Migrants turn to Cyprus as EU tightens borders
6 months ago
(10 Dec 2018) On the final leg of his journey from Iraq to Europe, Hawye Rasool Saleh paid 400 euros (455 US dollars), borrowed from his best friend, to a people smuggler who would help him across the ceasefire line of ethnically split Cyprus.
Two soldiers manning a Turkish Cypriot guard post checked the driver’s ID, then waved the van through to the buffer zone that divides the northern part of the island from the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member.
32 year-old Saleh, who said he fled religious fundamentalism in Iraq, is one of the thousands of migrants who have slipped into Cyprus during 2018 across the porous 180-kilometre-long (120-mile-long) buffer zone.
Migrant arrivals by sea have also increased, turning the tiny Cyprus into the EU’s top recipient of asylum-seekers relative to population size, as other countries have tightened their borders.
Government statistics show about 5,000 people – mostly from Syria but also Somalia, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cameroon – had claimed asylum in Cyprus by the end of August.
That’s expected to reach 8,000 by the end of the year, up from 4,600 in 2017 and 3,000 in 2016.
While that’s a fraction of the hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in the EU, the current levels are putting pressure on a country with just over 1 million people.
“We’re trying to manage the situation, but the trend as well as the aggregate numbers are such that they’re causing great concern,” Cyprus’ Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides has told The Associated Press.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Authorities in the north aren’t recognized by the international community except for Turkey, which on its part doesn’t recognize the Cypriot government in the Greek-speaking south.
Despite its proximity to the conflict zones of the Middle East, Cyprus received relatively few asylum-seekers during the peak of Europe’s migrant crisis three years ago, when most migrants arrived in Greece and made their way through the Balkans toward Germany and other countries in northern Europe.
An island nation just emerging from an economic crisis, Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants and refugees seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, experts say. But that changed as the Balkan route closed and the economic situation improved.
Petrides said Cypriot authorities are aware of at least one trafficking ring using the breakaway north as a conduit for migrants from Syria via Turkey, from where they either catch commercial flights or boats to the island. Government officials say nearly half of recent migrant arrivals have entered Cyprus that way. Others arrive directly to the south on rickety vessels from Turkey and recently also Lebanon, which has taken in about 1 million Syrian refugees.
Saleh said he flew from Irbil, in northern Iraq, to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, where he caught a connecting flight to Ercan airport in the breakaway north. In most cases, Turkish Cypriot authorities don’t require advance visas for passengers arriving from Turkey. Saleh is now staying in a reception center in a village south of Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, where he awaits a decision on his asylum claim.
Corina Drousiotou, who heads the Cyprus Refugee Council, a non-profit group, said there’s currently a backlog of 8,000 asylum applications.
“I can’t go back to my country,” he said.
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