Turkish Cyprus broke international law by forcibly returning Syrians – HRW

A joint statement made by several leading human rights organisations has condemned the authorities from both the Republic of Cyprus and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) for breaking international law in their treatment of a group of 175 refugees. 

Human Rights Watch said that a group of 175 Syrian refugees had arrived by boat on March 20 to the south of the divided island but had been pushed back to sea by the coastguard of the Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member. 

The joint statement condemned the Cypriot pushback as a violation of non-refoulement under the 1951 Geneva Convention and EU law on asylum, and an infringement of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

After the boat had travelled north and capsized, the refugees were rescued by the TRNC, which controls the northern part of the island. 

The refugees were housed in an apartment complex for a 14-day quarantine period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“At the end of the quarantine period, they continued to be detained – this time arbitrarily, in violation of the law of the ‘Turkish Cypriot administration’ which authorises the detention of irregular migrants for eight days extendable only by a court order,” HRW said. 

On April 24, 2020, the TRNC forcibly sent 75 of the Syrian refugees, including unaccompanied children, to Mersin, Turkey where they were then moved to a camp in the province of Kahramanmaraş, HRW said. 

On May 15, 2020, the TRNC forcibly sent the remaining 100 Syrian refugees, again including unaccompanied children, to Mersin, Turkey, HRW said. Those refugees were then transferred to Kilis, near the Syrian border, where they are now. 

The refugees risk onward refoulement to Syria, HRW said.

The joint statement said that the TRNC’s arbitrary detention and then forced return of the refugees to Turkey had breached the 1951 Refugee Convention and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The detention of minors had additionally violated the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The statement called on the Turkish Cypriot administration and Turkey to respect the principle of non-refoulement and international human rights law, including the European Convention on Human Rights, by stopping the forced return of refugees and asylum seekers. 

The statement called on the Republic of Cyprus to also abide by international laws on asylum and non-refoulement, to permit asylum seekers to apply for asylum and reunify with their families, and to terminate the suspension of access to asylum by those arriving by sea to the territory of the Republic of Cyprus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.