Cyprus and the European Union signed a landmark agreement Monday in which Brussels offers operational assistance to help Nicosia handle the EU’s highest influx of migrants per capita.
EU Home Affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson (virtually) and Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris in Nicosia signed the MoU that facilitates Cyprus sending back failed asylum seekers while improving its overcrowded reception facilities.
“Today is a milestone for the Republic of Cyprus and efforts made by the government to manage a problem that has plagued our country,” Nouris said at Monday’s signing ceremony.
Johansson tweeted it will help Cyprus implement “timely asylum procedures” to reduce a backlog, “establish effective integration and improve the efficiency of returns”.
The memorandum provides for action at the starting points and origins of these migratory flows, the strengthening of Cyprus reception and management structures and the repatriation of migrants to their countries of origin.
Visiting EU Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas said: “We are turning the page together, the European Union and the Republic of Cyprus, in the management of a problem that has become very large, creating a disproportionate burden of management in Cyprus.”
He added: “I am very happy that this historic day also means the dawn of this new era, which I am sure will be better.”
Interior minister Nouris said authorities could no longer effectively cope with the influx of irregular migrants.
“Exploitation of the asylum system by persons who do not need international protection deprives the state of the ability to provide effective hospitality, care and support to those in real need.”
Nicosia says 4.6% of the country’s population are asylum seekers or beneficiaries of protection, the highest ratio in the EU.
The government accuses Turkey, whose troops have since 1974 occupied the island’s northern third, of encouraging much of the influx of Syrian refugees and arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa.
New asylum applications multiplied to over 13,000 last year in a country of under a million.
Authorities say scores of irregular migrants every day, guided by smugglers, cross the UN-patrolled 184-kilometre long Green Line that dissects the island, with 85% of asylum seekers last year having arrived in this way.
“Cyprus needs practical European solidarity,” Nouris said.
He argued that “Turkey must be convinced” to comply with what Europe has proposed for Lithuania, Poland and Estonia to prevent a migrant push from Belarus’ hybrid attacks’.
“The instrumentalization of immigration needs to be stopped at the expense of Cyprus.”
According to the EU’s Frontex border agency, the number of migrants and asylum seekers that arrived in Cyprus in January grew by 48% from last year.
The most represented nationalities were from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), Syria and Nigeria.
Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said in Nicosia last week the island faces an “extraordinary challenge” that requires “extraordinary support”.
Cyprus said it had 1,335 new asylum applications in January — more than double the number from the same month two years ago.
Despite 13,235 new asylum applications being filed last year, Cypriot authorities managed to examine 16,000, of which nearly 13,000 were rejected.
Nouris has said most migrant arrivals originate from sub-Saharan African countries, arrive in the breakaway north from Turkey’s Istanbul airport or its southern ports, then cross the divide to get to the EU side of the island.