Cyprus on Thursday categorically denied allegations of pushing back and threatening migrants during an operation off the coast of Lebanon, where five boats were returned.

Asked by the Cyprus Mail about NGO reports alleging threats against the migrants, a government source said: “We categorically deny these allegations.”

The source said that the individuals were provided with food and blankets before being sent back, refuting any claims of threats by Cypriot authorities.

According to the source, Cyprus also did not pushback any of the boats, highlighting that pushbacks means to tow the boats back to where they came from.

However, this explanation has clashed with how the UNHCR and EU define the term pushback.

It is defined as: “Various measures taken by states which result in migrants, including applicants for international protection, being summarily forced back to the country from where they attempted to cross or have crossed an international border without access to international protection or asylum procedures or denied of any individual assessment on their protection needs which may lead to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement.”

The Cedar Centre for Legal Studies in Lebanon confirmed to the Cyprus Mail that the people were eventually given food and some blankets, after being in the presence of Cypriot authorities for six to nine hours.

According to the Centre, who spoke with some of the migrants, the authorities at first threatened them with guns, as had been reported a day ago by international NGO Alarm Phone.

Speaking later in the day, deputy government spokesman Yiannis Antoniou said: “The Republic of Cyprus, as a member of the European Union, respects the international conventions it has signed and acts within the framework of legality.

“These people are not endangered by the vessels of the Republic of Cyprus that are patrolling the coast, but they are endangered from the moment they enter the fishing boats, which are exploited by these people who make a lot of money from the circuit. The end all and be all of the Republic of Cyprus is not to hunt down or punish these people but to safeguard its vital space by all means. It is unfair to judge the Republic of Cyprus and society as inhumane.”

Antoniou clarified that the Republic of Cyprus’ approach to the migration problem was and remains humanitarian “but everyone needs to understand the space and resources of the Republic of Cyprus”.

He also said that the stories written about the boats being sent back create problems with Lebanon, as the Lebanese media question why they should be required to take the people back.

Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou also weighed in on the debate on the treatment of the migrants sent back to Lebanon.

Everything we do to address the increased migration flows falls within the framework of legality and international regulations,” he said.

The migrants were at sea for almost a week, and international NGOs had condemned their treatment at the hands of the Cypriot authorities who approached their boat.

The government has also recently put a freeze on accepting Syrian asylum applications, and will instead be keeping them in migrant camps in Cyprus.