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Lebanon no longer accepting migrant returns from Cyprus

migrant boat
File photo: a boat with migrants

Lebanon is struggling to deal with over two million Syrian migrants within its own borders, and is no longer accepting returns from Cyprus, the interior ministry said on Friday.

Lebanon and Cyprus have had an ‘informal agreement’ that any migrants arriving in Cyprus’ waters from Lebanon are sent back. This week, over 15 boats from Lebanon have come to Cyprus carrying over 800 migrants.

In a statement, the interior ministry sought to answer ‘the two main questions’ citizens have over Syrian migrants arriving to the Republic from Lebanon.

As to why boats are not stopped from entering Cyprus’ territorial waters, the ministry said the sea is not a physical border that can be closed by artificial means to prevent boats from entering Cyprus’ territorial waters.

At the same time, it claimed that on many occasions, when approached by port and marine police, migrants are fearful they will be barred from continuing their journey. As such, they sink the boats or threaten to throw children overboard, therefore turning it into a search and rescue operation, the ministry said.

Cyprus in the past has come under fire for allegedly pushing back 200 migrants from Lebanon using violence and coercive tactics.

Elaborating on why the boats are not being returned to Lebanon, the ministry noted that despite the informal agreement reached with the Lebanese authorities last summer on returns and the successful return of migrants on three occasions, the fact that there are more than two million Syrians in Lebanon has caused a reaction within the country, resulting in them no longer accepting migrant returns.

Despite Lebanon’s refusal, the ministry said a return operation was carried out on February 12 for 116 migrants on board a police vessel.

Lebanon did not allow the vessel to enter its territorial waters, the ministry said.

Cyprus is asking for an increase in Lebanese surveillance, with the contribution of Frontex to prevent the departure of vessels, so that the problem can be dealt with in its origin.

The ministry underlined that after Syria was designated an unsafe country about 13 years ago, migrants of Syrian origin are considered refugees and therefore have a different status from any other irregular migrants (e.g. African or Asian). On this basis, all countries internationally, without exception, have an obligation to grant temporary protection status.

No country can proceed with the return or deportation of Syrians to their home country and for this reason the Republic of Cyprus “urgently requests the European Union, on the basis of an assessment by the European Union Asylum Agency (EUAA), to proceed with the reassessment of Syria and the designation of specific areas as safe, which will allow for returns under strict conditions.”

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