A refugee boat believed to be bound for Italy escaped custody at Kato Paphos port on Thursday, after passengers were not allowed to disembark the previous day but spent the night onboard awaiting further instructions from Nicosia.
According to local media, a boat carrying 61 undocumented migrants and presumptive refugees possibly from Syria and Lebanon was spotted Wednesday early morning off the southern coast of Cyprus and was escorted to Kato Paphos.
Reports said there were 22 men, 11 women, and 28 children on the boat, with passengers reportedly telling authorities they left Tripoli and were traveling to Italy before conditions at sea pushed the vessel closer to the island.
The Cyprus News Agency reported that coast guard officials and marine police escorted the boat to the port in Kato Paphos, where it was securely attached to the dock.
Additional reports said the passengers were not allowed to seek shelter on land, citing government officials who were trying to coordinate an appropriate response
Passengers, who were ordered to remain on board, were given blankets and food provisions according to CNA. A child in need of medical care was allowed to disembark briefly with the mother for hospital treatment, officials said.
Additional reports said the passengers were not allowed to seek shelter on land, citing government officials who were trying to coordinate a response that would be "appropriate" given their circumstances.
A controversial agreement between Nicosia and Beirut provides for Syrian refugees to be pushed back if they came from Lebanon, with reports saying the boat had left the neighboring country’s coast Tuesday night around midnight.
During the incident, a scheduled marathon meeting on migration was taking place at the Presidential Palace, where Interior Minister Nicos Nouris raised alarm over irregular arrivals and called for toughening of measures including possibly halting asylum application reviews.
But later in the day, as the boat was tied to cleats on land awaiting further instructions from Nicosia, passengers on board cut the boat’s lines and sailed away.
Local media said officers at the port were caught off guard and a coast guard vessel went after the boat trying to catch up before going beyond terittorial waters.
After intercepting the boat, officers reportedly tried to persuade the passengers to return to Paphos, but the presumptive refugees declined the offer and said they would carry on with their trip to Italy.
"Despite efforts by the coast guard and marine police to protect the migrants by transporting them to a safe harbor, they resumed their journey heading southwest,” police said on Friday.
Cypriot police also clarified that no passenger on the boat in question had been detained at any given time during the incident.