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Nicosia presses EU on viewing Syria as safe zone

Υπουργός Εσωτερικών – Συνάντηση μ
Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou welcomes EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson to the ministry

Nicosia on Tuesday again pressed Brussels to review the status of Syria to designate the country or parts of it as a safe zone, allowing for the repatriation there of thousands of irregular migrants, but a visiting EU Commissioner would not commit.

Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou also expressed concern at “unprecedented” migration flows from Syria. Due to its proximity to Syria, the island is exposed to “disproportionately large numbers of illegal migrants arriving from the area, which puts pressure on our reception system”.

The minister reiterated to the EU Commissioner the government’s proposal to designate Syria, or specific areas of that country, as safe zones – allowing for the return there of Syrian nationals.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson was on an official visit to the island, meeting the deputy minister for welfare, the interior minister and the foreign minister.

Asked to comment on Syria during a media Q&A, Johansson said adjusting Syria’s status for migration purposes “is not easy, which is why we have discussed it and will continue discussing it.”

She added that the only way to manage migration flows is to do it in an “orderly manner, and jointly.”

Ioannou thanked Johansson personally as well as Brussels for their help and support on the issue of migration, where Cyprus is a ‘front-line’ country due to its location in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ioannou said he and Johansson held “very constructive” talks where they reviewed “Cyprus’ actions for a coherent and holistic response to the challenge of migration”.

According to the minister, as an island and non-Schengen country, Cyprus faces the greatest migration problem among the EU member states – with 5.5 per cent of the population, four times higher than the EU average, being new asylum applicants or international protection holders.

Cyprus has adopted a four-pillar policy, consisting of reducing arrivals, upgrading infrastructure, accelerating application processes and increasing returns. The government has doubled the number of case examiners, and promoted a voluntary returns programme with financial incentives.

These measures have achieved results, asserted Ioannou. In 2023 the total number of arrivals and applications dropped by 50 per cent compared to 2022, while the number of arrivals of migrants from African countries, through the Green Line, fell by 60 per cent.

“For the first time, we have a positive rate in terms of people leaving Cyprus in comparison to the ones arriving to the island. The fact that during 2023 we had a 116 per cent return-arrival rate is remarkable, especially taking into consideration the situation in the rest of Europe,” the minister stated.

Johansson pledged the EU’s support to Cyprus. She said the island “is in a very specific geographical location which is why it is necessary that the Commission supports you financially and also helps with relocation of migrants. We will continue to do so and work together to face the challenges we still have.”

The EU Commissioner said in-depth discussions are ongoing on how to deal with new migrant routes emerging from Lebanon and Syria. She stressed the importance of combating people smuggling, noting that migrants pay a great deal of money to risk their lives on the high seas.

On Gaza, and Cyprus’ involvement in a proposed maritime humanitarian corridor, Johansson said only that the EU is committed to providing the necessary aid.

She described the situation in Gaza as “dire,” adding that is why the EU has sped up financial support and logistical aid.

Earlier, the EU official met Deputy Minister for Welfare Marilena Evangelou. Among the issues discussed was the reintegration of unaccompanied minors.

Evangelou said this programme currently operates on a pilot basis for a limited number of unaccompanied minors, but there are thoughts to expand it., The minister noted that Johansson was open to the proposal and would try to promote it with the European Commission.

During the day, the EU Commissioner visited the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Larnaca.

 

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