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Cyprus accused of summarily returning refugees, as Greece charges aid workers with espionage

Refugees seen at a camp in Cyprus on 5 November 2019 [IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images]
Refugees seen at a camp in Cyprus on 5 November 2019 [IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images]

Cypriot authorities have been summarily returning refugees to Lebanon since the start of September, without giving arrivals a proper opportunity to claim asylum, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims.

Each of the 15 Lebanese and Syrian migrants interviewed for the report told the HRW that Cypriot authorities had refused them the opportunity to lodge asylum claims and instead, aggressively rebuffed their migration attempts.

Greek and Turkish Cypriot coast guards, the report said, used aggressive techniques that include circling migrant vessels at high speeds to swamp, or capsize, the ships, and abandoned at least one boat at sea, without food or fuel.

Some interviewees told the human rights watchdog Cypriot marine police had beaten them, while others said they were tricked into boarding passenger boats which then returned them to Lebanon.

“That Lebanese nationals are now joining Syrian refugees on boats to flee Lebanon and seek asylum in the European Union is a mark of the severity of the crisis facing that country,” Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at HRW, was quoted in the report as saying.

“Cyprus should consider their claims for protection fully and fairly and treat them safely and with dignity instead of disregarding the obligations to rescue boats in distress and not to engage in collective expulsions.”

READ: Migrant or blast victim? Lebanon starts DNA testing washed up bodies

In recent weeks, the number of attempted crossings from Lebanon to Cyprus has increased sharply after a massive explosion devastated Beirut on 4 August leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and unemployed.

The European island nation, however, has long complained of its position on the forefront of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and has sought to reduce migrant traffic through its territory.

In early September, the Cypriot parliament approved plans to reduce the period migrants have to appeal rejected asylum applications from 75 to 14 days.

In the same week, Cyprus’s Interior Minister Nicos Nouris warned the country could no longer receive economic migrants “simply because the reception facilities are literally no longer sufficient and the country’s capabilities are exhausted”, he was quoted by Cyprus Mail as saying.

Meanwhile, Greece, which is also on the forefront of the migrant crisis, yesterday charged 35 European aid workers with espionage for allegedly helping Turkish people smugglers find remote landing places on the Greek islands.

The 35, who are believed to come from Austria, Sweden and Germany, allegedly provided satellite coordinates of remote coves on Greek islands to Turkish smugglers. The group, according to a report by the Times, also used electronic jamming equipment to prevent the Greek coast guard from detecting the migrant vessels.

It was not immediately clear if any of the 35, who, if found guilty, each face up to 25 years in prison, were in custody.

READ: At UN, Aoun calls for help in refugees’ return

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CyprusEurope & RussiaGreeceLebanonMiddle EastNewsSyriaTurkey
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