Cyprus accused of migrant pushback to Lebanon as three boats returned to Tripoli's shores

Cyprus accused of migrant pushback to Lebanon as three boats returned to Tripoli's shores
Migrants said that Cypriot authorities stopped them in water for two days, denying their requests for food and water and forcing them to return to Lebanon.
4 min read
19 April, 2024
Cyprus has taken new restrictive policies in a response to a recent influx of migrants originating from Lebanon and Syria. [Getty]

Migrants who left via boat from Lebanon to try to reach Cyprus accused the island's authorities on Wednesday of leaving them stranded at sea and conducting a pushback amid rising alarm in Cyprus over increased migrant boats arriving on its shores.

Three boats carrying dozens of mostly Syrians left the coast of Lebanon off the northern city of Tripoli on Monday afternoon but were quickly intercepted by Cypriot authorities in the water.

Passengers said they were kept stranded in the water with dwindling food and water, and the Cypriot Coast Guard denied their requests for supplies.

"They had to go back to Lebanon; they were starving at that point. The Cypriots threatened them with guns, telling them they had to return," Ahmad (a pseudonym), a 33-year-old Syrian refugee living in Jounieh, north Lebanon, who had nine relatives on the boats, told The New Arab.

TNA approached Cyprus's Interior Ministry for a comment but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

The three boats returned to Lebanon, with videos showing migrants disembarking an overcrowded trawler off Tripoli port on Wednesday.

One of the ships was apprehended by the Lebanese army. All of the Syrians on the boat who were registered as refugees with the UN were released, but those without official refugee status were kept.

Ahmad said that three of his cousins were still with the army and were threatened to be deported to Syria, as their residency papers had expired.

Since 2019, Lebanese authorities have deported returning Syrians who have left the country via an unofficial exit point.

Rights groups have said that Syria is still not safe for refugee return, citing the documented instances of arbitrary detainment, torture, sexual violence and even death at the hands of Syrian authorities.

According to the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, by returning Syrians to Lebanon with the knowledge that they would likely be deported to Syria, Cyprus has adopted a policy of "chain refoulment."

Cyprus on high alert

Cypriot authorities have taken new measures against migrants coming via boat from Lebanon and Syria after a 27-fold increase in migration to the island as compared to last year. Cyprus has the highest level of asylum seekers per capita in the EU.

On Tuesday, Cyprus announced that it would suspend the processing of Syrians' asylum requests in a bid to discourage new arrivals.

Cypriot coast guard ships also started patrolling Lebanon's coast after Cyprus's president visited Lebanon on 8 April.

Previously, under a 2020 bilateral deal between the two countries, Cyprus would return any migrants who left Lebanon, regardless of whether they were Lebanese nationals.

Since February, however, Lebanon has reportedly refused to continue taking back migrants, citing its already high levels of refugee populations.

Cyprus has publicly called for more EU funding and support for Lebanon so that it can step up its sea patrols and prevent more migrants from leaving its coast towards Cyprus. It has also called on the EU Council to recognise certain areas of Syria as safe so it can legally conduct refugee returns.

Rising violence against Syrians

Lebanon has been experiencing a wave of violence and state action against Syrians since the murder of Christian Lebanese Forces politician Pascal Sleiman on 8 April. The Lebanese army arrested several Syrians it said were responsible for killing Sleiman during a botched car-jacking.

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After his death was announced, gangs of Lebanese men began to beat up Syrians throughout Beirut, with at least one Syrian family in the Achrafieh neighbourhood having a Molotov cocktail thrown at their house.

Lebanese officials have announced that they will take harsher measures against Syrians with expired residency papers and draft up plans to deport those without. The Lebanese army dismantled informal settlements in the Bekaa Valley on Thursday and has reportedly stepped up deportations.

Ahmad said that he and his family have personally faced violence, with his brother being beaten up shortly before deciding to attempt the journey to Cyprus. Each passenger on the ship paid US$2,650 to smugglers for a spot on the boat.

Despite his family's failed journey to Cyprus and the potential to be deported back to Syria, Ahmad said that he will soon try to make it to Italy via sea. His own residency papers expired in 2019, and despite his attempts to renew them, Lebanese authorities did not grant him an extension.

"It's true that they were stopped in Cyprus, but maybe I will make it to Italy. I can't go back to Syria; I'm wanted there. And here, the situation is so bad. We are looking for a better life," Ahmad said.