Cyprus: Refoulements to Lebanon and Syria under scrutiny again

Crowded reception centres, thousands of asylum applications awaiting examination. In Cyprus, the arrival of migrants has particularly increased since the beginning of the year. Between January and March, according to the Cypriot Ministry of Interior, 5,500 asylum applications were registered, compared to 1,600 in the same period in 2021 (13,771 applications in total). According to the Cypriot government, 5% of its population are asylum seekers or have been granted asylum, the highest rate in the EU. 

Although the number of arrivals is high, this should not mean that the reception of asylum seekers and the protection of refugees should be reduced. On the contrary, as EuroMed Rights reminded at a European Parliament hearing on the migration situation in Cyprus on 21 April, many of the problems observed in Cyprus are the result of a lack of adequate migration and asylum management policies. For example, due to the lack of a housing support system, migrants are forced to live on the streets, while minors are confined to camps instead of going to school. 

Moreover, in 2020, Cyprus signed an agreement with Lebanon – de facto secret as it has never been published – to block departures and facilitate the return of boats approaching the Cypriot coast to Beirut. However, several international reports have pointed out that these procedures violate the principle of non-refoulement, and EuroMed Rights has observed that they have led to a chain of refoulements to Syria, family separations, and the disappearance of a migrant.  

The concept of ‘safe country’ is contrary to the Geneva Convention 

For the examination of asylum applications, Cyprus uses a list of 29 so-called ‘safe countries’ – including Egypt – to increase its return rate. The concept of ‘safe country’ is contrary to the Geneva Convention, which calls for the evaluation of asylum applications to be based on personal situations, not on the country of origin. 

When asked by the Green MEP Tineke Strik about the issue of refoulements and the European Commission’s response to it, her representative said that the institution was taking this issue very seriously, without having the power to investigate it. There is also a great deal of ambiguity regarding the agreement with Lebanon, of which the Commission seems to be aware, but not the content. 

In this context, EuroMed Rights pleads for the European Commission to go further in collecting information on these violations and for Cyprus to respect the principle of non-refoulement. As the main solution to reduce arrivals in Cyprus, EuroMed Rights calls for the opening legal channels, with the support of the EU, and the establishment of solidarity and redistribution mechanisms within the EU. On this subject, the European Commission’s representative confirmed that the issue of relocation from Cyprus had been discussed with the Member States but that, since the invasion of Ukraine, this issue had been put on the back burner.