Cyprus on alert for migrants leaving Lebanon

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Cyprus is on the alert after boats from Lebanon located off the island’s coast loaded with Lebanese and Syrian migrants tried to gain entry.

At least five boats were spotted by authorities over the weekend and the Interior Ministry is holding an emergency meeting on the situation on Monday.

Police said Sunday that four vessels appeared off Cyprus’ eastern and southern coast over the last two days carrying a total 123 migrants and about half of them have been permitted to disembark while others have been sent back.

Some 30 migrants aboard a boat that police intercepted off the Famagusta coast Saturday have boarded another vessel that Cypriot authorities have chartered to be taken back to Lebanon.

On Monday, police radar located a vessel 16 nautical miles off Cape Greco with 60 migrants on board. The boat has not been approached.

Cyprus and Lebanon have a ‘send back’ agreement to curb the arrival of boats loaded with migrants from reaching the island.

On Friday, police encountered a small craft sailing off the coastal town of Larnaca with five migrants aboard. The boat continued to sail on in an undetermined direction.

Meanwhile, 51 migrants were sent to a reception centre after their boat from Lebanon reached a rocky beach Saturday along the island’s eastern coastline that’s inside a U.N. controlled buffer zone.

U.N. peacekeepers transferred the 35 men, five women and 11 children to Cypriot custody.

A court on Sunday ordered that four men remain in custody over suspicion they were the boat’s crew.

Police said another 20 Syrian migrants — 19 men, a woman and a child — were taken to a reception centre after being picked up Sunday morning near the buffer zone outside the capital Nicosia.

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said Cyprus’ migrant reception centre is reaching its limits amid concerns over sticking to health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On Friday, Nouris hailed lawmakers’ approval of a constitutional amendment shortening the time migrants have to appeal rejected asylum applications from 75 to 15 days.

He said the measure is a key first step in helping to clear the huge backlog of asylum cases.

Lebanon hosts 1 million Syrian refugees and 250,000 Palestinian refugees.

People smuggling has increased in the past few years, especially targeting young Lebanese disillusioned by the collapsing economy.

September, October and November were high season for fleeing Lebanon by boat because the sea was calm, Mohammad Al-Sarji, head of the Lebanese Union of Professional Divers, told Arab News.

“Smugglers in Lebanon are seafarers with strong knowledge of the sea. They buy used boats, refurbish, and use them for smuggling.

If they sink, their loss is not huge, but refugees would have paid huge amounts of money for smugglers,” he said.

“The closest point to Cyprus is the coast stretching from Tripoli to Akkar in northern Lebanon, only 90 km away, and it is not monitored due to the state’s impotence and decay.” (sources AP/Arab News)