A large-scale violent confrontation between groups of asylum seekers erupted at Pournara camp on Monday night, with police calling for backup and two dozen ending up in the Emergency Room.
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According to local media, some 600 refugees and asylum seekers were caught in the middle of a violent confrontation at Pournara migrant facility in Kokkinotrimithia, rural Nicosia, where over a thousand refugees and asylum seekers are being temporarily detained.
Police told Knews that up to over 600 individuals took part in a violent confrontation that erupted late Monday night, just after 11pm, with several individuals holding steel rods, throwing stones, and breaching a divider fence.
The motive was not immediately known, police said, while additional reports made references to a dispute between groups of different nationalities as well as overcrowding conditions for asylum seekers. Officials reportedly had tried to erect barriers between Syrian and African refugees, following a dispute in the late afternoon along ethnic lines.
Police officers who also serve as guards on the premises tried to intervene and called for backup. A communications officer with law enforcement declined to give a number of how many officers were called at the scene but confirmed backup arrived very quickly.
Some 35 people were injured during the incident, according to police, with 24 of them being rushed to the Emergency Room at Nicosia General Hospital where they were treated for minor injuries. A pregnant woman was said to have been among the injured.
A patrol car was damaged but it was not clear whether it had been targeted with rocks, with police saying a number of other vehicles and additional destruction of property took place during the incident that ended in the early morning hours just after 2am. Arrests were not made immediately following the incident but they were not ruled out.
Nouris points finger at Turkey
Interior Minister Nikos Nouris, who was a guest on state radio Tuesday morning, blamed Turkey for “sending migrants to the Republic of Cyprus,” while accusing Ankara of not holding up its end of the bargain on a migration deal with the European Union.
In response to the radio host’s comment that many refugees were coming from war-torn Syria to join their families on the island, the minister replied that many undocumented migrants were adult males without a family.
Nouris, who has been criticized for his tough stance on migration, said single men were coming specifically from Turkey, “a country which was supposed to hold them back.”
“Most of them are loners,” Nouris said, who previously declared that “legitimate refugees” were welcome in the Republic but not “economic migrants” trying to cheat the system.
In response to a comment that developments at Pournara had become volatile, Nouris said the situation reached its limit.
Earlier this month, a boat carrying 55 Syrian refugees arrived in Cyprus after it was spotted 15 nautical miles off Cape Greco, on the southeastern tip of the island. A week later, another boat was pushed back by Coast Guard on the other end of the island, off Akamas peninsula, with reports saying officers offered supplies and said the vessel left the area voluntarily to head back to its port of origin.
State defends pushback policy
State officials have defended pushback policies, which go against international convention, citing the pandemic and overcrowding conditions at the island's refugee reception centres. In one incident, a boatload of over hundred Syrians was sent back to Lebanon, with officials saying they were not legitimate refugees.
The Cyprus News Agency reported on Tuesday that 21 men were aboard another vessel that reached the Tilliria region in the northwest, with two of them detained on suspicion of people smuggling.
Police spokesperson Christos Andreou said the two men were arrested after investigators determined they were handling the boat.
Last year authorities were criticized for carrying out policies under which asylum applicants were being picked up from their places of residence or other locations and transferred into the Pournara camp, which was originally designed to host asylum seekers for a maximum of 72 hours for initial checks and processing.
An estimated 1200 people are currently staying on camp grounds at Pournara, a reception facility originally designed for 350 maximum capacity.
Reports also said migration officials have been refusing to take applications from asylum seekers at district branch locations, with officials referring applicants to Pournara, the only location where asylum processing for alien registration can take place.