Since the onset of the pandemic, Cyprus has engaged in multiple offshore pushbacks, preventing boats carrying hundreds of refugees from disembarking on the island. These incidents appear to have increased in frequency since August, as growing numbers of boats have attempted the journey from Lebanon. Although it is not known how many boats have departed Lebanon, the UN reports that it tracked 30 between July and October (in 2019, the total number for the year was 17). While Syrians account for a large number of those attempting the crossing, there are increasing numbers of Lebanese.
According to Cypriot authorities, between 6-8 September some 230 people were returned to Lebanon. In several cases, the government has appeared to invoke the pandemic to justify its actions. On 7 September, Cypriot news outlet Alpha quoted Interior Minister Nicos Nouris as saying: “Unfortunately, due to the very large number of economic migrants which has flooded the Republic, we cannot and we don’t have any room, especially at a time like this with problems caused by the pandemic.” According to UNHCR, which has received “credible reports” of these pushbacks, “Boats have either been forced to return to the high seas or have been left at sea for a long time.” Witnesses and victims have also alleged that police have beat persons resisting return.
In a late August incident, Cypriot ships pushed back a boat from Lebanon carrying 21 refugees (including five minors) from Lebanon and Syria, before it disembarked in a nearby UN-controlled area of the coast (within the UN-controlled buffer zone, north of Paralimni). According to the news outlet Kathimerini Cyprus, the UN subsequently transferred the refugees to the Cypriot Republic’s asylum service, who placed the individuals in Pournara Emergency Reception Centre (which as of 28 September remained a closed facility). Several days later, another boat carrying 51 persons ran aground on rocks in the same area. According to one of the passengers, police steered their ship in circles to create waves that would swamp or capsize the boat, which ultimately caused the crash. (Similar manoeuvres are reported to have been used by Greek and Turkish boats in the Aegean, as recently documented by Bellingcat.)
The pushback of boats carrying migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers–seemingly without providing passengers the opportunity to apply for asylum–has been widely criticised. Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch, said: “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.” On 9 September, the European Court of Human Rights submitted questions to Cyprus regarding the pushback reports, seeking further information such as whether vessels had requested entry to ports, and whether they were offered alternative means of applying for asylum.
In October, ministers from Cyprus and Lebanon reaffirmed a deal to intercept vessels attempting to reach Cyprus. “We are sending out a clear message that we won’t tolerate anyone engaging in the trafficking of human beings and that we’re defending the interests of our two states,” said Nicos Nouris on 6 October.
- L. Lyritsas, “Refugee Pushbacks by Cyprus Draw Attention from EU, UN,” DW, 16 September 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/refugee-pushbacks-by-cyprus-draw-attention-from-eu-un/a-54908678
- Kathimerini Cyprus, “Boat Carrying Refugees Pushed Back by Cyprus, Ends Up In UN Area,” 1 September 2020, https://knews.kathimerini.com.cy/en/news/boat-carrying-refugees-pushed-back-by-cyprus-ends-up-in-un-area
- R. Jalabi, “‘They Should Have Let Us Die in the Water,’: Desperate Lebanese MIgrants Sent Back by Cyprus,” Reuters, 18 September 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-crisis-migrants-cyprus-idUSKBN2691NP
- Tanea, “Λίβανος : Εγκαταλείπουν την χώρα λόγω της κρίσης,” 3 November 2020, https://www.tanea.gr/2020/11/03/world/livanos-egkataleipoun-tin-xora-logo-tis-krisis/
- N. Waters et al, “Frontex At Fault: European Border Force Complicit in ‘Illegal’ Pushbacks,” Bellingcat, 23 October 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/10/23/frontex-at-fault-european-border-force-complicit-in-illegal-pushbacks/
- Human Rights Watch, “Cyprus: Asylum Seekers Summarily Returned,” 29 September 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/29/cyprus-asylum-seekers-summarily-returned
- S. Morsheimer et al, “A Systemic Analysis of the Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Refugees, Migrants, and Asylum Seekers in Cyprus: Part I, An Overview,” Project Phoenix and Freidrich Ebert Stiftung, 4 November 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/cyprus/systemic-analysis-impact-covid-19-pandemic-refugees-migrants-and-asylum-seekers-cyprus
- E. Wallis, “Deal With Lebanon Makes Seeking Asylum in Cyprys More Difficult,” Infomigrants, 8 October 2020, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/27809/deal-with-lebanon-makes-seeking-asylum-in-cyprus-more-difficult
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in Cyprus: Reception Challenges in Europe’s New Gateway,” August 2019, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe/cyprus#country-report