For the first time in years, Cyprus has seen a shift in migrant arrivals and departures, as asylum applications have halved over the last six months, said Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou.
During a session of the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee for the study of the demographic problem, Ioannou told MPs there had been a 51% reduction in total arrivals in the first six months compared to the same period last year.
The Interior Minister also highlighted that the number of people leaving Cyprus has increased by 50%.
“In the last six months, we had around 5,800 asylum seekers, compared to approximately 12,000 in the same period last year,” stated Ioannou.
Referring to returns, the minister said: “Last year, we had around 3,200 returns, while this year that number has risen to 4,700”.
Describing the overall message as “encouraging”, Ioannou said it marked the first time that the island’s balance between arrivals and returns had flipped.
Ioannou acknowledged that things could change soon, noting the government is carrying out several policies to reduce migrant flows.
He said the government has stepped up the examination of applications, with the monthly rate increasing to 2,000, up from about 1,000 last year.
The processing time for applications and appeals to the administrative court has been reduced from over nine months to three months.
He added that plans to hire another 25 people to handle the examination of asylum applications will further speed up the process.
Ioannou said that currently, authorities have a backlog of approximately 30,000 pending asylum applications, which would be expedited with the increased number of examiners.
He pointed out the significance of expediting asylum applications, as it affects allowances and labour market access.
Ioannou also stressed the importance of combating illegal migrant trafficking rings.
A task force has been established to collect intelligence, and police have already made arrests related to people smuggling networks.
Rejected asylum applicants are offered a voluntary return program with incentives to leave Cyprus, but some choose to stay illegally to work.
Ioannou also addressed the challenge of deportations, dubbing the matter the “Achilles heel” of the government’s strategy.
He attributed the state’s incapacity to expedite deportations due to the lack of a detention facility.
“At the moment, the available detention facility can host only up to 126 people, limiting our capacity to carry out deportations”.
Ioannou said construction of a new pre-deportation centre is to be completed in two years and emphasised that having such a facility would enable more deportations.
The minister clarified that Syrians cannot be deported as they come from a war-torn and unsafe country.
He expressed a need to revisit this issue if the situation in Syria changes.