The pressure on the government to allow the 26 migrants, stranded in the buffer zone – some since May 15 – to access asylum procedures is increasing. After Unficyp, the UNHCR and the European Commission, the deputy spokesperson of the UN Secretary-General, Farhan Haq, urged the Cyprus Republic to honour its obligation under EU and international law.

During Thursday’s briefing, Haq said: “While acknowledging concerns about irregular crossings, the Mission (Unficyp) stressed the importance of allowing asylum seekers unhindered access to asylum procedures as mandated by national, European, and international refugee laws, The organisation is in discussions with the Republic of Cyprus to address the growing humanitarian challenges in the buffer zone.”       

Meanwhile, the director of the UNHCR in Europe, according to the organisation’s local representative, had described the actions of the government in refusing to allow the stranded migrants to file asylum applications as “unacceptable.” The European Commission had taken a similar line, but the government has refused to budge. It takes the migrants requiring healthcare into the republic and then returns them to the buffer zone. Five of them who had managed to cross and go to the Pournara reception centre to register, were returned to the buffer zone when it transpired that they had escaped from the camp in the buffer zone.

There are currently 26 migrants, from Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Cameroon and Syria trapped in two locations in the buffer zone. Half arrived on May 15 while the rest this month, a few as late as this week. That there were still people crossing into the buffer zone in the last week would suggest the government was justified in refusing to give those who have been there since May 15 access to asylum procedures. If it had, it could have been a signal for many more to enter the buffer zone demanding asylum in the Republic.

The authorities in the north would certainly not have stopped them. In fact, they could be directing them to the buffer zone when they arrive from Turkey, where, for unknown reasons, they do not seek asylum or special protection. In the past hundreds of migrants were crossing from the north, with the previous government accusing Turkey of weaponising migration and taking the decision of erecting a fence along a stretch of the buffer zone to limit the crossings.

Now, apart from being accused of violating international and EU law, the government is also charged with showing inhumanity to the migrants who have been forced to live outdoors in scorching heat, without basic facilities. Its decision to play hardball, however, is understandable as it does not want to give the impression that anyone who enters the buffer zone would have access to asylum procedures. Cyprus, which has the biggest number of asylum seekers as a percentage of population in the EU, has been at pains to limit the flow of migrants both by sea and land, while also introducing a repatriation scheme.

A few months ago, it announced it would stop examining asylum applications by Syrians for 21 months. It was exploiting a regulation of the European Commission for exceptional circumstances, the usual period being six months. The decision affected 14,000 Syrian refugees and it was obviously meant as a deterrent, a way of discouraging more Syrians arriving here. Cyprus could end up in trouble with the Commission for this, but it has to take a tough stance, because neither Brussels nor the UN would come to the rescue when entire Syrian villages have relocated to Cyprus.

The government seems determined to stand its ground. President Nikos Christodoulides was in a defiant mood on Friday, taking a swipe at the UN by saying that those who thought they were applying pressure through public statements, would achieve nothing. Cyprus did not accept lectures on how to manage immigration, he added. The president can take a tough stance, knowing that he has the support of the majority of population which, opinion polls have shown, consider immigration the main problem facing the country that needs to be tackled.

Now he has made the government’s position clear to the UN he must stand firm. The buffer zone cannot be turned into a waiting room for migrants seeking entry into the EU through asylum procedures.