Refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe, including Cyprus, via the Mediterranean lost their lives at an alarming rate in 2018, making it the world’s deadliest sea crossing.
The latest ‘Desperate Journeys’ report, released by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says six lives were lost on average every day.
The report said there “were 64 deaths reported in four incidents as refugees and migrants tried to cross from Turkey or Lebanon to Cyprus”.
An estimated 2,275 died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2018, despite a major drop in the number of arrivals reaching European shores.
In total, 139,300 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe, the lowest number in five years.
While the numbers were going down, Cyprus saw an increase in irregular migration which included people arriving by boat from nearby Turkey and Lebanon.
Almost 7,800 new asylum applications were lodged in Cyprus in 2018.
“This increase has stretched the capacity of the asylum system as well as contributed to homelessness among some asylum-seekers, highlighting the need for improvements to reception capacity and asylum processing,” said the report.
While the overall number of sea arrivals to Cyprus dropped (787) compared to 2017 (1,111), several boats carrying Syrians arrived directly from Lebanon, in addition to those crossing from Turkey.
“Not all asylum seekers arrive by boats; they also arrive by air (in the north) or they may arrive initially as students or domestic workers and apply for asylum upon the expiry of their respective visas,” said the UNHCR in Nicosia.
Some of those arriving by sea reported travelling via that route in order to join close family members already in Cyprus.
In 2018, there were 42 boat arrivals in Cyprus both in territory controlled by Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-held north of the island from where migrants crossed over, according to the UNHCR in Nicosia.
The vast majority of boat arrivals concerned Syrian migrants dropped off by people traffickers.
There were three shipwrecks off Cyprus last year, one in December in which seven were confirmed dead, with a lone survivor, the first recorded shipwreck of its kind saw eight bodies washed ashore off the Karpas peninsula in May and another boat capsized in the north with at least 19 drowned in July.
“Saving lives at sea is not a choice, nor a matter of politics, but an age-old obligation,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We can put an end to these tragedies by having the courage and vision to look beyond the next boat, and adopt a long-term approach based on regional cooperation, that places human life and dignity at its core.”
The report describes how shifts in policy by some European States saw numerous incidents where large numbers of people were left stranded at sea for days on end, waiting for permission to dock.
NGO boats and their crews faced growing restrictions on their search and rescue operations.
On routes from Libya to Europe, one person died at sea for every 14 who arrived in Europe – a sharp rise on 2017 levels. Thousands more were returned to Libya where they faced appalling conditions inside detention centres.
“For many, setting foot in Europe was the final stop of a nightmarish journey on which they had faced torture, rape and sexual assault, and the threat of being kidnapped and held for ransom.
States must take urgent action to dismantle smuggling networks and bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice,” the report said.
The report also reveals significant changes in the routes being used by refugees and migrants. For the first time in recent years, Spain became the primary entry point to Europe as around 6,800 arrived by land (through the enclaves in Ceuta and Melilla) and a further 58,600 people successfully crossed over the perilous Western Mediterranean.
As a result, the death toll for the western Mediterranean nearly quadrupled from 202 in 2017 to 777. Some 23,400 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy in 2018, a fivefold decrease compared to the previous year.
Greece received a similar number of sea arrivals, some 32,500 compared to 30,000 in 2017, but saw a near threefold increase in the number of people arriving via its land border with Turkey.
Elsewhere in Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina recorded some 24,000 arrivals as refugees and migrants transited through the Western Balkans.
Cyprus received several boats carrying Syrian refugees from Lebanon while the UK witnessed small numbers crossing from France towards the end of the year.
“Most Syrians in Cyprus are granted subsidiary protection instead of refugee status according to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which results in them not being entitled to family reunification according to Cypriot law, which would enable close family members to travel safely and legally. Family reunification is available for those granted refugee status,” said the report.
Syrians seeking asylum in Cyprus reached 1,976 last year, the rest of applicants in 2018 were from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq, Cameroon, Georgia and Sri Lanka.