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Two Syrian refugees fight to make pushbacks illegal in EU

Pushing back against Cyprus pushbacks: From a dinghy in Lebanon to EU court
8 min read
In-depth: After being returned to Lebanon without being allowed to apply for asylum, two Syrian refugees are taking the Cyprus government to court over its pushback policy, and hope their case will help end the deadly practice.

When Ahmad* and Hussein* saw the Cypriot coastguard, they believed that their perilous journey was over. In fall 2020, the two Syrian cousins had each paid $2,500 to be smuggled via boat from Lebanon to Cyprus in hopes of reuniting with family and seeking asylum there, the latest step in their ongoing displacement from their hometown of Idlib

The Cypriot coast guard intercepted them before reaching land and forced their boat to a standstill, Ahmad said. But instead of taking them to shore, they reportedly kept the boat carrying about 30 people floating in the water for two days, providing the passengers with no food or water.

“They told us that we couldn’t come in, that no refugees were allowed in. They treated us terribly, insulting us and threatening to beat us,” Ahmad recounted.

When their boat continued to try to reach the shores of Cyprus, the coast guard rammed into the vessel, causing it to begin sinking. Only when the boat was taking on water did the coast guard allow the passengers to approach the shore, according to Ahmad.

But instead of allowing them to land and present their asylum requests, the officers quickly put them on another boat and returned them to Lebanon. 

“In Lebanon, there is nothing for us. I have no work, my kids are not in school and we need medical treatment. I cannot describe how bad it is. I want my children to have a future,” Ahmad said.

Denied their right to lodge an asylum claim, Ahmad and Hussein decided to sue the government of Cyprus, filing a case with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The parties failed to reach a settlement on July 21 and will proceed to trial.

The court case alleges that Ahmad and Hussein were subject to inhumane treatment by the Cypriot Coast Guard, and that by refusing to hear their individual asylum claim and summarily returning them to Lebanon, Cyprus violated their human rights.

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It further argues that the government of Cyprus put them at risk of being deported from Lebanon to Syria, where there is a serious threat to their lives. Lebanon’s Ministry of the Displaced recently announced that it would begin deporting 15,000 Syrians per month to Syria. 

Both men are wanted for military service in Syria and could be arrested, or sent to the frontlines, where they risk death. 

If Ahmad and Hussein win their case, the result could set an important precedent for Cyprus’ migration policy and have repercussions for Europe’s border policies more generally. The ruling would help to definitively establish that Cyprus’s policy of pushbacks, which have become the modus operandi of several European countries, are a violation of international law.

“For the first time in relation to Cyprus, you would have a European Court of Human Rights decision that this pushback policy is illegal. The government could no longer claim that this policy is legal. They will have to change their policy,” Nicoletta Charalambidou, the lawyer representing Ahmad and Hussein, told The New Arab.

Khaled Abdallah, a 47-year-old Lebanese migrant after attempting to reach Cyprus, stands along a pier in Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli on September 15, 2020. Abdallah said life was no longer sustainable in Lebanon, prompting him to undertake the perilous journey. [Getty]

In previous rulings, the ECHR has found countries to be in violation of Article 4 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits collective expulsion. Countries were faulted for preventing migrants from lodging asylum claims and for not giving consideration to individual circumstances.

However, the court has also ruled in favour of governments conducting pushbacks. In February 2020, the ECHR found that Spain’s collective expulsion of migrants was admissible because the migrants failed to use “official entry procedures”. 

The New Arab submitted questions to the Cypriot government on both the court case and its policy towards asylum seekers, but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

A rise in boat crossings and a controversial agreement 

The number of asylum seekers in Cyprus has soared in the last decade. The small island nation has the highest rate of asylum applicants per capita in the EU – with a massive backlog of pending cases.

The influx of refugees has sparked a popular backlash and migration has become a hot-button issue domestically. Parliament formed a “demographic committee” headed by the right-wing ELAM party, which activists accuse of fomenting hate against refugees.

The government has moved to securitise its borders and prevent refugees from physically being able to present their asylum requests. On land, Nicosia has sought to increase policing of the Green Line which separates Cyprus from Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, where many asylum seekers cross.

At sea, Cyprus has apparently stepped up patrols and pushbacks of incoming refugees – especially those coming from Lebanon.

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Historically, boat crossings from Lebanon into Cyprus have been rare. But, in 2020, as the economic situation in Lebanon deteriorated, there was a significant increase in attempted journeys across the Mediterranean.

While the total number of boat crossings attempted from Lebanon to Cyprus in 2019 was 17, 21 attempted crossings were made in the three months between July and September of 2020. In response, Cypriot authorities reportedly increased pushback operations; in September 2020 alone, five boats carrying 230 people were pushed back to Lebanon, according to Save the Children.

In October 2020, Cyprus and Lebanon reaffirmed a highly controversial bilateral agreement. The agreement saw both countries agree to cooperate on the prevention of departure and return of asylum seekers.

The document, which previously was not publicly available, was the implementation of a 2002 agreement between the two countries, the Cyprus Ministry of Interior told The New Arab in response to a Freedom of Information request. 

Mohammed Msawel shows the boat that he and others were loaded onto in attempting to reach Europe and escape Lebanon's financial crisis before being caught by the Greek coastguards, in Tripoli on December 9, 2021. [Getty]

In essence, the “Agreement on the Readmission of Persons Illegally Entering and/or Staying in the Territory of the Two Countries,” allows Cyprus to return any individuals coming from Lebanon, regardless of their nationalities.

The agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon has raised concern among human rights groups.

In a March 2021 letter, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe wrote to the Cyprus Ministry of Interior regarding reports that boats carrying migrants, “have been prevented from disembarking in Cyprus, and summarily returned, sometimes violently, without any possibility for their passengers to access the asylum procedure.”

At the same time, Lebanon’s navy has assumed a more active role in border policing, preventing and returning asylum seekers before they exit Lebanese waters.

“This is an outsourcing of EU border policy and of unsavoury border practices that EU states don’t want to conduct themselves,” Nadia Hardman, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights at Human Rights Watch of HRW, told The New Arab.

“The core of the EU’s strategy has been to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the EU by shifting the burden and responsibility for migrants and refugees to countries outside the union,” explained Hardman. 

“Pushbacks seem to have become part and parcel of externalising EU member states’ migration control,” she added.

In April, a boat carrying 84 passengers, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees hoping to apply for asylum, left from the northern port city of Tripoli. They were intercepted by Lebanese authorities, and survivors say that a navy boat rammed into their vessel twice, causing it to sink and resulting in dozens of deaths.

Authorities have promised a transparent investigation, but the lawyers representing the Tripoli families have expressed their doubts.

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As Lebanon’s crisis deepens, boats will increase

Ahmad and Hussein fled bombs in Idlib. The signs of danger in Syria - fighting, warring factions and the buzz of warplanes - were tangible and ever present. The worst effects of Lebanon’s crisis by contrast, with its sputtering economy and stark inequalities, are often invisible but no less deadly.

Returning to Lebanon was a nightmare for the two cousins. There, they have little hope for the future. Lebanon is in the midst of what the World Bank dubs one of the worst economic crises in 150 years - and Syrian refugees are among the most affected. 

Both cousins live in dire circumstances. Ahmad’s son and his wife suffer from medical conditions. They have been unable to receive treatment from the public healthcare system in Lebanon, and private healthcare is unaffordable.

“Things are getting worse. We have work one day, then none the next. We cannot even afford bread now,” Ahmad said. 

Though Syrian refugees are among the worst affected, almost everyone in Lebanon is suffering. Bread lines have appeared across the country and hyperinflation has put basic goods outside the reach of most.

Attempts to reach Europe by sea will undoubtedly continue as long as Lebanon’s economic crisis continues, Mohamed Sablouh, a Lebanese lawyer representing the families of the Tripoli disaster, told The New Arab.

Ahmad and Hussein’s court case, if successful, could ensure that refugees will have more dignified journeys and the opportunity to have their asylum cases heard.

“People make this journey because they are forced to; it’s incredibly dangerous. The court case has to help others,” Ahmad said.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals for security reasons.

Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, human rights, migration, and media studies. She is also part of The New Arab's editorial team.  Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou