Cyprus is getting more migrants being driven there from Turkey, which Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said has encouraged them to come after fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands.
“For us, this is a state of emergency,” Nicos Nouris told Agence France-Presse (AFP,) adding that 4.6 percent of Cyprus’ population now is are asylum seekers or beneficiaries of protection, the highest ratio in the European Union.
Turkey is holding some 4.4 million refugees and migrants but has allowed human traffickers to keep operating during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, Cyprus now becoming a more favored landing spot.
Rights groups and observers have criticized Cyprus for inhumane conditions in its overcrowded main migrant camp, where there has been violence, and for alleged brutal treatment of some arrivals.
Nouris though AFP that “brutal is what Turkey has been doing to us” as new asylum applications had multiplied to over 13,000 in 2021 in the country of 850,000, not including the Turkish-Cypriot occupied northern third.
“The migration issue in Cyprus is a huge problem because it’s been instrumentalized by Turkey,” he said.
He claimed that each day 60-80 migrants and refugees, guided by human smugglers, sneak across the United Nations-patroled 184-kilometer (114-mile) long Green Line splits the island, and that 85 percent came that way.
The top country of origin for pending asylum applications in 2021 remained Syria, but next came Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Somalia, according to the ministry.
Many of the newcomers, Nouris said, fly via Istanbul to the northern occupied side recognized only by Turkey. “From there, with the smugglers, they find a way through the Green Line,” he said, unspotted by patrols apparently.
But they are surprised to find that while Cyprus is a member of the that it is not in the visa-free Schengen Area, leaving them with nowhere to go.
“They are trapped on the island,” said Nouris. “They cannot travel to Germany or to France, where they want to go, because Cyprus is not a member of the Schengen zone,” he said.
Cyprus has said that the Green Line isn’t a border but a ceasefire line, beyond which lie “areas not under government control,” and is porous.
To remedy that, he said the Greek-Cypriot government will step up security there, including adding razor wire fencing and in the summer installing an Israeli-made surveillance system.
The head of the EU border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, is due to visit Cyprus on Feb. 23 and Nouris said he wants it to patrol the seas off Turkey’s coast where he said human smugglers operate.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have accused Cyprus of being too tough on asylum-seekers, including pushing some back to sea as has also been alleged against Greece by activists.
Nouris insisted that “Cyprus has never, never made a pushback” but had exercised its right to intercept boats, which were usually escorted to Lebanon.