Cyprus becoming new EU refugee haven as migrant numbers multiply

During these last three years the island of Cyprus has witnessed a remarkable increase in asylum seekers that has forced the Republic of Cyprus to alter its policies on migrants.

According to a February report on asylum and migration challenges in Cyprus by Germany’s political foundation Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung, the number of requests for asylum increased from 2,936 applications in 2016 to 13,200 in 2019, the highest number ever recorded in the country.

Although these numbers are not comparable to other European Union countries’ asylum seeker applications, the continuous increase has forced the Cypriot government to redesign its migration policies as well as its related infrastructure.

Although the COVID-19 global pandemic has temporarily frozen this migration flow, earlier this year both the Cyprus government and the EU settled new agreements to increase their cooperation and coordinate policies on the issue, which is a highly sensitive one for the European bloc.

Cyprus has never appeared as an important route for refugees on their way to EU countries, but the recent spike in asylum seeker applications may show that it is becoming a temporary haven for refugees seeking to reach larger EU countries like Italy, Germany or France.

One of the main complications in governing Cyprus is the island’s de facto partition since 1974, when Turkey occupied a third of the island in response to a military coup by Greek nationalists who sought to unify with mainland Greece, raising fears of ethnic cleansing of the island’s Turkish population.

This partition has set the political agenda in Cyprus ever since, and the border between the mainly Greek Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has become a legal obstacle to migration policies.

Since the Republic of Cyprus does not recognise the territory of the north, this border is not considered as a legal border, and before the outburst of the COVID-19, migrants coming from the northern side of the island could easily reach the southern part of Cyprus.

The increasing number of asylum seeker applications has forced the Cypriot government to ask for further help from the EU. In September last year, the Cyprus government and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) signed an agreement for further cooperation regarding asylum seeker applications, increasing the EASO’s budget in Cyprus, improving refugee camp conditions and sending more workers to the island.

An EASO officer working in Cyprus told Ahval that “since Turkey has closed the routes for migrants crossing to Europe, asylum seekers have found an alternative way in Cyprus.”

Migrants “are coming to Cyprus through the northern side of the island as well as through boats from Syria,” the officer said. “Given the situation in the north side of Cyprus it is unclear the exact number of refugees living in this island, since some of them find jobs in the north and stay there.”

The EASO officer highlighted that through his work he had witnessed how Syrian refugees were not attempting to fly to other EU countries after reaching Cyprus, since they see their stay in this island as a temporary situation before going back to Syria once the war is over. But he said asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan African countries would still look to move on to other EU countries from Cyprus.

The majority of these migrants reach Cyprus through Turkey, landing in Northern Cyprus with a student or a tourist visa. It is “very easy to cross the border from the northern side of the island to the Republic of Cyprus”, the EASO officer said, since the border controls appear to remain weak and Northern Cypriot authorities are unable to cope with the current number of migrants.

Another way to reach Cyprus is by boat, as this island is only 160 km away from the Syrian coast and only 80 km from Turkey. Although the number of Syrians coming by boat to Cyprus is unclear, the majority of reports indicate that they tend to arrive from Turkish waters. Syrians constitute the largest refugee community in Cyprus, and Cypriot authorities registered 2,477 asylum seekers from the country throughout 2019.

The role EASO is playing in Cyprus appears to be vital, as it is giving technical and human support to the Cypriot government. The EASO officer said that only this year, EASO had tripled its budget for Cyprus, following the increase of asylum seeker petitions. Proportionally, Cyprus is the EU country that received most asylum seekers in relation to its population (around 1.1 million people) in 2019, with asylum seekers making up to 1.8 percent of its population.

Despite this increased budget, EASO appears to be holding around 16,000 asylum seeker petition cases that still have to be evaluated by relevant officials. This backlog does not seem to have improved during the COVID-19 emergency.

Even so, the coronavirus pandemic also appears to have affected the flow of asylum seekers at a global level. According to a study by the think tank CSIS, migrant flows have been put into a halt at a global level since the pandemic erupted during the first months of this year. But Cyprus’s quick recuperation from the COVID-19 effects reinforce the island as a new refugee hotspot in the EU.

Another factor that could come into play would be the role Turkey is playing vis-à-vis EU countries regarding migration regulation. Turkey also appears to be recovering quickly from COVID-19 compared to many Western countries, and this could again affect migrant flows towards EU countries including Cyprus.

While the EU certainly is willing to avoid the images from last February, when Greek security forces’ efforts to halt migrants from crossing the border from Turkey led to accusations of human rights abuses, the Republic of Cyprus could see an increase of asylum seekers using this new route to reach EU territories.

This foreseeable scenario may ultimately force the government of the Republic of Cyprus to find informal channels or intermediaries to negotiate with Turkey to regulate the flow of migrants passing from its territories and those of Northern Cyprus.

This alternative migrant route through Turkish and Northern Cypriot territories appears to be only loosely controlled. But at the same time, both these countries, alongside the Republic of Cyprus, have been accused of violating the principle of non-refoulement.

Reports say that Syrian migrants reaching Cyprus by boat are first refused by Cypriot authorities and afterwards are taken from Northern Cypriot territory to Turkey, ultimately being transferred to Turkish towns bordering Syria. Finally, these mechanisms put at risk migrants who might be returned to Syrian territory, while also exposing them to health risks during a pandemic. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.