After authorities from EU member state Cyprus refused to let a migrant boat dock due to the corona crisis, police in the northern part of the island, which is under Turkish control, said they rescued over 170 migrants a day later. Ethnically divided Cyprus, split by a demarcation line not recognized as a border, has become a popular destination for migrants in recent years.
Police in the northern part of Cyprus said Saturday they had rescued 175 Syrians from the sea after authorities in the island's south stopped them from disembarking the previous day, news agency AFP reported on Saturday.
The group, including 69 children, was rescued in the night from Friday to Saturday after their boat sank not far from shore south of the Karpas Peninsula, according to police. The peninsula is the northeasternmost part of Cyprus.
Police added that the migrants were taken to a sports facility on the peninsula and would undergo medical examinations. It was not immediately clear where the boat had set off from.
The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus is divided between the internationally-recognized Republic of Cyprus (RoC), an EU member state, and the Turkish-administered northern side.
On Friday, German news agency dpa reported that security forces from the RoC had refused to let a boat carrying around 100 migrants dock.
According to dpa, a police spokesperson said the crew of the Cypriot coast guard vessels offered the migrants aboard the boat supplies and fuel, which the passengers allegedly refused. The spokesperson also said the migrant boat was located south east of the island outside Cypriot territorial waters.
Cyprus Mail, the only English-language daily newspaper in Cyprus, reported that the passengers "refused the help when they were told the supplies were to help them return to the country from which they had sailed."
Ongoing tensions between north and south
In recent months, several migrant boats carrying Syrians have reached Cyprus. However, unlike fellow EU-member Greece, Cyprus did not see a wave of migrants trying to enter after Turkey on February 28 announced it was "no longer able to hold refugees" heading across the EU border.
Earlier this month, the government introduced a series of measures to curtail the number of arrivals. Separately, it closed several border crossing points with the northern part of the island over coronavirus fears.
Cyprus has one of the highest first-time asylum seeker per capita rates among all European Union member states (relative to the countries’ population size).
According to the most recent data from EU statistics agency Eurostat, Cyprus topped the list in 2019: In the last three months of 2019, Cyprus saw 3,728 first-time asylum requests per 1 million residents, followed by Malta (2,725), and Greece (2,613).
Porous 'Green Line'
According to minister Nouris, two-thirds of arriving migrants reach the RoC through the northern part, where no asylum system is in force. This means they cannot ask for international protection. In terms of overall arrivals to the island of Cyprus, UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that approximately half of all migrants arrive in the Turkish-administered north.
Migrants then take the well-trodden route of sneaking across the dividing buffer zone, or 'Green Line,' into the RoC. The 200-kilometer (120-mile) UN-controlled demarcation line is controlled by police and military personnel.
According to the Cypriot interior ministry, the number of persons irregularly crossing the line has been increasing in recent years: In 2019, 3,000 refugees crossed the Green Line to request asylum in the south, compared with only 138 in 2017.
Last November, Cyprus had decided to turn the Green Line into a more tightly-controlled border. The move was intended to stop people from crossing into the south to claim asylum there.
Cyprus is located around 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the Syrian coast in the eastern Mediterranean and close to Lebanon and Turkey, two major host countries of Syrian refugees. The relative proximity to these countries is leading traffickers to offer this risky crossing to Syrians, who currently make up the largest group of refugees in Cyprus.
At the time of writing, Cyprus had 95 confirmed coronavirus cases and one death, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
With material from AFP, dpa