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Govt seeks to return 30 Syrian nationals ‘ASAP’

file photo: migrants wait at a fishing shelter in paralimni, cyprus
File photo: Migrants wait at a fishing shelter in Paralimni

Experts on Tuesday sounded the alarm over the government’s latest policy on suspending asylum seeker applications for Syrian nationals, while the interior ministry said it was ready to revoke the protection status of around 30 people from Syria.

A ministry source told the Cyprus Mail the government has tracked around 30 people who have travelled to Syria via the north in the past year and as such will have their protection status revoked “imminently.” They will not have a right to appeal the decision.

The development comes after the government’s decision to crack down on migrants from Syria, met by heavy criticism and strong praise from different quarters.

President Nikos Christodoulides announced on Saturday that asylum seeker applications from Syrian nationals will be suspended “in light of the mass arrivals” recently.

Elam was quick to take credit for the idea, saying it was a proposal it had put forth.

Assistant Professor in Transitional Justice and Human Rights at UCLan Nasia Hadjigeorgiou said it was problematic that the president was making decisions that were aligned with proposals by the far-right.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry went on to clarify on Monday that the suspension would be for a maximum of 21 months. Additionally, any Syrian national found to have travelled back to Syria via the north in the past year will have their protection status revoked.

Asked whether the government would be collaborating with ‘authorities’ in the north to clarify who has travelled, the interior ministry said it would be “from our own sources of information” which could not be specified, citing reasons of national security.

The 30 individuals have the option of agreeing to a voluntary return or deportation – however the latter is currently not possible due to Syria’s status as an unsafe country.

If they do not agree to voluntary return, they will be classed as living in Cyprus illegally. “They will have all their rights stripped” and will not be able to go to a doctor through Gesy or work.

“We will be keeping a close eye on these people to ensure they are not working,” the source said.

Public information officer at Cyprus’ UNHCR office Emilia Strovolidou told the Cyprus Mail that travelling back to Syria and subsequent returns to the asylum country “does not present grounds for the withdrawal of international protection status.

“Such travel should not, on its own, be a reason to reject an asylum application or revoke an international protection status.”

Hadjigeorgiou said this is not the first time the government has implemented suspended examining asylum applications.

It was in place from February 2022 to March 2023 under former Interior Minister Nicos Nouris.

Experts have raised questions over the legality of the decision, which the government has insisted adheres to EU law. The interior ministry said it has received legal advice from the attorney-general’s office over the matter, which called it legal. 

‘Racial discrimination’

Human rights lawyer Achilleas Demetriades described it as a discriminatory decision, which Hadjigeorgiou also agreed with, arguing that discrimination based on nationality could only be made with a very legitimate reason – such as matters of national security.

Christodoulides’ statement on X however cited the increased arrival of Syrian nationals.

“This is not a legitimate reason,” she said.

Hadjigeorgiou also underlined that Cyprus’ law on the rights of asylum seekers is approved in parliament. “The president does not have the authority to undo what he did not do,” she said.

Put simply, any amendment to laws is made by the legislative body – not the executive.

However, it appears the government is capitalising on EU laws that allow for an extension in the time allowed to process asylum applications.

Debating over the months

EU Commission spokesperson Anitta Hipper told journalists that the government’s decision “is possible under the asylum procedures regulations, and indeed this extension can take up to nine months. But of course there should be also a reassessment of the country of origin.”

The nine months sparked questions, which the interior ministry sought to clarify, as it clashed with the government’s narrative of 21 months.

The ministry cited Article 31 of the Asylum Procedure Directive and Article 72 of the Treaty of the European Union, arguing it has six months to examine an asylum application, which it can extend for another nine months.

After this, the government said it may apply for another six-month extension – bringing the total to 21 months.

Strovolidou countered that the delay can be up to 18 months “under exceptional circumstances.

“This provision is intended to be applied on an individual basis and not in response to a surge in asylum applications.”

A source close the matter said the ministry’s six-month extension is only valid if the country in question – in this case Syria – is found to be in an uncertain situation which is expected to be temporary.

“The Syria crisis has entered its 14th year and remains one of the largest displacement crises globally with more than 12 million Syrians still displaced inside and outside Syria,” the source added.

The UNHCR told the Cyprus Mail it recognises the challenges that increased arrivals can pose to host countries.

“We urge the Republic of Cyprus to continue upholding its international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement, which require that asylum-seekers are admitted to territory and granted access to asylum procedures to have their protection needs assessed and prohibit the return of individuals to a place where they would face threats to their life or freedom.”

It added it was ready to support Cyprus in managing these challenges.

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