Cyprus new route for migrants prepared to 'die at sea'

Nicosia (AFP) –


For 26 hours, Mustafa hid on a ferry from Turkey to Cyprus, joining thousands of other refugees now looking to the divided Mediterranean island as their gateway to the European Union.

In two years, the number of first-time asylum applications in Cyprus has more than tripled, rising from 730 people at the beginning of 2017 to 3,015 at the beginning of 2019.

Mustafa is among those who are optimistic about their prospects on the island. "As soon as I leave the camp, I'll find work and rebuild my life," he told AFP.

The number of refugee and migrant arrivals to Cyprus is low compared with those in Italy or Greece.

But now the island nation has the highest rate of refugee arrivals of any EU country relative to its population, eight times higher than in France, according to the European statistics office Eurostat.

This does not include refugees or migrants living in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC), divided from the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, with a population of less than one million, since 1974.

"For refugees, Cyprus was never an ideal destination: it's an island and it's very far fromEurope," Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher at PRIO Cyprus Centre, told AFP.

"But now it's their only solution: routes to the EU from Greece are closed and the living conditions in countries near Syria are getting worse, like in Turkey and in Lebanon," he said.

"Suddenly, Cyprus seems very close for Syrians."

- Saturated services -

Omar, 33, was living in a refugee camp in Lebanon when he managed to raise the $1,000 needed to take a boat to Cyprus. "The price was very low, it was a three metre inflatable boat," he told AFP.

The seven other passengers, all Syrian like Omar, drowned during the crossing. Omar drifted for three days at sea on a tyre before being rescued by a cargo ship.

Cyprus is just 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Lebanon and 80 kilometres from Turkey, leading traffickers to offer this risky crossing to Syrians who, like Omar, "prefer to die at sea than in Syria".

Syrians, their country at war since 2011, make up the largest group of refugees in Cyprus, according to Eurostat.

Despite the 42 degree (107 Fahrenheit) heat, Mustafahas lived for 10 days in a tent in the Pournara camp, 20 kilometres from Nicosia,that hosts between 35 and 300 people.

"I have known refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, I can tell you that here we are better treated. I should have come sooner," Mustafa said.

Despite his optimistic account, a Cypriot asylum services official said reception services are saturated and it can take between six months and a year to grant authorisation to work in Cyprus.

"Before we had dozens of refugees per year, now it's thousands in a quarter. How can we cope?" the official said, asking not to be named.

In Nicosia, the NGO Caritas has also seen a "dramatic increase" in migrants seeking its help, said Elizabeth Kassinis, Caritas's executive manager in Cyprus.

Other than Syrians, she said the organisation is "getting more and more people from West Africa".

- 'A headache' -

Mustafa, who is 23, paid $4,000 for his journey to Cyprus hidden in a container.

The cost included crossing the "Green Line" that separates the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU, from the TRNC, which is recognised only by Turkey.

At loggerheads with Ankara, Nicosia has accused TRNC authorities of turning a blind eye to smugglers.

In 2019, 3,000 refugees crossed the notoriously porous Green Line to request asylum in the south, compared with only 138 in 2017, according to the Cypriot interior ministry.

The vast majority of migrants land in Ercan, the TRNC's only airport, where passing through customs is reputedly easier than in the south, according to experts.

"For Nicosia, the Turkish occupation means the migration situation can't be controlled. It's a headache," Tziarras said.

The unprecedented geopolitical situation in Cyprus -- a peaceful island in the middle of an unstable region and split by a demarcation line not recognised as a border -- "makes the situation worse", he said.

Tziarras emphasised that while Turkey "is part of the problem", support for Cyprus "can only come from the EU", especially in financial terms.

A "Schengen" border, with strict controls, separates refugees from the majority of other European countries.

Kassinis said that many refugees do not realise exactly where they are landing when they choose to try for Cyprus and are "very disappointed" when they discover they are still far from the rest of Europe.

"They feel like they've been played."

But Omar does not regret his choice. For the past seven months he has lived in the village of Astromeritis, where he hopes to one day to bring his family from Syria. Not by boat this time, but by plane.