investigation Report Migrants trapped at the gates of Europe | Cyprus

Cyprus: Asylum-seekers blocked at Green Line to Europe

The 184-kilometre demilitarised Green Line that divides Cyprus and its capital Nicosia is the crossing-point that migrants use to get to the southern part of the island, which is part of the EU. Overwhelmed by the flow of migrants, the Cypriot authorities accuse Turkey of deliberately sending migrants through the north. In response they are adopting controversial and drastic measures.

Published on 7 December 2021 at 13:03

Stuck in a no-man's-land in the middle of nowhere, Rosy and Christian (first names have been changed for security reasons), both from English-speaking Cameroon, sleep in a tent in the hope of better days. The two travelling companions met in May while trying to climb the Venetian walls on the edge of Cyprus’s buffer zone in order to reach the southern part of Nicosia. The city was divided following Turkey's invasion of the island in 1974.

But for the past five months the Republic of Cyprus has denied them the right to apply for asylum. Every day Rosy and Christian see, among the peacekeepers, people moving freely from one side to the other. Meanwhile they remain trapped in the buffer zone.

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"Cameroon is no longer a safe country for us, we have to look for safety in another country at all costs, that's why we left," says Rosy, 24, still sleepy on this mild October morning. With no end in sight to the war in English-speaking Cameroon, they decided to enrol as international students at a Turkish Cypriot university and flew north via Istanbul on a plane chartered by Turkish Airlines. Christian's father took care of the enrollment, not wanting to see his 20-year-old son go off to fight.

Rosy and Christian. | Photo : Chloé Emmanouilidis

Like Rosy and Christian, many migrants wishing to reach the EU use Turkey as a transit country and then find themselves trapped once they arrive in the internationally unrecognised "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC), in the island’s north. "I didn't know that Cyprus was divided into two parts, we were told that the north was part of the EU and as I didn't have time to do any research given the situation, I left," says Rosy.

Cyprus is also not part of the Schengen area because of the division of the island, which complicates the situation for migrants wishing to reach another European country. As a result, they are once again stranded in territories controlled by the Republic of Cyprus.

"Going back to the North is not an option for us. We left illegally and therefore we have broken one of their laws. We risk deportation or prison," saysRosy. "I have no dreams for the future, the only thing that matters to me is to get out of here," she says resignedly. "In the North, the asylum process is non-existent, [but] all persons crossing the Green Line have the right to apply for asylum in the Republic of Cyprus under international and European law, as stipulated by Article 2 of the Green Line Regulation," laments the spokesperson of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR Cyprus), Emilia Strovolidou. "These people must have access to dignified conditions in the reception centres," she adds.

The 184-kilometre Green Line is considered a key route for people seeking to enter the Republic of Cyprus from the Turkish-occupied north. More than 80% of the migration flow comes from the Green Line and less than 20% from the sea, according to the interior ministry.

The tent where Rosy and Christian sleep. | Photo : Chloé Emmanouilidis

"For the past four years, Turkey has been deliberately and systematically encouraging migrants in the north to use the Green Line as a crossing point to the south and instrumentalizing them in order to put pressure on the Cypriot state," says Loizos Michail, director of the interior ministry's office. From 1 to 20 October 2021, 1,166 migrants took this route, according to the ministry. Although little affected by the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Cyprus has been identified by smugglers as an accessible route since 2018 due to the division of the island. And according to Eurostat figures, the highest number of first-time applicants in 2020 was recorded in Cyprus: 8,448 asylum-seekers per million inhabitants.

"As a frontline country, we are no longer able to receive more people, the camps are saturated," Loizos Michail warns. In June 2020, Nicosia had already tightened its migration policy by reducing the processing time for asylum applications from “three to five years” to 50 days. Since 1 January 2021, the island has examined more than 8,500 asylum applications and rejected more than 7,000.

The green line that separates the Republic of Cyprus from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.| Wikimedia.

Overwhelmed, the authorities have tightened migration policy and adopted drastic measures along the Green Line in order to control entries. "We obviously do not consider the Green Line as an internal and external border, but at the last MED5 ministerial summit (of Mediterranean countries in the frontline of receiving migrants), we asked the European Commission to implement the same security measures that apply at most European borders such as in Lithuania and Poland," he explains. "For the first time the Green Line problem has been considered as a European problem."

The buffer zone is not considered an external border that can be monitored in the same way as other areas because of the division of the island. Among the controversial measures, the government deployed barbed wire at the most sensitive crossings of the Green Line last March. Patrols, drones and thermal imaging cameras are also planned. Opponents have accused the government of endorsing the division of the island.

Overwhelmed, the authorities have tightened migration policy and adopted drastic measures along the Green Line in order to control entries

For Kisa, an NGO that helps migrants, this unilateral decision puts Cyprus at risk amid growing tensions with Turkey, with potentially dramatic political consequences. "We cannot change the demilitarised status of the Green Line, which is guaranteed by UNFICYP (United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus), as the government is trying to turn it into a hard border similar to the Evros river in Greece," says Doros Polycarpou, executive director of Kisa. He accuses the authorities of inflating the number of arrivals through the Green Line for purely military and electoral purposes. "It is only by cooperating with the Turkish Cypriots and the authorities in the north that we will find a solution to the problem, and building a wall is not a solution for either the Cyprus issue or the refugee issue." 

Nicosia is demanding that the EU implements bilateral agreements with third countries to receive people whose asylum claims have been deemed unfounded. President Nikos Anastasiades held an emergency meeting on Wednesday 10 November with his ministers to take measures to combat the increase in illegal immigration. Cyprus intends to ask the European Commission for the right to suspend the asylum applications of people entering the country illegally.

Such a tightening of the law has been criticised by the opposition, which accuses the government of mismanaging the migration issue. But the Cypriot authorities fear above all an exponential increase in the migratory flow due to the crisis in Afghanistan. A crisis that could be much worse than the one in 2015, according to the interior ministry.

Since this article was written, Pope Francis announced on 3 December during his visit to Cyprus that he would help relocate 50 exiles to Italy after Christmas. Christian and Rosy should be among them.

With the support of the Evens Foundation

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