Interior Minister Nicos Nouris says the government is moving forward with rejections of asylum applications under new, faster procedures to clear a system backlog, with Europe seeking a comprehensive solution and a commissioner calling on Cypriot authorities to investigate illegal pushbacks.
According to the Cyprus News Agency, Nouris told reporters earlier this week that 888 asylum applicants had entered the Republic of Cyprus since January 1, while 1200 cases were rejected in the same period.
Nouris, who has been criticized for his tough stance on migration, has also received a letter from Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who called on Cypriot authorities to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out into allegations of illegal pushbacks and ill-treatment of arriving migrants including refugees.
“Collective expulsions of migrants are prohibited under Article 4 of Protocol 4 to the ECHR and as such, cannot be tolerated,” the commissioner told Nouris.
Minister responds to Commissioner
The minister responded to a number of issues raised in the letter, including sending boats back to Lebanon, saying saying provisions of the EU aquis had been “taken into consideration during the negotiations leading to the relevant Readmission Agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon.”
'Collective expulsions of migrants are prohibited... and cannot be tolerated,' the commissioner told Nouris
“Over 70'% of our migratory influx results from flows that arrive either, directly from Turkey by boat or via the occupied area through the ‘Green Line’ with the number of asylum seekers and holders of protection accounting for 4% of our population,” Nouris told the commissioner.
During questions by Cypriot reporters, Nouris said the government “wants to seek solutions that will contribute to coexistence between migrants and the native population.”
But he pointed out that the government was facing challenges in its effort to tackle a backlog of asylum cases.
“I cannot disregard the fact that while we are trying to manage the already large number of pending applications, 888 other asylum applicants entered the Republic since day one this year, something which creates a huge problem,” Nouris said.
The Republic of Cyprus received help last year from the European Asylum Support Office, including deployed personnel, while EASO is expected to double staff to the island in 2021, with caseworkers, interpreters, vulnerability experts, field support staff, reception staff, research officers, and administrative staff.
Europe’s migration debate far from over
But Europe’s debate on migration is far from over, with EU foreign and interior ministers meeting via teleconference earlier this week during a JUMBO meeting for the first time after six years.
EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, who is tasked with coordinating the bloc’s “New Pact on Migration and Asylum,” said there was a need for a “new beginning,” referring to a proposal by the European Commission and calling for a “win-win” solution for member states and neighboring countries towards a safer management of migration.
“Part of the new beginning is a meaningful external dimension of migration policy, because we will never be able to manage internally unless we are able to manage externally too,” Schinas told reporters.
Schinas said the effort was centered around creating “better lives for people in their countries instead of risking their lives in the hands of the smugglers in the Mediterranean or the Aegean,” as well as “helping countries build better asylum systems and engage in readmission and returns.”
While EU’s foreign chief Josep Borrell highlighted the need for incentives for third countries in order to accept people being sent back, he also called for the creation of a flow of regular migration “that makes people able to travel without risking their lives.”
“A fair, safe, and regular migration is our purpose,” Borrell said.
Cyprus points finger at Turkey
But Cypriot Government Spokesperson Kyriacos Koushos on Wednesday accused Turkey of sending migrant flows to the island “in a targeted manner,” recalling that the migration problem was part of the discussions between Brussels and Ankara.
Koushos pointed to the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 on the return of irregular migrants, saying the government cannot enforce it as Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus.
“Cyprus does not have adequate infrastructure to accommodate such a large number of asylum seekers, but it is criticized because it is unable to manage this flow," Koushos said according to CNA.
EU-Turkey deal back under the spotlight
A statement from the Greek foreign ministry said Athens was in favor of EU-Turkey cooperation on managing migration flows on the Eastern Mediterranean route.
But Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, also pointed out in the statement that “for Greece and Europe, the key is Turkey honouring its commitments deriving from the EU-Turkey Joint Statement,” adding that Athens was still waiting for a response from Turkey regarding the return of 1453 irregular migrants.
Ankara has also recently criticized the EU for failing to fulfill its pledge to provide funding for migrants and refugees in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the bloc “granted Greece €3 billion worth support for 100,000 migrants, but it has made no such move for the 4 million migrants in Turkey.”
Borrell says Europe ought to renew its migration deal with Turkey but this week he stated that the agreement was still in effect, adding that it ought to be sustained in the future.
“This statement remains valid and I think it should continue to be implemented and continue to be the key framework for cooperation on migration,” Borrell said.