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Lebanon Affirms Deal to Take Back Migrants Sailing to Cyprus

NICOSIA — Cyprus and Lebanon on Tuesday reaffirmed an agreement for Lebanese authorities to take back migrants aboard boats trying to reach Cypriot shores.

Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said Lebanese and Cypriot police and naval forces will intercept migrant boats departing from Lebanon. He said European Union member Cyprus and Lebanon would also seek assistance from the bloc's border agency Frontex in coastal surveillance.

"We're sending out a clear message that we won't tolerate anyone engaging in the trafficking of human beings and that we're defending the interests of our two states," Nouris said after talks with Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, a senior official from Lebanon's Interior Ministry.

The two officials said all migrants aboard boats attempting to reach Cyprus will be returned.

"Any person who leaves Lebanon, in accordance with the deal reached with Cyprus, should be returned home in coordination between the two countries," Ibrahim said.

In recent weeks, numerous boatloads of migrants have sailed to Cyprus — approximately 107 miles (172 kilometers) from Tripoli, Lebanon — alarming Cypriot authorities that say the island can't handle any more migrants seeking asylum for economic reasons.

Ibrahim said that most of the migrants trying to reach Cyprus by boat aren't Lebanese and may be trying to flee worsening economic conditions in Lebanon.

"Living conditions in Lebanon have become more difficult because of the economic crisis that we are passing through and this is what is maybe making these people migrate to nearby countries," Ibrahim said.

The Lebanese official said international agencies usually praise Lebanon for the way it treats more than 1 million migrants now living on its territory, but a worsening economy may be prompting many to flee.

Cyprus has come under fire by Human Rights Watch for allegedly pushing back 200 migrants and refugees arriving from Lebanon aboard boats last month without heeding their claims for asylum while in some instances using violence and coercive tactics. 

Nouris said the Cypriot government has received no such complaints and that Cypriot authorities acted lawfully and in line with EU directives. He said all migrants were returned to Lebanon safely under a Cypriot police escort.

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