A boat with 56 migrants on board was spotted off the coast of Cyprus on Sunday. The Cypriot authorities checked the documents of people on board at sea and then asked the group to return to Lebanon from where they had set off.
The boat, reportedly carrying 56 migrants (39 men, seven women and ten children), was spotted about 16 nautical miles south of Cyprus' Cape Greco on Sunday, May 16.
According to the Cyprus Mail, the Cypriot authorities sent two coast guard vessels to the area. One of the boats had nurses and translators on board. The coast guard coordinated their operation with the Joint Rescue Coordination Center.
Officers from the coast guard checked the documents of the migrants on board the boat, who told them they had set sail from the town of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
'Denied entry to the Republic [of Cyprus]'
The Cyprus Mail reported that the boat had initially tried to head for the Cypriot port of Protaras but was "denied entry to the Republic" and was told to turn back to Lebanon.
The German news agency dpa, quoting Cypriot state broadcaster RIK, said that the return was the third case of Cyprus telling migrants to return to Lebanon in the last eight months. Two weeks agao, on May 4, the Lebanese authorities reported that they had stopped 51 Syrians from crossing to Lebanon.
The nationality of those on board has not yet been made clear, reported dpa. Cyprus’ Interior Minister Nikos Nouris stated once again, according to dpa, that Lebanon is a safe third country, and, as such, migrants can be returned there without problem.
The Cypriot and Lebanese authorities have had an agreement in place since last summer. A team from Nicosia was sent to Beirut, the Lebanese capital then to help the Lebanese authorities prevent people from getting in boats in the first place. Under the agreement, boats that don’t reach Cyprus can be asked to return to Lebanon.
Cyprus’ government has said that the camps for migrants and asylum seekers on the island are "overfull," and, like its fellow Mediterranean states, Greece, Italy and Malta, has sought additional help from the EU in order to cope with the numbers of migrants already on the island.
The English version of Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported that Cyprus has been criticized for its policy of sending potential asylum seekers back to Lebanon. Among them was the EU human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic.
Allegations of pushbacks
According to Ekathimerini, Mijatovic said in the past: "boats carrying migrnats, including persons who may be in need of international protection, have been prevented from disembarking in Cyprus, and summarily returned, sometimes violently." There is no suggestion that this particular episode involved any violence.
The Cypriot government has repeatedly rejected allegations of pushbacks or violence. They said that they offered migrants food and fuel if they agreed to turn their boats back towards Lebanon, according to Ekahtimerini.
Asylum seekers on Cyprus
In actual terms, Cyprus doesn't have as many migrants as its neighbor Greece, or other Mediterranean countries like Italy, however, per head of population, it has the highest number in the EU, a fact that the government has repeated often when faced with taking in more potential asylum seekers who try to land on its shores.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 484 migrants have arrived on Cyprus this year to date. The European Council for Refugees and Exiles, via Cyprus’ Asylum Service, last updated its figures for asylum seekers already on the island and said that there were 7,094 new applicants for asylum in 2020 but 19,660 pending cases at the end of that year.
The rejection rate of asylum cases in Cyprus stands at 72.8% and the refugee rate at 2.48%. In 2020 155 people were granted refugee status on Cyprus and 1,544 were granted subsidiary protection.