The EU should have concrete sanctions in place when there is proof that migrants are being instrumentalized, as in the case of Cyprus, Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said. In an interview with the Cyprus News Agency, the Minister also referred to the results of the MED5 Summit, in Paphos, which brought together his counterparts from the Mediterranean member states, responsible for migration and asylum, noting that they maintained a “coherent front” ahead of the upcoming Home Affairs Council, in Luxembourg, set to discuss migration.
Nouris also referred to the need to exercise more effective control in the Green Line to contain irregular migration. Checking airplanes that fly from Istanbul to the northern, Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus, carrying nationals from sub-Saharan countries requires cooperation on the part of the Turkish government, which, according to Nouris “is not happening”.
The Minister also said that people from countries deemed to be unsafe may lose their subsidiary protection status if proven to misuse the asylum system, and added that his Ministry is considering re-examining files of various nationals, including from Syria.
The MED5 Summit was particularly successful in every aspect, especially for Cyprus, as we managed to attain some very concrete goals, the Minister said evaluating the Ministerial gathering of the five Mediterranean EU member states, that took place on October 7-8.
He underlined first and foremost the necessity for “mandatory solidarity” as well as relocation issues between EU member states, which he said is one of the major issues over which there is no unanimity. Nouris said that MED5 countries maintaining their common position was important.
Another issue, he went on, concerned the necessity for effective protection of EU external borders, including the Green Line which is not considered an external border, however, it requires similar protection in order to limit migrant flows.
The instrumentalization of migrants by third countries, which primarily concerns Turkey, was the third issue raised by the Republic of Cyprus, said Nouris, pointing to a reference in the joint statement, calling Europe to undertake particular action against the countries using these tactics.
Above all, he went on, Cyprus is the country that is being subjected to these tactics through an influx of migrant flows from sub-Saharan Africa. These flows reach the island after being accommodated by Turkey to reach Cyprus’ Turkish-occupied areas, he underlined.
Nouris highlighted another recommendation put forward by Cyprus, concerning the need to reassess third countries deemed to be unsafe. These countries supply the majority of migrant flows to Europe and among them is Syria, said the Minister. “The Summit was able to ascertain, also through evidence provided by the Republic of Cyprus, that the system is misused by certain countries, which may be categorized as unsafe, but at the same time it seems they are not unsafe, or at least they are not completely unsafe” the Minister explained.
As a result, asylum systems are subjected to exploitation by migrants from these countries who are afforded a complementary form of protection but in reality, are able to return to their country any time they want, he went on.
The Minister of Interior appeared certain that once this review is launched, some people will have to be repatriated. The Republic of Cyprus “has done its homework before raising this issue” he said and noted that a significant number of cases of people with international protection were re-examined. “We found out that hundreds of them safely returned – some of them by airplane – to a specific country, deemed today as unsafe and later came back to Cyprus” he added. “Apparently, there is no danger if they are able to fly and then return to the Republic of Cyprus” said Nouris.
The EU was notified that Cyprus will be re-examining some files and if the case is substantiated, then these people will lose their subsidiary protection status and will undergo a process of expulsion and will be returned to their country of origin, he added. For the time being, Cyprus focuses on countries with a mass influx, and Syria is one of them, but more countries may come under scrutiny, the Minister noted.
Asked about a proposal by Cyprus concerning the possibility of modifying the asylum application mechanism so that asylum applications can be filed outside the EU, Nouris said that the issue was discussed during the MED5 Summit and will be raised again before the Home Affairs Council when Ministers meet in Luxembourg next Friday.
We raised this issue ahead of the ominous projections by the EU and Frontex, expecting migrant flows to increase in the future, in order to act proactively, send specific messages and protect migrants from becoming victims. “We don’t want to see more people drowning in the sea, we don’t want to see more unaccompanied minors being exploited,” the Minister said and referred to recent incidents in the Aegean Sea, after boats carrying migrants sunk near the coast of Lesbos and Kythera.
"These incidents happened because some desperate people were exploited by smugglers and were forwarded to European countries, in this case, Greece", the Minister said and noted that “we have to take protection measures for these people.”
This is why Cyprus proposes that migrants who wish to file an asylum application, should do so in their country of origin or transit, Nouris explained and said that technicalities should be determined later. According to the proposal, if applicants get the go-ahead, they will be able to safely arrive in the country, without having to illegally cross the Green Line or board a precarious boat or, in the case of unaccompanied minors, have 10- or 11-year-old children fly alone.
These people will know in advance that upon arrival they will get recognition as asylum seekers, the Minister of Interior noted. Those with rejected applications will know that there is absolutely no reason to pay smugglers, he went on, while acknowledging that “this is not an easy endeavor” as it requires a series of legislative amendments.
The Republic of Cyprus will raise the issue in front of fellow EU Ministers and “my sense is that there will be significant support, while some member states already back [the proposal]. I see this as a trigger for discussion” to start weighing up pros and cons. Any conclusion on the matter I believe will send out a message to smugglers, who make a fortune at the expense of migrants and will result in reducing migrant flows to our countries, Nouris said.
Cyprus is not the only EU country burdened with the problem of tactics that instrumentalize migrants, the Minister said in reply to another question and pointed to the case of Italy. “The EU is called to have concrete sanctions in place when there is proof – as in the case of the Republic of Cyprus – of migration and migrants being instrumentalized” the Minister noted.
He said that last April, Cyprus communicated this evidence to EU authorities, including travel documents that show the route these people follow from sub-Saharan Africa to Istanbul, and from there to the illegal airport operating in the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus. A few hours after their arrival, most people pay smugglers a sum of €200-€300 to guide them across the Green Line, interviews with a large number of people coming from these areas revealed, according to the Minister.
This issue was also raised during a meeting Nouris had late last month with Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, and according to the Minister, “it is imperative to exercise more effective control in the Green Line” in line with the relevant regulation that allows crossing for people with valid travel documents and for those who entered the Republic through a legal entry point. “Obviously neither is the case for irregular migrants” Nouris went on.
Elaborating on discussions in New York concerning the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), Nouris said that managing migration is not part of UNFICYP’s mandate, which is tasked with checking people who enter the buffer zone that divides Cyprus. “The peacekeeping force is serving in the Republic of Cyprus since 1963 and has helped us immensely in maintaining this status, this tranquillity and in avoiding potential clashes” he added.
UNFICYP is primarily concerned today with checking Greek Cypriots who are entitled to enter the buffer zone from the government-controlled areas, such as farmers and people staying there “and rightly so” Nouris said, noting that the same should apply to those attempting to enter from the Turkish-occupied areas. I explained that if this becomes possible, it would constitute a very big help in containing migrant flows, he added.
“I understand that things are difficult since the mood for cooperation is not positive from the Turkish Cypriot side and Turkey, which controls the situation. Nevertheless, I received assurances that the issue will be discussed, even at the UN Secretary-General’s level, and I hope that there will be developments” he noted.
The Minister also said that in the last twelve months, Cyprus received more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors, all of them arriving from sub-Saharan Africa through the Turkish-occupied territories, and urged for action to be taken, to contain this issue. Cyprus proposed the operation of a Frontex office in Istanbul to check flights to the northern, occupied part of Cyprus, but, as Nouris said, this requires cooperation on the part of the Turkish government, which is not the case.
Asked if there is room for the EU to apply more pressure, the Minister said that the European Commission, at the highest level, raised this issue with the Turkish government already and “apparently this effort did not bear fruit until now.” This is not due to EU unwillingness, but it is the result of Turkey acting with intent, Nouris underlined.
Turkey, who for the past 48 years made sure to settle Cyprus’ occupied areas through a mass transfer of mainland Turks and Islamise the area “now attempts, through this particular way, to change the demographics in the areas under the effective control of the Republic” the Minister said.
He noted that the number of asylum seekers per capita reached 6% when the acceptable EU limit is up to 1.5% and does not exceed 1% in other frontline member states. “It becomes apparent that we entered a stage where our demographics are facing a threat” Nouris underlined.
Moreover, he pointed to the financial strain on the state budget. We are grateful to the EU for its contribution of €117 mln in the past four years, at the same time Cyprus spent an additional €188 mln in taxpayers’ money, the Minister noted.
“Lately, there is also a third menace that has to do with security” Nouris added, saying that data published by the Cyprus Police show that “in 73% of serious crimes committed in the Republic, there is at least one foreign migrant involved.” These three issues ring the alarm, and this is something we raised openly and hope that something comes out of the pressure we apply, the Minister said.
Asked whether relocations need to intensify or if financial assistance by member states is enough to deal with the problem in Cyprus, the Minister of Interior replied that the issue would have been solved by now if it was merely a question of money.
He said that in the past two years relocations present a point of friction, as the 27 member states are not unanimously in favor of implementing this in a mandatory manner. “Progress has been made in this regard” he went on, pointing to an initiative by the French EU Presidency, last semester, to engage in voluntary relocations.
“Despite the fact that we don’t think that this is going to solve the problem, we gave nevertheless our consent to start with this program,” Nouris said, noting that results are “disheartening.” He said, however, that two countries, France and Germany, already sent a delegation to Cyprus and started this process, aiming to relocate 500 migrants to each country by the end of the year, while the number could go up to 1,500 for each country next year.
He expressed gratitude to both countries, hoping that this could spark interest among other member states to do the same. Projections for the five frontline EU member states estimate about 160,000 asylum applications by the end of the year, while the best-case scenario for voluntary relocations speaks about 10,000 people, Nouris said. This leaves our countries with an additional burden of 150,000 asylum seekers, he went on, noting that this can not be the solution to the problem.
We will discuss this in the upcoming meeting in Luxembourg, in the hope that we will come up with a better solution, the Minister said.
Asked if member states are now closer to reaching a deal on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Minister said that “we are certainly closer, but we have not reached the end.”
He said that discussions over certain issues reached an impasse, however certain moves happening in parallel could alleviate the burden for frontline member states. One of them is investing in third countries and another is reaching bilateral agreements with third countries, he said.
“Some countries today are not cooperating with the European Commission and the EU in the same way others do” therefore the EU should treat them in a different spirit, Nouris noted. According to the Minister, countries refusing to welcome back their own citizens, after their applications were rejected, should not enjoy the same support from the European Commission.
Investments should intensify, particularly in Africa, and instead of spending trillions for migrants’ reception we could spend money on infrastructure for people to stay in these countries, he concluded.