More and more migrants are arriving in the Republic of Cyprus from the Turkish-administered northern part of the island. On Wednesday night, more than 100 people crossed the buffer zone dividing the Mediterranean island.
"For us, this is a state of emergency," Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told news agency AFP this week. He also said that 4.6% of the country's population now are asylum seekers or beneficiaries of protection, the highest ratio in the European Union.
With the latest arrivals this week, at least 1,000 people have arrived in the southern part of Cyprus so far this year, the vast majority of them by land.
The Cypriot radio station CyBC quoted a police officer as saying that the migrant situation on the island had gone from bad to worse. A day earlier, Fabrice Leggeri -- the chief of EU border agency Frontex -- told the Cypriot broadcasting service that the EU member state was confronted with an "extraordinary challenge".
The Republic of Cyprus (RoC) needed "extraordinary support," Leggeri said after a meeting with Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris and an inspection of the situation on the island.
Leggeri said Frontex would assist Cypriot authorities in the form of staff to process asylum requests as well as with deporting asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected.
Leggeri's visit comes three days after minister Nouris said Turkey was responsible for Cyprus' difficulties in dealing with irregular migration. Speaking to news agency AFP, Nouris accused Turkey of encouraging many refugees from Syria and other countries to try to reach the RoC via the Turkish-controlled northern part of the island.
According to French public broadcaster France24, the RoC is "sharply at odds with Turkey," due in large part to contested potential offshore oil and gas reserves as well as the ongoing territorial dispute. Turkey hosts millions of mainly Syrian refugees under the EU-Turkey deal.
Surge in arrivals
Last year, more than 12,000 migrants arrived in the internationally recognized RoC in the south, 85% of them from the northern part of the island, minister Nouris told AFP. The Cypriot immigration authorities said they are overstretched and struggle to deal with the number of migrants who continue to arrive on the island.
The eastern Mediterranean island nation has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey invaded following a coup widely seen as an attempt to prepare the island for a political unification with Greece. The Turkish-administered northern side declared independence nearly a decade later, but only Turkey recognizes it and maintains more than 35,000 troops there, news agency AP reported in July 2021.
Although the whole of Cyprus has been a European Union member state since 2004, EU laws and rules apply only in the island's south (RoC).
The UN-patrolled buffer zone -- a ceasefire line that divides Cyprus into the northern and southern parts -- is some 180 kilometers long, up to eight kilometers wide and fortified in places with wire fences. Migrants and refugees seeking to go from the breakaway northern part of the island to the RoC need to cross it.
On Tuesday (February 15), three-year-old twins were found in the buffer zone after they had been separated from their parents.
Highest per-capita asylum rate
The RoC has seen a spike in irregular arrivals in recent years along with one of the highest first-time asylum seekers per capita rate among all European Union member states (relative to the countries' population size). In 2020, the country of 1.2 million people topped the list with 8,448 first-time asylum requests per one million residents.
From July to September last year, the RoC was again the EU country with the highest per-capita rate with 3,462, followed by Austria (1,339) and Lithuania (982). That's according to the latest data released by EU statistics agency Eurostat.
Rights groups and observers have repeatedly criticized the RoC, among other things, for squalid conditions in its overcrowded Pournara migrant camp -- where 36 people were recently injured due to stabbings and riots between migrants, for building a barrier along the buffer zone to prevent people from crossing over and for allegedly pushing migrants back at sea.