Cyprus is “emerging as a European champion of returns” of migrants, European commission vice president Margaritis Schinas said on Friday.

Schinas visited the island to meet members of the Cypriot government and said the issue of migration “takes an additional dimension in a country like Cyprus.”

“Here, everything is more demanding, more complex, more difficult,” he said, adding that the European Union’s support for Cyprus on the matter “was, is, and will remain non-negotiable.”

He added that “as a result of the very serious work that is being done in Cyprus … I think we can say, while avoiding triumphalism, that Cyprus has reached the end of the tunnel. In other words, immigration management is on a much more stable footing.”

Despite Schinas’ positive appraisal of the island’s position, Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou appeared much less enamoured with the situation, saying Cyprus is “under suffocating pressure” from the “large numbers of Syrians arriving”.

He added that Cyprus is in an “unfavourable position” due to the “mass arrival of Syrian nationals via sea routes.”

This, he said, is the case despite his assertion that “the massive flows of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries have been largely limited.”

With this in mind, he made reference to his plan to persuade the European Union to declare parts of Syria safe to return migrants.

He said the plan will “decongest our reception and accommodation systems” and help the country to reintegrate migrants.

The plan has won support from the Austrian government, of which a spokesman told the Cyprus Mail earlier this month of their enthusiasm for the plan.

Cyprus’ interior ministry had also claimed to have won the support of the Swedish government, but a spokesperson for Sweden’s EU affairs minister described the claim as a “misunderstanding”.

Schinas, Ioannou, immigration, interior minister, ministry, migrantsIoannou said on Friday there are now “several states” which believe that “it is time, after about 13 years, to dare to wade into this matter.

“Now, more than at any other time, with the geopolitical developments unfolding in our region and the visible danger of the conflict spreading to Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East, a joint political decision is required.”

Schinas said this process “has begun and is ongoing”, adding that “Cyprus has the opportunity to articulate its priorities with this process.”

He added that the process is “complex” and that there are “no easy solutions”, but said, “I think we can continue to work in the direction that Cyprus would also like.”

He added that many member states have different viewpoints on the matter, but that Cyprus’ view is “of great importance”.

“For it is Cyprus at the end of the day which is under pressure, and it is Cyprus which is closer and knows exactly what is happening there,” he said.

Ioannou also spoke about how the issue of migrant arrivals from Syria is “intertwined with the finding that organised trafficking rings are transporting people and exploiting human lives.”

He added, “the recent tragedies with the loss of children on boats travelling to Cyprus heighten our concern and make decisive action to dismantle these traffickers’ networks necessary.”

“This is a form of organised crime which we must fight with all available means, and recognising this, we set up a special police unit with the sole mission of identifying and arresting traffickers,” he said.

He also spoke on the “great importance” attached to the assistance provided by international frameworks such as Europol and Frontex, as well as the benefits of strengthening cooperation with third countries such as Lebanon and Egypt.

With this in mind, he made reference to the agreement signed on Sunday between the EU and Egypt, which, he said, “seeks to address the root causes of irregular migration and offer greater financial support to Egypt for the development of programmes which encourage legal immigration and attract talent to the EU.”

In addition, Ioannou touched on the “substantial improvement” recorded in relation to crossings of irregular migrants from the north over the Green Line.

He said the improvement came about after the implementation of “targeted measures”.

Schinas elaborated on this matter, saying, “we put a lot of pressure on the airlines and everyone involved in these phenomena,” adding that the EU has offered over €250 million in funding for Cyprus’ immigration infrastructure during his time in office.