by Panikos Leonidou
The migration issue, along with Turkey's ongoing threats and galloping inflation due to the explosion in energy prices, undoubtedly ranks first in the hierarchy of Cypriot citizens' concerns. This societal reaction is appropriately documented, as we all recognize the gravity of the situation with the unstoppable flow of immigrants entering the Republic of Cyprus's free territory.
With dirt-cheap air tickets from many African countries, thousands of migrants have arrived in the occupied territories via Turkey, and hope to cross the green line into the European Promised Land.
The evidence is indeed terrifying. Since the beginning of 2022, the number of irregular migrants has surpassed 17,000, nearly doubling that of 2021. The total is currently in the tens of thousands, in a population of 918,100 people, of which 21.1%, or 193,300, are foreign nationals, according to the most recent census. As a result, if current influx rates continue, immigrants will make up a sizable proportion of the Republic's population. Of course, the average Cypriot was always distinguished by his hospitable feelings and was never overcome by xenophobic feelings. Tens of thousands of foreigners have worked and settled in our country in recent decades, such as after the Lebanon war. They, too, prospered, and they offered their labor to the country. But now something very difficult to manage is happening.
The constant influx of people, primarily from Africa but also from Asia, which can hardly be absorbed by productive activities due to finite resources, exposes us to the threat of marginalized populations, ghettos, and constant delinquent behavior. This is especially true because this is not a situation with a set end date. And we can already see this with the tragic incidents at the First Accommodation Center in Pournara, as well as other unsavory incidents that are constantly being recorded.
Our worries are compounded by the certainty that Ankara is behind this phenomenon, which has long instrumentalized migration in order to reap the benefits, as is now an accepted fact in the EU. How it does so was clearly seen at the Greek-Turkish border in Evros, where a massive invasion of migrants attempted to cross to the EU side with the assistance of the Turkish military gendarmerie. And recently in Evros yet again where migrants were made to strip naked at the border. In addition, instances in the Aegean where migrant boats are being led by Turkish Coast Guard boats.
Something similar is taking place in Cyprus. With dirt-cheap air tickets from many African countries, thousands of migrants have arrived in the occupied territories via Turkey, and hope to cross the green line into the European Promised Land.
It is obvious that if immediate action is not taken to address the problem, it will be too late tomorrow. It's also encouraging to see the competent ministry moving in the right direction. Furthermore, the issue has been placed on the presidential candidates' pre-election agenda. I'd like to highlight Nikos Christodoulides' recent sound proposals, which include targeted packages of measures that, if implemented consistently, have the potential to change the situation as it is today.
I'm thinking, for example, of increased patrolling at crossing points, particularly along the green line. The issue is undeniably sensitive, and some of the concerns expressed are understandable. But this should not lead us to accept the faits accomplis that Turkey persistently cultivates. At the same time, there are measures that are entirely dependent on us. Such as expediting, if not hastening, the review of asylum applications. A successful measure in Greece, with adequate staffing of the asylum services. Decisions must be made quickly, within weeks. Anyone who is truly eligible for asylum should be granted it and be free to go wherever he wants. However, those who are not eligible for it in accordance with international agreements—that is, those who do not come from a country that is at war or who do not risk their lives because they are being persecuted on account of their religion, politics, or other characteristics—will have their application denied and a process for returning to their country of origin will be put in place.
This is undoubtedly a difficult operation because his country must accept the request. In this regard, the EU has tools at its disposal, such as development funding, to exert pressure on governments, with incentives and disincentives to respond to return requests. A good example of the EU's clear relationship with Egypt. Simultaneously, the penalty for traffickers must be tightened, with long-term imprisonment instead of 'caress' penalties.
Of course, one could legitimately express doubts regarding the effectiveness of these measures alone and the "surgical" reduction in flow rates. But we must all acknowledge that communicating the idea that Cyprus is not a "barren vine" is of utmost importance. Would-be irregular migrants will think twice once they learn that the country's residency requirements are stringent and that only the people who stand to benefit from asylum can apply.
In any case, I believe it is abundantly clear that if immigration in western Europe causes serious political tremors in established, strong democracies like Sweden, France, or Italy, where xenophobic parties receive significant electoral support, the stakes are much higher for tiny, semi-occupied Cyprus. This still pertains to the survival of the country.
Mr. Panikos Leonidou is a lawyer and a member of the Democratic Party in parliament.
[This article was translated from its Greek original]