Cyprus braces for refugee arrivals amid Lebanon war fears

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A Cyprus rescue team helps refugees and migrants on a boat in the sea near the coastal resort of Protaras, on the eastern side of the Mediterranean island [File: Joint Rescue Coordination Center/AP]

Officials in Cyprus say Beirut’s possible involvement in the Israel-Hamas war has made Lebanon lag in migration management.

Cyprus has received 458 Syrian refugees from Lebanon in a week, Cypriot authorities have said, as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to spread into a wider regional conflict.

Authorities in Cyprus said on Monday that they are bracing for a larger influx of asylum seekers, as clashes on the Lebanese border with Israel continue to escalate.

Several boats came to Cyprus on Saturday in batches. The first boat from Lebanon had 110 people, and the second a further 52. Both had been heading for Cyprus’s southeastern coastal resort of Ayia Napa.

Later, two more vessels were intercepted with a combined 32 people on board and taken to the southern port of Larnaca.

Then late Saturday night, 194 Syrians arrived aboard four boats from Lebanon and were taken to the Pournara reception centre outside Nicosia.

Interior Ministry official Loizos Hadjivasiliou told the Cyprus News Agency that the Pournara centre was now full, and an emergency plan had been activated to handle an increase in arrivals.

The Saturday arrivals come a week after 264 Syrian refugees arrived on three boats from Lebanon.

Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou accused Beirut of not regulating migrant movements across the Mediterranean Sea.

He said that Lebanon’s possible involvement in Israel’s war in Gaza and the generally worsening situation in the Middle Eastern country had weakened Beirut’s efforts to monitor its territorial waters and prevent departures.

Lebanon hosts some 805,000 United Nations-registered Syrian refugees, but officials estimate the actual number is far higher, ranging between 1.5 and 2 million.

About 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the extreme poverty line, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But since Lebanon’s economy fell into a crisis four years back, an increasing number of would-be migrants – both refugees and Lebanese – have attempted to leave Lebanon by sea.

Cyprus argues that it has now become a “front-line country” on the Mediterranean migrant route, with asylum seekers comprising 6 percent of the 915,000 population in the republic – a record figure across the European Union bloc.

In turn, the government has been trying to manage migration and said it has reduced arrivals of irregular migrants by 50 percent since last year.

But in August, the UNHCR pointed out that Cyprus has been sending back Syrian asylum seekers to Lebanon and said it was “extremely concerned”.

Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokesperson for the UNHCR office in Lebanon, told the Associated Press news agency that most of the 109 Syrian people who were returned from Cyprus were deported to Syria after being investigated by the Lebanese army.

The UNHCR office in Cyprus added that deportations and transfers between states “without legal and procedural safeguards for persons who may be in need of international protection” are against international and European law.

But the Cyprus government has said that such returns are being lawfully carried out in line with a bilateral agreement the island nation and neighbouring Lebanon signed in 2004.

Cyprus has in recent years also sought EU help to cope with a large influx of migrants including from sub-Saharan Africa that have taxed the small country’s limited resources.

The EU is co-financing the construction of a new reception centre for migrants, with capacity for 1,000 people, while their asylum claims are being processed or initially turned down.

SOURCE: NEWS AGENCIES

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