Claims and counterclaims over jurisdiction of Green Line, but why now?

It has now been over a month that a group dubbed the ‘buffer zone migrantshave been stranded within the no man’s land known as the Green Line.

They have become part of the government’s warning to any other potential asylum seeker considering crossing into the Republic through the buffer zone. The message: don’t do it. We won’t let you.

The arrival of 31 migrants who began reaching the buffer zone since mid-May and the government’s refusal to allow access to asylum proceedings has sparked an unusually public clash with the UN.

Both have effectively accused each other of lying, with the UN accusing Cypriot authorities of carrying out pushbacks in the buffer zone. Stakeholders have raised the alarm that Cyprus may be in violation of international and EU law in its approach, all of which the government denies, stressing it is acting well within its rights, citing the Green Line regulation.

While accusations continue between the UN and the Republic, the migrants are still living in tents under Cyprus’ scorching heat, relying on humanitarian aid and uncertain as to what will happen to them. Many are children and reports of them  fainting is a daily occurrence.

They hail from Cameroon, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Syria, and the UNHCR says a preliminary screening suggests they have good reason to apply for international protection. The fact that they flew via Turkey changes nothing according to the UN, as the countries of origin are plagued by conflict and danger.

Though 31 individuals stranded in the buffer zone near Akaki and Aglandjia pale in comparison to the thousands who have crossed over the years, the government’s tough stance has raised one specific question among observers: why now?

According to UN sources, the government’s decision to refuse the migrants access to asylum procedures is a very clear shift in what has been the de facto practice so far. Prior to mid-May there had been no issue in allowing migrants to enter the Republic’s territory and apply for asylum, sources said.

There was however one high profile exception in 2021, when two migrants were trapped in the buffer zone for seven months. Their ordeal eventually came to an end when Pope Francis visited Cyprus and took them under his wing.

Newly appointed deputy minister for migration Nicholas Ioannides told the Sunday Mail that just because thousands crossed through the buffer zone in the past and successfully sought asylum does not generate a binding precedent for the government.

He argues the sheer number “illustrates that there is a problem” and the government is within its rights to adopt a policy that is “proportional and reflects the facts on the ground”.

With the ultimate goal being to ensure “the Green Line does not become a passageway for migrants,” the government’s move to implement a tougher policy will remain unchanged, Ioannides stressed.

Human rights lawyer Achilleas Demetriades however argues this policy “has gone too far”.

“It is quite amazing, we are essentially having pushbacks on land into the buffer zone.” Coming from a country which so often cites international law for the Cyprus problem, it is at least problematic that the government is treating migrants in this way.

“The Republic of Cyprus has obligations to allow people in the buffer zone to apply for asylum,” he posits.

Shade is in short supply for the migrants

Ioannides rejects accusations of pushbacks and denies Cyprus is violating EU and international law.

According to the UNHCR, five of the 31 migrants managed to enter the territory of the Republic and actually reach Pournara to apply for asylum.

They “were later removed from the centre by police and pushed back to the buffer zone”, the UNHCR said.

Asked to comment, Ioannides said he had no information of such an incident, while the interior ministry refuted it in its entirety and called it untrue.

The question of the Green Line however continues to hang in the air, as does another poignant point regarding the jurisdiction of the buffer zone.

What does the Green Line Regulation actually say? Article 2, which is the relevant element here outlines: “The Republic of Cyprus shall carry out checks on all persons crossing the line with the aim to combat illegal immigration of third-country nationals and to detect and prevent any threat to public security and public policy.”

It specifies third-country nationals are only allowed to cross the line provided they have a residence permit or valid travel document.

Thus far, these are the rules which apply to any of Cyprus’ entry points. Anyone flying in through an airport, or reaching any of the country’s ports must fulfil these requirements, assistant professor in transitional justice and human rights at the University of Central Lancashire Nasia Hadjigeorgiou explains.

But international law provides for exceptions to these rules.

The backbone of the exception for asylum seekers is that they do not need to provide documents. As such, “the Green Line regulation is irrelevant here,” she argues.

One of the sticking points of the debate has been where the migrants were found. Cypriot authorities identified them in the buffer zone and refused them entry into the Republic. Though Hadjigeorgiou, Demetriades and the UN describe this as a pushback policy, the government has sought to make a distinction between the Green Line territory and areas of the Republic.

Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou earlier this week said that if any of the migrants make their way in the Republic’s territory, their asylum application will be processed.

This is why the UNHCR’s statement claiming five migrants actually reached Pournara but were forcibly taken back to the buffer zone is particularly significant – because it is the complete antithesis of the government’s narrative.

With both the UN and the state contradicting each other and no clarity on what the actual truth is, Hadjigeorgiou and Demetriades specify it shouldn’t matter if the migrants are in the buffer zone or in the Republic.

“The consistent claim of the Republic of Cyprus over the years is that the buffer zone is in the effective control of the Republic,” states Hadjigeorgiou.

Demetriades adds that Cyprus has territorial jurisdiction over the entire island except the sovereign base areas (SBAs) and as a result of the invasion, lost control of the areas occupied by Turkey.

Bearing this in mind, the government’s refusal to accept asylum applications from the buffer zone is effectively ceding its own jurisdiction, he argues.

“The correct interpretation is that Cyprus has jurisdiction of the buffer zone.”

Bearing this in mind, then it should accept asylum applications from migrants in the Green Line.

“With this policy it has taken, the government is giving up its jurisdiction of the buffer zone. For what, 31 people?”

By Friday, the number of migrants had gone down to 25 – presumably some managed to get to the Republic. But there has been no confirmation of an asylum application.

The buffer zone falls under the jurisdiction of the RoC and as such, asylum applications should be accepted, experts argue

At the same time, Hadjigeorgiou sees the latest incident as a continuation of a toughening stance from the government which began in 2020.

When the checkpoints closed due to covid, this came hand-in-hand with a changing asylum policy from the state, she believes.

Prior to 2020, any migrant who presented themselves at a checkpoint could apply for asylum. Once covid hit and the checkpoints closed, migrants could no longer seek asylum the way they had in the past. It has continued to remain this way to date.

This culminated in a fiasco of sorts in 2021 which saw the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson writing to Interior Minister at the time Nicos Nouris after two Cameroonian migrants were trapped in the buffer zone for months. The government refused to budge.

It is important that Cyprus upholds fundamental rights and EU values, in particular the right to asylum, in line with the EU acquis and in conformity with the Green Line Regulation,” Johansson wrote in a letter seen by the Sunday Mail.

“Any measures taken to address a difficult situation must be necessary, proportionate and in full respect of fundamental rights.”

At the time, it was the Pope’s arrival that showed a way out for the migrants and the ordeal dragged on for seven months.

Though a repeat incident has not unfolded since, the government has undertaken a number of measures to deter migrants away from seeking asylum.

This includes the agreements with other states to increase returns including the latest with Lebanon, and over 200 special police officers hired to patrol the Green Line last year.

In April, the government announced it was suspending processing of asylum seeker applications from Syrian nationals, a move that human rights experts branded as discriminatory and alarming.

Seeking to put the latest incident into context, the UNHCR said in recent months, there have been “multiple reports of the interception and subsequent pushback of boats carrying asylum-seekers attempting to reach Cypriot shores.”

All this is in line with the government’s toughening policy on migration. According to Ioannides there are two main aspects the state is focusing on. First, to ensure the well-being of the migrants and secondly “to safeguard the interests of the state”.