The fate of 175 Syrian refugees, trapped in the north of the island amid the coronavirus pandemic, remains unknown while a human rights group is calling on Greek Cypriot authorities to take them in.
According to a human rights watch website, Turkish Cypriot authorities issued deportation orders for 175 asylum seekers, who were rescued last month off the eastern coast, with reports saying Turkey has refused to accept the refugees citing pandemic concerns.
The refugees, many of whom were said to have fled Aleppo and Idlib, were traveling to the Republic of Cyprus in order to reunite with their families in the south, according to media reports.
But Greek Cypriot coast guard officials refused to allow entry, citing coronavirus fears, offering instead fuel and food in exchange for the boat to head back to Turkey where the last leg of their journey reportedly had originated.
After the refugees turned down the offer, and hours following a late night standstill in waters off Cape Greco, the boat headed north along the eastern coast of Cyprus when it capsized in the early morning hours.
'Measures such as isolation or quarantine may be permitted, but the pandemic cannot justify blanket bans on allowing boats to land, which risk the rights to life and health of those on board'
Turkish Cypriot reports said a total of 175 people, including 76 adult males, 30 adult women, and 69 children, were rescued while videos on social media later emerged showing the presumptive refugees in a local sports arena nearby, where they were given food and clothing collected by volunteers.
The refugees also underwent preliminary checks and were placed in an apartment complex under quarantine for 14 days according to public health protocols.
But human rights watch activists have raised questions over the legality of the refugees being confined to their apartments “under effective house arrest” and “constant surveillance.”
The Turkish Cypriot adminsitration does not operate its own asylum system due to the Cyprus problem, which effectively split the island into a recognized Republic in the south with UN and EU membership and a north recognized only by Turkey.
Nadia Hardman, an advocate for human rights pertaining to migration and asylum issues, said the refugees were “being held in cramped quarters, vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19, in constant fear they may be forcibly returned to the country they fled.”
The human rights lawyer called on authorities in the north to provide housing where the refugees could practice social distancing and have access to food, water, and medical care.
She also called on authorities in the Republic of Cyprus to take the refugees after they are “released from detention.”
“The Republic of Cyprus should promptly accept their claims for asylum and requests for family reunification and protect them from the risk of return to persecution or other serious violations in Syria,” Hardman said.
But after recent migrant arrivals in the south, authorities have been stepping up efforts to push back on undocumented migration and call on the EU for help.
South open to refugees, not undocumented migrants
Last month, Interior Minister Nikos Nouris accused Ankara of being actively involved in attempts to alter the demographic composition of the island of Cyprus, saying Turkey was pushing “economic migrants” to the south.
“Today we have children who need the Republic’s protection, we have refugees in the Republic. These are the people we want and can host, and we have the capability to host them,” the minister said, adding that Cyprus could not cope with the number of economic migrants arriving on the island.
But refugees tell a different story, according to the human rights watch group, with officials in Turkey allegedly forcing people to sign what were believed to be “voluntary repatriation forms” before many being handed back to Syrian authorities.
The human rights watch group pointed out that the Republic of Cyprus had every right to control its borders and manage crossings into the south through the UN buffer zone.
International law amid global pandemic
But they also warned that the south was bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to respect the right to seek asylum, adding that failing to assist a boat in distress could also be a breach of international law.
Both north and south have enacted movement and entry restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, severely restricting the flow of persons into the island.
But activists argue that the Republic of Cyprus, as an EU member, is required to offer asylum seekers with certain protections that are inaccessible in the north.
“Measures such as requiring a period of isolation or quarantine may be permitted, but the pandemic cannot justify blanket bans on allowing boats to land, which risk the rights to life and health of those on board,” the group said.