Access to the territory and push backs

Cyprus

Country Report: Access to the territory and push backs Last updated: 08/04/22

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A high percentage of asylum seekers enter Cyprus from the areas not controlled by the RoC, in the north of the island, and then cross the “green line”/no-man’s land to the areas under the control of the RoC. The “green line” is not considered a border and although there are authorised points of crossing, these are not considered official entry points into the RoC. Crossing of the “green line” is regulated under the “Green Line” Regulation.[1] A low number of persons may enter at legal entry points and then apply for asylum, whereas about 30% of applicants are persons already in the country who have entered and stayed under other statuses such as domestic workers, students etc, and apply for asylum when their initial residence permit has expired. In 2021, there was an increase in the percentage of new arrivals, which reached 90% compared to applicants who were already in the country.

In view of these numbers, Cypriot authorities requested the European Commission to activate Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and to propose provisional measures to allow Cyprus to deal with a sudden inflow of third-country nationals, including the suspension of new asylum applications until the situation becomes manageable.[2] There is no information on the response to the request. However, in February 2021 a memorandum of understanding was signed between Cyprus and the European Commission to improve reception, asylum procedures, integration and the “efficiency of returns” with no reference to a suspension of asylum applications.[3]  

According to EASO, in 2020, the Agency supported 71% of all registrations for international protection in Cyprus, the majority of which (64%) concerned irregular entries crossing the “green line”.[4] In 2021, according to EASO, the Agency registered 48% of all registrations in Cyprus in the first nine months of 2021 and approximately 66% of the irregular entry registration performed in Cyprus.[5] In 2021, EASO carried out 7,880 registrations, of which 93% related to the top 10 citizenships of applicants, mainly from Syria (1,969), DRC (1,337) and Nigeria (1,211).[6]

If a person has entered the areas in the north without permission from the authorities in the north, and they are apprehended they will most probably be arrested and returned to Turkey and, from Turkey, possibly returned to their country of origin. As the acquis is suspended in the areas in the north, there is no asylum system in force.[7] In order to cross the “green line” through the points of crossing, a person needs a valid visa and will be checked by police acting in the north as well as by the RoC Police. As the vast majority of persons seeking asylum do not have such a visa, they cross the “green line” in an irregular manner, often with the help of smugglers.

In 2018, it was noted that the number of persons irregularly crossing the line increased,[8] and that the situation needed to be monitored carefully.[9] In 2019, with the numbers of applicants for international protection doubling once again as compared to 2018, the government stated that changes would be made to the Green Line Regulation.[10] In addition, in March 2020 the Council of Ministers declared General Measures in the form of an Action Plan which specifically stated that a request for financial support to the European Commission would be sent for the period 2020-2021 to cover the required operating and administrative costs and equipment for surveillance of the coastline and the Green line. During 2020, the official crossing points were closed as a measure to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, however as the majority of asylum seekers cross at irregular points, this alone did not have an impact on arrivals.

In March 2021, the Ministry of Interior installed razor wire along the “green line” under the justification of stemming migrant crossings from the north to the areas under the effective control of the Republic of Cyprus. This measure led to criticism within Cyprus as it implies the delineation of borders and further legitimize the division of Cyprus, as well as, that the issue of migration will not be solved by fences. Furthermore, the measures led to reactions from the European Commission as it had not been informed contrary to the Article 10 of the Green Line Regulation that provides that “any change in the policy of the government of the republic of Cyprus on crossings of persons or goods shall only become effective after the proposed changes have been notified to the Commission and the Commission has not objected to these changes within one month”.[11] Arrivals in 2021 were significantly higher than in 2020, the majority of which arrived by irregularly crossing the ‘green line’, a testament to the fact that the installation of razor wire had little, if any, impact on arrivals.

In November 2021, Cyprus and Israel reached an agreement, under which the Israeli military would build a surveillance system to track activity along Cyprus’s Green Line. According to reports, the system will monitor attempts at smuggling and illegal migration, and Cypriot authorities will be as provided assistance on military intelligence.[12]

If a person who has entered the north reaches the authorities of RoC and expresses the intention to apply for asylum, he or she will be referred to the Aliens and Immigration Unit in order to lodge an application. If the person has been in the RoC before and had been forcefully or voluntarily returned, or in cases of persons remaining irregularly, they may be arrested and detained. However, they will be given access to the asylum procedure in most cases, if requested.

People apprehended by the police within areas under the control of the RoC before applying for asylum may be arrested for irregular entry and/or stay, regardless of whether they were intending to apply for asylum, even if they were on their way to apply for asylum and have only been in the country for a few days. In recent years the number of persons being arrested in such circumstances is low and specifically for Syrian nationals they will not be arrested unless there are indications of a criminal act such as smuggling.

Besides arrivals from the north, a smaller number of asylum seekers enter the RoC at official points of entry (ports and airports). Since 2016, there have also been small boat arrivals of about 15-45 persons reaching either the areas in the north – with persons then passing into the areas under the control of the RoC – or arriving directly in the areas under the control of the RoC. The majority of boats come from Turkey, with a smaller number from Lebanon or Syria. In 2019, there were 11 boat arrivals, with a total of 427 persons. A significant number of persons arriving by these boats are relatives of persons already residing in Cyprus, often including spouses and underage children of persons with subsidiary protection. This is partly due to the fact that the vast majority of Syrians are granted subsidiary protection and this status, since 2014, does not have access to Family Reunification. Additionally, the route of arrival through the north has become harder and/or more expensive to access. Therefore, for many people irregular boat arrivals are seen as the cheaper way or the only way to bring their immediate family.

In 2020, the Cypriot authorities, for the first time, carried out push-backs of boats carrying mainly Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians who had departed from Turkey or Lebanon.[13] In total 9 push backs were carried with one more attempt to push-back a boat in December 2020, but due to damages the boat was eventually rescued.

In March 2020, the first push-back took place concerning 175 Syrians, of whom 69 were children, on a boat originating from Turkey.[14] COVID-19 was used as a justification for this measure. Reportedly, the authorities identified the boat prior to reaching the shores of the RoC. Officers in uniform wielding guns boarded the boat, seized the mobile devices of the people on board, threw the devices overboard and directed the boat to leave the territorial waters of the RoC and return to Syria. Later on, during the day the boat reached the shore in the areas not effectively controlled by the Republic and the concerned persons were transferred to a stadium for the weekend. All returned a negative COVID-19 test and were eventually deported to Turkey.

In June 2020, the second pushback took place with a boat carrying 30 people. The boat was intercepted by the coastguard which remained in the area until the boat headed toward the north. The third pushback took place in July with a boat carrying 10 Syrians. Once again, the boat was intercepted by the coast guard and eventually it headed to the north. People from the third boat were later reported to have crossed from the north through unguarded sections of the “green-line” and were found in Pournara First Reception Centre.[15]

In August and September 2020, 9 boats from Lebanon carrying 202 persons reached the RoC. During the same period, another 6 boats with approximately 243 persons left Lebanon and attempted to reach Cyprus. However, they were pushed back or deported to Lebanon after being taken to shore due to damages in the boats but were not given access to asylum procedures.[16] Following the request for interim measures by the NGO KISA, the European Court of Human Rights requested information from the Cypriot government.[17]

There were other reported attempts of boats trying to reach Cyprus from Lebanon, but these were unsuccessful. One such boat was rescued by UNFIL after being at sea for 7 days and 3 persons lost their lives, including a young child, while 14 remained missing at sea.[18]

In December 2020, another attempt to pushback a boat with 38 persons from Syria was carried out, however due to unsafe conditions the boat was allowed to reach shore.[19]

In January 2021, a boat reportedly carrying 25 Syrians attempted to reach the areas under the effective control of the RoC. According to media reports, the coast guard provided the boat with food and fuel, but did not allow it to approach the shore.[20] In May 2021, a boat carrying 56 men, women and children was pushed back at sea in Cape Greco area.[21] In June 2021, a boat carrying 58 men women and children was pushed back in Cape Greco area and returned to Lebanon; according to the Police spokesperson, the boat was escorted by Cyprus Police in collaboration with Lebanese authorities.[22]

In July 2021, three boats were pushed back and returned to Lebanon. The number of people on board of the first boat was not confirmed; the second and third respectively carried 14 and 80 persons.[23]

In August 2021, two other boats were pushed back to Lebanon. The first boat carried 75 persons; 73 were returned to Lebanon, while two were brought to shore for medical assistance and separated from their families; a heavily pregnant woman who was separated from her husband and two very young children and a man with heart condition that was separated from his wife and children.[24] The second boat carried 17 persons, of which all were returned, except for one individual who jumped overboard and was never found.

In November 2021, 61 Syrians were spotted on a vessel off the south-western coast and were escorted by the authorities to Paphos harbour, where they remained for at least 3 days in poor conditions, as UNHCR and media reported.[25] They were not allowed to exit the harbour or access asylum procedures. They left on the boat they had arrived on without permission from the authorities.[26]

Besides the push backs at sea, in May 2021, three Cameroonians approached the RoC police at the Ledra Palace crossing point to seek asylum and were pushed back to the Buffer Zone. The authorities refused to allow them to enter the areas under the effective control of the RoC, which led to them remaining in the Buffer Zone in tents for a period of 6 months.[27] One of the Cameroonians entered the areas under the effective control of the RoC irregularly in autumn 2021, whereas the other 2 were included in the group of 50 persons to be relocated to Italy by Pope Francis, following his visit to Cyprus in December 2021.[28]

In December 2021, an 18-year-old Nigerian woman approached the RoC police at the Ledra Palace crossing point to seek asylum and was pushed back into the Buffer Zone. She returned to the areas not under the effective control of the RoC.

In early 2021, in a letter addressed to the Minister of Interior of Cyprus, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović urged the Cypriot authorities to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out into allegations of pushbacks and of ill-treatment of arriving migrants, including persons who may be in need of international protection, by members of security forces. Commissioner Mijatović also called on the Cypriot authorities to bring conditions in reception facilities for asylum seekers and migrants in line with the applicable human rights standards and to ensure that applicants enjoy effective access to all necessary services. With particular reference to restrictions on freedom of movement which are applied as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic to the residents of migrant reception facilities, the Commissioner recalled that rather than preventing the spread of the virus, deprivation of liberty risks endangering the health of both staff and asylum seekers and migrants, as these facilities provide poor opportunities for social distancing and other protection measures. She therefore urged the Cypriot authorities to review the situation of the residents of all reception centres, starting with the most vulnerable. She also emphasised that since immigration detention of children, whether unaccompanied or with their families, is never in their best interest, they should be released immediately.[29]

Legal access to the territory

National law does not include a humanitarian visa. However, an exceptional visa may be issued to a third-country national (TNC) for entry or transit through the RoC, when the following conditions are met: the TNC meets the conditions of the Law for his entry into the Republic; the national in question has not been able to apply for a visa in advance to the competent consular authorities of the Republic; the national in question submits, where necessary, supporting documents proving the unforeseen and compelling reasons for his entry into the Republic; return to the country of origin in the event of a short stay is ensured; and in the event that the national in question applies for a transit visa, they shall have in their possession the visas required to continue their journey to other transit countries where this is required and to the State of destination.[30] In practice, no information on the application of such procedure is available.

There have been no relocation or resettlement programs implemented in Cyprus systematically. The only such program toward Cyprus involved a small number of asylum seekers that were relocated to the country under the 2015-2017 EU relocation scheme. Relocation programs from Cyprus toward other Member States have also had a limited scope; in particular, approximately 150 vulnerable asylum seekers, among which unaccompanied children, were relocated to Finland in mid-2020 as part of an initiative created by Finnish authorities to support Cyprus. In December 2021, following a visit by Pope Francis to Cyprus, it was announced that approximately 50 persons would be relocated to Italy; since then, 50 additional asylum seekers were included in the program and are currently in the process of being transferred.[31]  Overall, Cypriot authorities often request that programs to relocate asylum seekers from Cyprus to other EU member states are implemented.

[1] Council Regulation (EC) No 866/2004 on a regime under Article 2 of Protocol No 10 of the Act of Accession as last amended by Council Regulation (EC) No 587/2008.

[2] FRA, Quarterly Bulletin, 01/10/21 – 31/12/21, available at: https://bit.ly/3Nmabf3.

[3] ECRE, Cyprus: MoU Signed with European Commission While Government Casts Blame on Asylum Seekers, available at: https://bit.ly/36Edga6.

[4] EASO Operating Plan 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3roXHbg

[5] EASO Operating Plan 2022-2024, available at: https://bit.ly/37ezU.

[6] Information provided by EUAA, 28 February 2022.

[7] EU Accession Treaty – Protocols on Cyprus, available at: https://bit.ly/2vTilJ0. The Protocol on Cyprus, attached to the Treaty of Accession signed on 16 April 2003 by the Republic of Cyprus, provides for the suspension of the application of the acquis in those areas of the Republic of Cyprus, where the Government of the Republic does not exercise effective control.

[8] Associated Press, ‘Cyprus sees surge in migrants crossing from breakaway north’, 10 December 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2BKDiph; The Guardian, ‘“Cyprus is saturated” – burgeoning migrant crisis grips island’, 11 December 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2Qsx2Mu.

[9] European Commission, Fourteenth report on the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 866/2004and the situation resulting from its application covering the period 1 January until 31 December 2017, COM (2018) 488, 22 June 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2BHUvQ4.

[10] Philenews, “Μέτρα ΥΠΕΣ και ΥΠΕΞ για αυξημένους ελέγχους στα οδοφράγματα”, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/2WfKSTP Philenews, “Υπουργικό: Τα μέτρα για την παράνομη μετανάστευση“, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/2TPDzRc.

[11] Cyprus Mail, “Barbed-wire controversy grows”, 12 March 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3m0U2ys.

[12] Times of Israel, “Israel to build surveillance system to track activity along Cyprus’s Green Line” available at: https://bit.ly/3CiIhf2; Cyprus Mail, “Buffer zone surveillance deal signed with Israel (Updated)” available at: https://bit.ly/3HJ4eVL.

[13] Report of the United Nations Secretary General on the UN operation in Cyprus, available at: https://bit.ly/3MrUfYl.

[14] Aljazeera, ‘Cyprus pushes Syrian refugees back at sea due to coronavirus’ 30 March 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3rJ1mRr.

[15] Information provided by asylum seekers in the Centre to Cyprus Refugee Council.

[16] Kathimerini, ‘UNCHR Representative in “K”: Boat pushbacks are contrary to international law’, 13 September 2020, (available in Greek) available at: https://bit.ly/3fHsgUp. See also, DW, ‘Refugee pushbacks by Cyprus draw attention from EU, UN’, available at: https://bit.ly/2O2P0F7; ECRE, ‘Cyprus: devastating conditions push people from Lebanon to hostile Cyprus’, 25 September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3rv1Ppy; U.S Department of State, 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Cyprus, available at: https://bit.ly/3rF00X2.

[17] Correspondence from the European Court of Human Rights regarding Application no.39090/20, M.A. and Others v. Cyprus and a request for interim measures, September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/37gq16X; See also Kisa, ‘Refoulement and push-backs of refugees: Government exposed morally, politically and legally’, September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3nYKyDK.

[18] UNIFIL, ‘UNNIFIL naval peacekeepers rescue 37 stranded at sea’ September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3bN3Kkv. See also; Daily Star Lebanon, ‘Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing’ September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3lcTq75.This was also reported by survivors to Cyprus Refugee Council.

[19] Phileleftheros ‘The boat with immigrants will not sail to Cyprus’, 3 December 2020, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/3dfa6c2.

[20] Phileleftheros ‘The Coast Guard prevented the approach of a boat with migrants’, 8 January 2021 (available in Greek) available at: https://bit.ly/3w6dBKl; Cyprus Mail, ‘Migrant boat turned away, given supplies’, available at: https://bit.ly/3vLDqla.

[21] Phileleftheros, ‘Undocumented migrants returned to Lebanon’ available at: https://bit.ly/3HRwQMt.

[22] Phileleftheros, Migrants that arrived and Cape Greco are returned to Lebanon’, available at: https://bit.ly/3tyBE4o; Cyprus Mail, ‘Migrant boat spotted off Cape Greco’ available at: https://bit.ly/3pGapU3; Kathimerinin, Another refugee boat pushed back in Cyprus’ available at: https://bit.ly/3pKFdTH.

[23] Cyprus Mail, ‘Cyprus to return migrants from Lebanon’ available at: https://bit.ly/35RTFlU.

[24] Cyprus Mail, ‘Kisa calls for criminal inquiry into separation of Syrian family’ available at:  https://bit.ly/3hQ4Xtq; Politis, ‘Human Rights Committee of the Parliamnet: Pregant woman stays in Cyprus and family returned’ available at: https://bit.ly/3Kmk8a1.

[26] Alpha News, ‘The whereabouts of the boat with the 61 migrants that left Paphos remains unknown’, 12 November 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3qXFUKj.

[27] Guardian ‘No man’s land: three people seeking asylum stuck in Cyprus’s buffer zone’ available at: https://bit.ly/3KllDp9; Cyprus Mail, ‘Asylum seekers trapped in no man’s land’ available at: https://bit.ly/3hHGKFX.

[28] France 24, ‘Pope to relocate two asylum seekers trapped in Cyprus buffer zone’ available at: https://bit.ly/3tCXGTj.

[29] Council of Europe, Commissioner of Human Rights, Letter to the Minister of Interior of Cyprus, available at: https://bit.ly/3mmJiuE.

[30] Article 9A, Aliens and Immigration Law.

[31] Information provided by Cyprus Refugee Council.

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX I – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation