in Lebanon, as an EU-wide freezing out of the Syrian government remains.

But Cyprus’ closer cooperation with Lebanon on the matter has led to the return of many more migrants originating from the neighbouring country. The police emphasised, however, that tackling the smuggling networks – which use dangerous vessels and practices – remains a priority.

It was further stated that a team tasked with tackling Syrian trafficking networks has been set up, staffed by the asylum service, migration department, as well as the labour ministry.

Asked about the trafficking bust, Christodoulides conceded that Cyprus has a major problem with irregular migration but stressed there will be no tolerance.

“Of course we will fulfill our international obligations, but beyond that, you will see in the coming days several announcements aimed at preventing, changing the impression that prevails – especially amongst the traffickers – that Cyprus is an attractive destination,” he stressed.

Indeed, a source told the Cyprus Mail that upcoming announcements are likely to hone in on the undeclared labour market – therefore reducing a pull factor in would-be migrants to Cyprus.

Wednesday’s events come just a day after another operation took place the previous day in Chlorakas – aimed at finally resolving the protracted issue of migrants at the troubled Ayios Nikolaos complex.

But the interior ministry appears cautiously optimistic that its efforts are paying off: in June, Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou said that for the first time in years there had been more irregular migrants leaving Cyprus than arriving.

An interior ministry source told the Cyprus Mail on Wednesday that the numbers overall are down significantly.

It was detailed that the number of people staying at the Pournara reception centre as of August 21, 2023, is 892 compared to the 1,805 in the same month last year.

A key focus is now on the Eastern Mediterranean Action Plan, which was presented to diplomats in May, and according to Ioannou must utilise the EU’s diplomatic tools to convince and press Turkey to reduce the number of arrivals to Cyprus via the north.

Local measures are limited, but he reiterated that 218 guards have been hired who are tasked with, among other duties, identifying human traffickers.