A migrant walks in a field near Pournara migrant reception center in Kokkinotrimithia outside of capital Nicosia, Cyprus, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022 | Photo: Picture-alliance
A migrant walks in a field near Pournara migrant reception center in Kokkinotrimithia outside of capital Nicosia, Cyprus, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022 | Photo: Picture-alliance

The Republic of Cyprus has announced plans to install an electronic surveillance system. The goal: to reduce the numbers of migrants crossing the border from the Turkish-controlled north into the southern Republic of Cyprus, which is part of the EU.

The plan was announced by government spokesperson Marios Pelekanos on Tuesday (April 19) after a meeting with police and defense officials. The Republic of Cyprus (RoC) plans to set up the electronic surveillance system along the buffer zone that runs through Cyprus. It divides the island into the Republic of Cyprus -- the Greek-speaking south of the island which is part of the EU -- and the Turkish-controlled northern region.

The surveillance system will be designed to stop migrants attempting to cross the border without papers from the north to the south. The numbers of people trying to enter southern Cyprus by that route has risen 184% in the period between January and now, compared to the same time period in 2021, according to European Union statistics cited by news agency Associated Press (AP).

Israel deal

Details regarding the surveillance system have not yet been released. The system is expected to cover the 180-kilometer border, which is patrolled by the United Nations. Although some asylum seekers reach Cyprus by sea from countries like Lebanon, the majority fly on to the Turkish-controlled north and then cross the land border with the Republic of Cyprus.

In October 2021, Cyprus signed a €27.5 million agreement with Israel, according to the organization Euromed rights, to help install the monitoring system along the buffer zone. In November, the French Interior Minister visited the country and agreed to initiate talks between Cyprus and francophone African countries, including DRC and Cameroon with the aim that those countries would accept back any citizens whose asylum applications were rejected by Cyprus.

Cyprus has most asylum applications per capita

The majority of migrants and refugees arriving in Cyprus come originally from Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Somalia, Nepal and Sierra Leone, according to the Asylum in Europe Information Database AIDA report on Cyprus from 2021.

According to the latest data from the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, 698 migrants arrived in Cyprus since the beginning of the year. The data was last updated on April 17. However, Euromed Rights noted on March 8 that "more than 1,300 asylum seekers entered the European part of the Cypriot island since the beginning of 2022."

RoC was the EU country with the largest number of asylum seekers relative to its population last year. The government has repeatedly called for EU support, saying that its capacities have been overwhelmed. And migrants, refugees and their advocates have criticized the RoC for failing to adequately accommodate asylum seekers and processing their claims.

At the beginning of 2022, Euromed Rights reported that there were more than 19,000 asylum applications pending from the previous year.

Cyprus' president Nicos Anastasiades, left, talks with migrants inside the Pournara migrant reception center on Monday, March 14, 2022 | Photo: Petros Karadjias/AP Photo
Cyprus' president Nicos Anastasiades, left, talks with migrants inside the Pournara migrant reception center on Monday, March 14, 2022 | Photo: Petros Karadjias/AP Photo

Reception centers criticized

The Pournara reception center on the island has been repeatedly denounced by asylum seekers and rights organizations, including the Cyprus commissioner for children’s rights, as overcrowded and offering inadequate conditions for those interned there.

In February this year, the European Commission, Frontex and Europol signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to help Cyprus manage what they referred to as "irregular migration" on the island. All signatories agreed to enhance reception capacities for asylum seekers and improve the material reception conditions. As a result of the MoU, they announced plans to speed up asylum procedures and to develop better strategies to integrate third-country nationals.

To this end, the Cypriot government has asked the EU to help fund improvements to both the Pournara and Limnes reception camps. According to Euromeds Rights, they intend to make updates costing about €80 million in total for the two camps. They also announced the signing of a €34 million contract to provide food for asylum seekers staying at Pournara. The EU is expected to cover €4 million of this and the Cypriot government the rest.

Asylum in Cyprus

Cypriot authorities have also been accused of carrying out illegal pushbacks by observers and activists; and many migrants and refugees report struggling to make a life for themselves there.

In the AIDA report on asylum in Cyprus in 2021, the authors listed pushbacks reported both at the land and sea borders of the RoC

They wrote that "Cypriot authorities continued to carry out pushbacks of boats carrying mainly Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians who had departed from Turkey, or Lebanon." AIDA stated that eight such pushbacks had been reported.

On land, three Cameroonians were reportedly pushed back from the RoC into the buffer zone at the Ledra Palace crossing after they attempted to seek asylum. They then remained in tents in the buffer zone for six months, reported AIDA. One of those three entered the RoC in autumn 2021 and the other two were flown out by Pope Francis to Italy after he visited Cyprus in December.

Around the time of the Pope’s visit, another person -- an 18-year-old Nigerian woman -- was reportedly pushed back into the buffer zone from the RoC, according to the report.

A lack of integration opportunities for anyone granted asylum remains one of the "weakest elements of the national asylum system," according to AIDA. Access to family reunification is also reportedly also difficult, as is the possibility of naturalization, even for those living more than ten years in the country.

 

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