Cyprus is seeing a major increase in the number of migrants from third countries arriving from Turkey, with the tacit approval of Ankara, Cypriot interior minister, Constantinos Petrides, told a group of Brussels journalists on Thursday (27 June).
Petrides, who is a former Commission official, dismissed reports proclaiming ‘the end of the migration crisis’, or ‘the number of arrivals to the EU back at pre-crisis level’. He said such claims were painting a “rosy picture” and were true for half of the member states, but certainly not for Cyprus.
In addition to an increase of migratory pressure on Cyprus in recent years (over 50% in 2017 compared to the previous year and a further 65% increase in 2018), the data for 2019 causes further concern, he said.
Cyprus received an average of more than 1.000 persons for each of the first three months of 2019, while arrivals through the Turkey-occupied area from January until May totalled more than 3.000, he said.
In comparison, in 2018 the number was 2,000, while in 2017 it was only 137.
A very small number of migrants arrived by boat, the vast majority crossing into the Republic of Cyprus through the occupied North.
“The newest trend is even more alarming. It’s the arrival of third-country nationals, who fly directly from Turkey by plane to the occupied airport of Timvu [its Greek name] or Ercan [as it is known today], and then they enter the government-controlled area on foot”, Petrides said.
He added that some of the asylum-seekers were taken to the UN Green line by bus.
It is very easy to cross the UN Green line, which Nicosia doesn’t want to consider as a border. Every day, thousands of Turkish Cypriots cross into the Republic for work.
The minister warned that the situation was of big concern, as asylum-seekers now represented 3.5% of its roughly 850,000 population.
“Despite our effort, although the president of the republic [Nicos Anastasiades] addressed this issue at the European Council, despite the statements made at the European Council, Turkey refuses to cooperate with our authorities, which has led to an exceptional situation in Cyprus”, he said.
The minister explained that Turkey’s visa-free regime with many countries in Africa and Asia allowed migrants and asylum-seekers to reach Northern Cyprus without restrictions. He said that among those nationalities were Syrians, Iranians, and nationals from Cameroon.
In his words, nationals of these and other African countries were entering Turkey with a so-called “pro-visa” procedure, then took the plane to Northern Cyprus and crossed via the UN Green line into the Republic of Cyprus.
New migratory route –easiest and cheapest
The easiest – and cheapest – way for human traffickers to bring migrants to Europe, the minister explained, was to bring them to Cyprus, “because of the tolerance and the practice followed by the Turkish authorities”, he said.
The minister admitted that Cyprus had never expected to become a migratory route, as it is far away from the rich EU countries migrants want to reach.
In 2016, in the midst of the migration crisis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to send the millions of refugees already on Turkish territory to Europe, by planes and buses.
EURACTIV asked Petrides if the significant increase of the number of refugees could be linked to the current tensions between Ankara and Nicosia over the Turkish drilling for offshore oil and gas in the economic zone of Cyprus.
‘Institutional kind of smuggling’
“You are absolutely right. This new method of sending refugees by planes and buses could not be carried out without at least the tolerance of the [Turkish] authorities. And it’s not just tolerance. I mentioned the practices regarding the visa-free regime, regarding these policies which encourage this phenomenon to happen. It’s very clear that here we have an institutional kind of smuggling”, he said.
Asked if Turkey was, in fact, blackmailing his country, he said: “Could be” and added that his country realised the limitations of what the European Commission could do.
“They cannot dictate a policy of automatic relocation mechanism. We do appreciate their efforts, but they are handicapped”, he said.
“The European policy right now is governed by lack of solidarity to the front-line members. And the financial help we are receiving cannot be translated as serving the purpose of solidarity,” the minister said.
Petrides argued that the EU-Turkey statement of 18 March 2016 should apply to Cyprus as well. Under the agreement, the EU pays Turkey billions of euros, against the obligation that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands are returned to Turkey.
In parallel, he called for an ad-hoc relocation mechanism for Cyprus.
The minister declined to name the “three or four” member countries with whom Cyprus was talking in a bid to relocate some of the refugees. EURACTIV understands these are small member states that could not take significant numbers.
Petrides said his country had always supported a mandatory permanent relocation mechanism taking into account the GDP and population of the member states.
“We should not be hypocritical. The migration issue is threatening the existence of the European Union”, the minister said.
Asked to comment on the new migratory route reported by Cyprus, Commission spokesperson Tove Ernst said that the EU executive was following the situation closely. Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has been to Cyprus recently, as well as expert teams, she said.
Another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, said the Commission was not making a link between the migrants and the tensions over off-shore drilling between Ankara and Nicosia.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]