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Irregular migrant applications plummet by 46 per cent

Υπουργός Εσωτερικών – Επίσκεψη στ
File photo: Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou on his visit to Pournara

Cyprus recorded a notable decrease in irregular migrant applications of 46 per cent and a 66 per cent increase in returns last year, Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou said on Wednesday.

The minister emphasised that this positive trajectory has extended into the early months of 2024, with the current population residing in Pournara migrant reception centre hitting an all-time low. These achievements underscore Cyprus’ efforts, based on four elements, to address immigration issues and restore stability to its borders.

Despite the encouraging statistics, Ioannou sounded a note of caution, highlighting the enduring challenge posed by arrivals via the sea route. He stressed the need for collaborative measures between Cyprus and European authorities to effectively manage this ongoing issue.

Ioannou was speaking after the cabinet meeting where he updated the ministers and deputy ministers on the results so far of the measures implemented over the past 11 months regarding immigration.

“Despite the volatile external factors that may affect immigration data, in 2023 Cyprus achieved a 46 per cent reduction in irregular migrant applications and a simultaneous 66 per cent increase in returns,” he said, adding detailed statistics will be released at a later stage.

“A significant decrease of 72 per cent was also recorded in the number of new asylum applicants from African countries and a 59 per cent decrease in arrivals through the Green Line.”

Similar “encouraging results” continue to be recorded this year, the minister said. In January, 782 individuals arrived in Cyprus, the vast majority of them by sea (647 individuals, or 83 per cent) while the highest number of departures from the country was recorded, reaching 1,081 individuals. These included voluntary return programmes, relocation mechanisms and deportations.

According to January 2024 data, the departure rate over arrivals reached 138 per cent. While other EU member states record much lower return rates over arrivals, Cyprus ranks first in the EU in terms of departure rate over arrivals and fourth in absolute numbers of returns and deportations.

The current population residing in Pournara is around 526, which is the lowest number of residents for many years, Ioannou said.

However, increased sea arrivals continue to cause particular concern. In 2023, there was a 355 per cent increase in irregular migrant arrivals via maritime routes, the vast majority of whom are of Syrian origin. Ioannou said these individuals are transferred from Syria and Lebanon by migrant smuggling networks.

“Our goal is to strengthen efforts to combat migrant smuggling networks and better monitor the shores of Lebanon,” he said.

The issue was extensively discussed during European commissioner for home affairs Yiva Johansson’s recent visit, during which the Cypriot interior ministry conveyed the need for the European Commission to take more active action in the effort to better and more effectively combat migrant smuggling networks. It was agreed that Europol would take greater involvement, as also envisaged in the Action Plan for the Eastern Mediterranean. At the national level, the government established a task force in collaboration with the Cyprus Police Immigration and Asylum Service to ensure coordination and enhanced operational capacity.

Ioannou also referred to the initiative undertaken by the Cyprus government since last summer to reassess the Syrian status, “based on the actual data prevailing in the country” and assessments by the European Asylum Support Office. By April, the new assessment plan by the office will be completed, potentially designating specific areas in Syria as safe for the return of Syrian nationals under strict protection conditions.

Furthermore, the government aims to expedite asylum application processing within 30 days, enhance the Returns Office with additional staff, and strengthen measures against migrant smugglers.

Ioannou emphasised the importance of vigilance and readiness in addressing immigration challenges, noting that the establishment of the deputy ministry for migration, expected to be voted on next week, will consolidate responsibilities and contribute to maintaining positive outcomes.

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