Coastal authorities were on alert on Tuesday following information that a boat with 95 irregular migrants was the first of an organised wave of hundreds of further arrivals.
Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou instructed authorities to prepare, in the event that the information about a mass departure of immigrants from Lebanon to Cyprus is verified, director of the interior minister’s office Loizos Hadjivasiliou told the Cyprus News Agency (CNA).
Speaking on CyBC’s morning programme, Hadjivasiliou said that this was an unprecedented development and preparations were being made to process the possible surge, as well as intercept boats before setting off from their starting point in Lebanon.
The ministry was responding to information that emerged from the most recent irregular migrants to arrive, who were overheard by authorities mentioning hundreds more refugees are on their way from a particular area in Lebanon.
The 95 migrants arrived after being spotted in two boats off the coast of Cape Greco on Sunday night. Members of the coast guard met and escorted those on board to Larnaca marina where they processed the passengers, 73 men, 14 unaccompanied minors, two women and four children, before transferring them on Monday to the Pournara reception centre.
The majority of the passengers, 93, were Syrian refugees, while two were Lebanese. A 30-year-old man was arrested after evidence was obtained identifying him as the boat’s operator.
In the context of interviews conducted with the arriving migrants, “the translators and the competent officers noticed that several of them mentioned that they were the first group to arrive. They also reported that around 500 people gathered at a certain point in Lebanon and were waiting to enter boats to sail to Cyprus,” Hadjivasiliou said.
“This is the first time this situation has happened with such a large and organised operation underway from a single point in Lebanon,” the director told the CyBC.
The interior minister meanwhile contacted his counterpart in Lebanon on Monday evening and received the assurance that the matter will be taken care of, Hadjivasiliou said.
“All procedures have been activated to verify the numbers and we are in preparation to receive and process any arrivals,” he said.
The director also told CNA that the information had “alarmed” authorities and that Lebanon was a country with two million Syrian refugees and where it is not easy for authorities to prevent the departure of boats.
Instructions were therefore given by the minister to make the necessary preparations for the reception of these people in case the information about a mass departure is verified.
The sudden surge was attributed by the welfare ministry director to favourable weather conditions which prevail in the summer months, as well the fact that migration through the green line had been made more difficult.
“For this reason we are seeing a shift of preference of organised circuits for the sea route from Lebanon,” Hadjivasiliou said.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the ongoing economic deterioration in Lebanon is largely responsible for the bigger picture of an uptick in numbers, while the primary destination for the boats has in fact shifted from Cyprus to Italy.
UNHCR reported that in the first nine months of 2022, 2,670 individuals “departed or attempted to depart irregularly from Lebanon” by boat, compared to the same period in 2021 when 1,137 individuals did the same.
“Of those boats, six intended to reach Cyprus, while 26 to reach Italy — a shift in trend from recent years when Cyprus was the primary intended destination,” the agency reported.
“Efforts are focused on preventing the boats from setting off at their starting point in cooperation with the Lebanese authorities with whom the ministry has an agreement of cooperation,” Hadjivasiliou said, adding that “politically, as well as practically” it was easier to stop migrants from setting off than engaging in return procedures.
Earlier in the year, Cyprus and Lebanon agreed on more effective measures to curb irregular migration across the Eastern Mediterranean.
The agreement was reached during Ioannou’s visit to the neighbouring country in July.
The two countries agreed to create a working group at a technical level to coordinate and undertake measures to manage migration flows and create a network of Lebanon-Cyprus contact points for the exchange of information, including joint patrols.
The cooperation with Lebanon to limit arrivals to Cyprus is effective, Hadjivasiliou said, noting, that “for every boat reaching Cyprus, three or four get intercepted by the Lebanese authorities.
“The minister of the interior constantly expresses moderate optimism about this particular issue [and] we are doing well in general,” Hadjivasiliou added.
Shortening the processing time for applications, from up to 21 months down to three maximum, will significantly help voluntary return and deportation procedures, and measures taken by the ministry to date have resulted in an over 50 per cent reduction.
“The conditions in the immigration detention facilities are better, upgrades have been made […] the number of officials examining applications has increased and the process of deporting those [who are] illegally staying in Cyprus has been accelerated,” Hadjivasiliou said.