More shocking details have emerged about a Syrian refugee’s ordeal in Cyprus, with police saying they were unaware last month they were separating a pregnant woman from her family during a pushback while some members of a House committee told a different story.
According to local media, Green party MP Alexandra Attalides registered the issue of Kawther Abdalaziz with the House Human Rights committee which held a hearing this week.
Abdalaziz, a Syrian woman who gave birth in a state hospital a day after reaching the island on a refugee boat, was the only one left behind before all others, including her husband and kids, were ferried back to Lebanon under Cypriot police escort on the basis of a controversial agreement between Beirut and Nicosia.
Previous reports by the Cyprus News Agency said she was transported to Famagusta General Hospital where she went into labor, giving birth to a healthy baby boy.
But participants in the committee hearing say the asylum applicant, who has also filed a petition to be reunited with her husband and two young children in Cyprus, tell a different story of what transpired and how she was treated on August 22.
While she was at very end of the final trimester of her pregnancy, according to Attalides, the woman was separated from her husband and her two other children, adding she was turned away at the hospital in Paralimni due to lack of space.
“As a result, the woman was left on a wooden pier at the Ayia Napa port the entire night until the next morning when she was taken to Larnaca hospital where she gave birth,” the MP said.
Police official Thomas Kyriakou, who represented law enforcement at the hearing, said after the refugee boat was intercepted, a male nurse visited the vessel and gave instructions for Abdalaziz to be seen by a gynecologist.
“She was initially transported to the hospital in Paralimni, where she was examined, and she was deemed to be in good health and so she was returned back to the boat,” Kyriakou said.
But instead they pulled them several kilometers further out and left them without water or food the whole night until the next day when the refugees were taken back to Lebanon
Abdalaziz was then deemed to be in need of medical care the following morning, the police official said, adding that she was taken to Larnaca General where she gave birth.
“Police had no information whatsoever that the husband, children, or any family relatives of the pregnant woman had been on board the vessel,” Kyriakou stated.
But AKEL MP Giorgos Koukoumas revealed that on August 23, before the refugee boat was scheduled to reach Lebanon, the left party’s leader Stefanos Stefanou had personally phoned Interior Minister Nikos Nouris to let him know “the pregnant lady has relatives on that boat.”
“So the minister knew about it,” Koukoumas told the committee.
Migration officials at the hearing said the department had no knowledge and further clarified that officials could only look into her situation after she could step on land where she could file for asylum.
This prompted a reaction from Attalides who wanted to follow up on the police representative who said they “didn’t know.”
“He said nobody had told police that night that the husband and children were on that boat, but you can understand it is not possible for a woman in that condition to stay quiet when she is being separated from her husband and kids,” the MP said.
According to KISA director Doros Polykarpou, who also attended the hearing at the invitation of Attalides, the pushback policy currently in place “does not only violate refugee laws but subjects people to inhuman and degrading treatment.”
“When you carry a pregnant woman and give her a plastic chair to spend the night on the dock, one day before she gives birth, this is inhuman and degrading treatment,” Polykarpou said.
The KISA director went on to explain that Abdalaziz had to lay down on wooden pallets used for loading ships in order to make it through the night.
“She was taken to the hospital the next day only after some of her fellow compatriots protested to police that her water broke,” Polykarpou added.
The KISA director also accused police of lying about the boat incident, citing witness accounts according to which coast guard officers threw an item on the refugee boat’s engine that caused it to break.
“I’m surprised with the lies I have heard today coming from the police,” he said.
Polykarpou then went on to explain that coast guard officers had promised passengers on the refugee boat to tow them towards land.
“But instead they pulled them several kilometers further out and left them without water or food the whole night,” Polykarpou said, while pointing out the following day the refugees were taken back to Lebanon.
The KISA director also accused the police of keeping silent about two refugees who were trying to swim to land, saying one was convinced by coast guard officers on a speed boat to get back on board while the other went his way.
“He was lost after battling waves for 4 hours in front of their eyes,” Polykarpou charged.
Attalides also weighed in on the issue, calling on the state to rethink its policies and ways of handling asylum seekers.
“At this point, when you do not save a person stranded at sea, we are now talking about a possible murder,” the MP said.