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Cyprus seeks EU help to stem surge of Syrian refugees from Lebanon

April 3, 2024 at 1:03 pm

Syrian refugees are seen in a refugee camp in Tripoli, Lebanon on 3 January 2021 [Mahmut Geldi/Anadolu Agency]

Cyprus appealed on Wednesday for vigorous action from the EU to stem a surge of mostly Syrian refugees arriving by sea via Lebanon, saying that the island’s reception capacity is at breaking point.

“The situation is getting progressively worse, and in the past few days we have essentially been experiencing an onslaught of rotting boats and refugees putting their lives at risk,” said Constantinos Ioannou, the Cypriot Interior Minister.

This week, more than 600 people arrived in Cyprus, spurred on by the milder weather. The sea journey from Lebanon or Syria to Cyprus takes about 10 hours.

“All indications are that it will continue,” Ioannou told state radio about the increase in arrivals. This is being fuelled further by the fact that the focus of the Lebanese authorities on stemming migration on the coastline has waned in recent months, he explained, amid escalations on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Cyprus has long appealed to its EU partners to declare parts of war-ravaged Syria safe, which could facilitate the return of its fleeing citizens. It also wants EU aid to Lebanon to be contingent upon stopping the migrant outflow, Ioannou pointed out. Lebanon hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Some 2,004 people arrived in Cyprus by sea in the first three months of this year, compared with just 78 in the same period in 2023, according to official data.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, said in rare blunt remarks that Lebanon should not “export” its migration problem. He discussed the issue with European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen on Tuesday.

“[Traffickers] just give them a compass set at 285 degrees, food and water for a day and they set off,” said Ioannou. Based on interviews with refugees, traffickers are said to be charging $3,000 for a journey to Cyprus, compared with $7,000 for Italy.

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