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Politics

Cyprus President Says a Buffer Zone Splitting the Island Won’t Become Another Migrant Route

NICOSIA, Cyprus  — The president of Cyprus said Tuesday that he won’t “open another route” for irregular migration by letting through more than two dozen asylum-seekers now stranded in a U.N.-controlled buffer zone that bisects the war-divided island nation.

President Nikos Christodoulides told reporters that his government is ready to provide any and all humanitarian assistance for the 27 Afghan, Cameroonian, Sudanese and Iranian migrants if the need arises.

But he said the 180-kilometer (120-mile) buffer zone “won’t become a new avenue for the passage of illegal migrants.” Turkey lets them pass through its territory and allows them to board airplanes and boats heading for the north of Cyprus, Christodoulides said.

Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by Greek junta-backed supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the north of the island where it maintains a force of more than 35,000 troops.

Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys full membership benefits and has the authority to extend asylum or international protection to migrants.

The U.N. said that the 27 migrants — approximately half of whom are women and children — are receiving food, water, primary first aid and shelter through its refugee agency UNHCR after they were refused by Cypriot authorities to submit their asylum claims.

The U.N. said it has no mandate to process asylum applications and can’t send the migrants back to either the north or Turkey.

U.N peacekeepers inside and out of the vehicles stand guard inside the U.N buffer zone at the area where some migrants are stranded, in divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. Cyprus’ President Nikos Christodoulides said that he won’t “open another route” for irregular migration by letting through more than two dozen asylum-seekers now stranded in a U.N.-controlled buffer zone that bisects the war-divided island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

“We are making representations to the Republic of Cyprus to live up to their obligations under European Union and international law,” U.N. peacekeeping force spokesman Aleem Siddique told The Associated Press. “We’re looking for a solution that works.”

The migrants’ arrival comes a few days before local and European Parliament elections, where migration is a top campaign issue and on which the far-right has seized to make major gains, according to opinion polls.

Cyprus had in recent years seen a major increase in migrants seeking asylum after reaching the north from Turkey and crossing the buffer zone. A combination of tough measures including stepped up police patrols along the southern fringes of the buffer zone, accelerated asylum claims processing and expedited repatriation procedures have reduced such crossings by more than 85%, according to officials.

The island also experienced a large influx of Syrian refugees reaching the island by boat from Lebanon in the first quarter of the year. But a deal with Lebanese authorities last month has effectively halted such boat arrivals.

It’s not the first time that migrants have been stranded in the buffer zone, and Cypriot authorities are wary about reprising the quandary. In 2021, Cameroonian asylum-seekers Grace Enjei and Daniel Ejuba who were stuck in the buffer zone for six months, were taken to Italy along with a few other migrants by Pope Francis at the end of his visit to Cyprus.

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