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Cyprus calls on EU financing to Lebanon to stem refugee flow

Cyprus calls on European Union financial support for Lebanon to stem refugee flow
3 min read
18 September, 2023
Cyprus said that Lebanon was a "barrier" preventing more refugees from entering Europe and could not be allowed to collapse.
Cyprus has the highest number of asylum-seekers in the EU, relative to its population. [Getty]

Cyprus called for the European Union (EU) to increase its financial support to Lebanon in a letter on Friday, 15 September, arguing that Lebanon was a "barrier" that prevented refugees from entering Europe.

In a letter to the European Commission Vice President, Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou said, "If Lebanon collapses, then all of Europe will have a problem."

He also asked the European Commission to reconsider whether or not Syria is still an "unsafe country" for refugee return.

"There are already two areas recognised by the EU Asylum Agency as safe areas. So, it must now also be recognised at the level of the EU, allowing us to deport or return people to Syria," Ioannou said.

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Cyprus has received an influx of asylum-seekers since 2017, mainly from Lebanon and Syria. It now has the highest amount of asylum seekers in the EU per capita.

The island has experienced anti-refugee attacks in recent weeks, with a march in the port city of Limassol on 1 September turning into mass violence against foreigners and foreign-owned storefronts.

Cyprus has relief on Lebanese authorities to help stop asylum-seekers from reaching it by boat.

The two countries have a bilateral agreement which allows Cyprus to return any individuals who come from Lebanon via irregular migration routes without hearing their asylum requests.

On 27 July, Cyprus's Minister of Interior visited Lebanon, forming agreements to increase "information exchange" and joint maritime patrols to stop boats from reaching Cyprus.

Cyprus has said that it has reduced arrivals of asylum-seekers by 50 per cent and increased returns.

Rights groups have criticised Cypriot immigration policy, arguing it exposes would-be refugees to the risk of refoulment.

On 11 August, four Lebanese and Cypriot NGOs released a letter criticising Cypriot authorities for forcibly returning at least 109 individuals to Lebanon, of which 73 were "subsequently deported to Syria."

The letter argued that this violated both Cyprus and Lebanon's international legal obligations, as returnees face the risk of "arbitrary detention, torture and forced disappearance."

A suit has also been launched against the Cyprus government in the EU Court of Human Rights for its pushback policy to Lebanon.

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Human rights activists have said that the government has not stopped its pushback policy but made accessing information about ongoing return operations harder.

"They avoid informing the public and civil society about the issues related to rescue or return operations. We don't have access to the information we had before; we only find out later what's happening," Doros Polykarpou, the executive director of Cypriot refugee advocacy organisation KISA, told The New Arab.

The increase of asylum-seekers in Cyprus has coincided with the rise of the far right in domestic politics and xenophobia.

Far right-party ELAM chairs a committee in Cypriot Parliament called the "demographic committee," which mainly engages in anti-refugee rhetoric and misinformation, according to Polykarpou.

The current government in Cyprus has also set its sights on whittling down benefits to refugees in a move meant to "make Cyprus an unattractive destination," Interior Minister Ioannou said.