Cyprus task force bound for Lebanon to stop migrants fleeing

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Cyprus will send a team to Lebanon to help authorities stop boats with migrants including from war-torn Syria heading for the island after a wave of attempts in recent days.

A task force from various services will visit Lebanon “to deal in the best and most effective way with this phenomenon,” Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said.

Cyprus, just 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Lebanon’s coast, is so close that the deadly explosion that devastated Beirut on August 4 was heard on the island. Syria is even nearer.

Cyprus is on alert after at least six boats carrying over 200 migrants were spotted off the coast of the tourist island by authorities over four days, and the Interior Ministry held an emergency meeting on the situation on Monday.

Many of those on board were Syrians, as well as Lebanese. Some were permitted to disembark, but others were sent back.

Cypriot authorities chartered a boat to take a group back to Lebanon with an escort.

On Tuesday, another boat with 45 people on board was located off Ayia Napa, after consultations, they were also transferred to a private boat and escorted back to Lebanon.

Lebanon, which hosts a million Syrian refugees, was already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades before the cataclysmic explosion in the port of Beirut.

Nearby Nicosia fears becoming a magnet for those fleeing a political and economic crisis.

European Union member Cyprus and Lebanon have a “send back” agreement to discourage migrants.

Cyprus has long complained it is on the frontline of the Mediterranean migration route, with the EU’s highest number of first-time asylum seekers per capita of population.

“We are no longer able to receive additional numbers of economic migrants simply because” reception facilities are full, Nouris said.

Nouris last week praised parliament’s approval to cut the time that migrants can appeal rejected asylum applications from 75 to 15 days.

Since the migrant “Balkans route” from Turkey to central Europe was blocked in 2015, asylum applications in Cyprus have soared — from 2,253 that year, to 13,648 in 2019 — the Interior Ministry says.

A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus told AFP: “Any person on a boat who seeks asylum should be admitted at least on a temporary basis to examine the claim”.