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EU Human Rights Chief Says Cyprus Pushed Back Refugees, Migrants

NICOSIA — Cyprus has unlawfully repelled refugees and migrants trying to reach the island’s shores and needs to stop, and also improve treatment of asylum seekers who landed, the European Union’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said.

In what was said to be an especially critical reprimand, the British newspaper The Guardian reported he singled out Cyprus although Greece has repeatedly been accused by activists and rights groups of the same practice.

She sent a letter on the fifth anniversary of a failed swap deal between the European Union and Turkey, which is supposed to contain some 4.4 million refugees and migrants but lets human traffickers send them to Greece.

He said the expulsions he declared were happening should be investigated without indicating why they hadn’t already been probed after complaints from rights groups.

“I have received a number of reports indicating that boats carrying migrants, including persons who may be in need of international protection, have been prevented from disembarking in Cyprus, and summarily returned, sometimes violently,” she wrote to Interior Minister Nicos Nouris, the paper said.

While arrivals in Greece have fallen sharply under the deal that’s been essentially suspended, refugees and migrants are still coming, although even less during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, complaining the EU is holding back 3 billion euros ($3.58 billion) from a 6-billion euro ($7.17 billion) pledge and not honoring a pledge for visa-free travel for Turks, and faster-track entry into the bloc, has threatened to let out more refugees and migrants.

Cyprus has faced a sharp rise in irregular migrant flows and has the highest per capita number of asylum claims in the 27-member bloc, according to Greek-Cypriot officials, the report added.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said asylum seekers accounted for 4 percent of the country’s population, “a particularly high percentage given that in all other member states the percentage is close to 1 percent,” and that applications jumped more than 500 percent from 2015-19.

Nouris told the paper’s Helena Smith, “Cyprus simply has no more space,” and that being divided – Turkish-Cypriots have occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion – made dealing with the problem more difficult.

THE GREEN LINE

“The vast majority of asylum seekers cross over from Turkish-occupied territory,” he said although there are checkpoints where people are supposed to present passports as well as United Nations peacekeepers also on guard.

Turkey refuses to recognize the legitimate Greek-Cypriot government that is a member of the EU that Turkey has fruitlessly been trying to join since 2005, and is the country that accepts a self-declared republic on the occupied side.

That, officials told the paper, has made dealing with the dilemma unmanageable, even worse now during the pandemic and with the election of hardline nationalist Ersin Tatar as the leader of the occupied territory.

The Greek-Cypriot administration said Turkey is flouting the swap deal and trying to change the demographic makeup by letting human traffickers send refugees and migrants to the island and to get across the dividing line.

In response, the government began laying barbed wire along the UN-patrolled ceasefire line in an attempt to deter arrivals. Most are young men from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with officials describing the vast majority as economic migrants.

Mijatović said she recognized the accelerated influx posed “considerable challenges” but also highlighted the need to improve living conditions in holding facilities, citing overcrowding, lack of hygiene and difficulties accessing rudimentary services, the report added.

“I urge the Cypriot authorities to bring the reception centers in line with applicable human rights standards and ensure that asylum seekers and migrants enjoy effective access to all necessary services,” she said with no indication it would be forced to do so.

More than 1,500 people are held in a former military installation on the outskirts of Nicosia, the island’s capital, the facility designed for a maximum capacity of 1,000.

Human Rights Watch said the camp is dirty and insect-infested and that it’s supposed to be a reception center of “first instance” designed to hold people for three days, most being kept months because of a backlog of asylum claims.

In a response letter, Nouris denied the Coast Guard was conducting pushbacks and that upon coming across arrivals on boats from Lebanon that Cyprus had negotiations with Beirut before sending many of the vessels back.

Cyprus said it’s proximity to Turkey and other countries where refugees are fleeing in hopes of reaching the European Union – which closed its borders to them – had made the island a growing destination for desperate attempts.

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