Some 70% of migrants arriving in ethnically divided Cyprus this year have used a student visa they were issued by breakaway Turkish Cypriot authorities before seeking asylum in the internationally recognized south, the country’s interior minister said Thursday.
Minister Constantinos Ioannou told the Associated Press that Turkish Cypriot student visas are “by far” the most popular method used by migrants to reach Cyprus. They then cross the 180 kilometer (111-mile) -long, United Nations-controlled buffer zone to apply for asylum in the south.
Migrants don’t apply in the north because they wouldn’t receive the benefits afforded to asylum-seekers under international and European Union laws and regulations. Only Turkey recognizes Turkish Cypriot independence. Although Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, only the southern part enjoys full benefits.
Ioannou said most of the migrants who for opt for this route are from sub-Saharan Africa and fly into north Cyprus through Istanbul, Turkey.
“The rising percentage of irregular migrants who enter the Cyprus Republic-controlled areas through the (U.N. buffer zone) demonstrate the methods that Turkey has adopted in order to instrumentalize the issue,” Ioannou said.
He said prospective asylum-seekers choose this route it is lower risk, relatively cheap and affords them some semblance of legitimacy.
Some 95% of all migrant arrivals in Cyprus occur through the breakaway north, according to Interior Ministry figures. Of the 3,665 migrant arrivals so far this year, 3,485 crossed from the north.
Although the buffer zone isn’t a “hard” border, Cypriot authorities have erected barriers along points frequently used by migrants and smugglers and are in the process of installing electronic surveillance gear. Also, a force of 300 guards will soon start patrolling sections of the buffer zone. Ioannou said the guards will act as a visible deterrent force, and identified smugglers could face arrest, but they will not push back migrants northward because this could contravene international and EU law.
Ioannou said asylum applications have risen 490% since 2017, pushing Cypriot authorities beyond their capacity to cope. The percentage of either asylum applicants or individuals granted international protection has reached 6% of the island’s population — six times the average in other European front-line states.
Last year there were 21,565 new applications, and from January to March this year a further 3,182.
As part of EU-approved measures to tackle migration flows via the east Mediterranean, Cyprus aims to use all diplomatic and political tools at its disposal as an EU member to get Turkey to help put a stop to buffer zone migrant crossings, according to Ioannou. He said the EU is also in touch with airlines using Istanbul airport to help stem such arrivals, while a “senior EU official” is expected to visit Cyprus later this month to gauge progress.
The minister said Cypriot authorities are focused on expediting the processing of asylum applications in order to “disincentivize” what he said was the appeal of an extended stay in Cyprus due to the country’s slow and overburdened legal system.
Repatriations have also been stepped up — from 1,272 to 7,680 last year. More than 2,700 repatriations took place in the first four months of this year.