Cyprus ranks first in the EU in terms of the percentage of departures on immigrant arrivals and fourth in absolute numbers of returns and expulsions, Minister of the Interior Constantinos Ioannou said on Wednesday during a press conference where he presented the immigration report for the year 2023.

Overall, he said, the Government’s immigration policy has produced tangible results within a year as there was a reduction of immigrant arrivals by 37% and a 50% reduction in asylum applications, noting, however, that much more should be done in cooperation with international organisations.

Referring to voluntary returns with the granting of a financial incentive, he said it ranges from €1,000 to €1,500, depending on the country of origin. Cyprus, he noted, managed to increase departures to a very large extent, and said that in 2023 there was an increase in the total number of departures by 66% compared to 2022 . He also said that last month, 782 people arrived in Cyprus, and that at the same time the number of those who left reached 1,081, with the percentage of departures over arrivals reaching 138%. “This positive balance between departures and arrivals has been consistent over the past three months and looks that it will be as high for the month of February,” he said.

In his opening speech, the Minister said that despite the enormous efforts of the previous Government, the huge immigration burden on the European states of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the entire EU, limited the effectiveness of the measures and therefore the reception system of Cyprus was under enormous pressure. Ioannou added that therefore, the effort was primarily focused on managing the disproportionate number of immigrants.

He noted that the Pournara First Reception Center had exceeded its accommodation capacity, reaching a record number of more than 3,000 people, and stressed that in March 2023 the number of pending asylum applications exceeded 30,000.

Ioannou referred to the Government’s new strategy, with has a holistic approach, and which is based on four central points. The first, he said, concerned the reduction of new asylum seeker arrivals, the second the acceleration of asylum application examination procedures, the third the improvement of accommodation infrastructure and reception conditions, and the fourth the increase of the number of returns.

Referring to the limiting of migration flows, the Minister of Interior talked about the mass arrivals of irregular migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa through the Green Line, explaining that what became clear was that the vast majority came to Cyprus for the economic benefits, as Cyprus was presented as an economic paradise, and not because of the danger they faced in their country of origin.

The Minister said that in order to address this issue, the Government has proceeded with a series of actions to reduce arrivals, among which was the online information campaign in countries of origin, such as Nigeria, Cameroon and Congo, to inform potential immigrants about the real conditions that apply in Cyprus.

Furthermore, he said that the Government also negotiated the Eastern Mediterranean Action Plan and succeeded to include almost all of the Republic’s positions, and include measures to limit the uncontrolled arrival of migrants from Turkey.

Ioannou noted that the Government exerted pressure on the European Commission so as to take measures aimed at improving the degree of control of persons arriving in Cyprus through Istanbul Airport, with the help of Frontex and Europol. At the same time, the Government took measures to make Cyprus a less attractive destination, limiting the financial benefits and in particular he said that the Government ensured the immediate cut off of benefits from all those people whose application is definitively rejected.

The Minister of Interior added that it also increased the time period for the right to work after applying for asylum from one to nine months, it intensified controls in industrial sectors to combat illegal employment, it focused on combating traffickers’ rings in cooperation with neighboring countries of origin, and proceeded to set up a special team in the Aliens and Immigration Service of the Police, with exclusive responsibility for identifying and dismantling traffickers’ networks.

A result of these actions, he continued, was the reduction of arrivals by 37%, pointing out that asylum applications also recorded a reduction of almost 50%.

Ioannou noted that in contrast to Cyprus, where the number of new asylum seekers has decreased significantly, in the rest of the European countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, there was an increase. The Minister gave Greece as an example, saying that the increase in new applicants reached 72%, while in Italy the rise reached 61% and in Spain 38%.

He pointed out that Cyprus had a significant decrease of 72%, especially as regards young asylum seekers from African countries, saying that the problem with mass arrivals from Africa “has largely been resolved”.

“Despite the increase in flows by sea, which are mostly Syrian nationals, overall there is a decrease,” he stressed.

Regarding the speeding up of asylum application examination procedures, the Minister of Interior said that previously the examination of asylum applications was completed in one year on average and in many cases, this period exceeded 21 months adding that in order to address this problem, the Government proceeded in a gradual increase and eventually more than doubling the number of examiners of asylum applications. He noted that they achieved a reduction of the asylum application review period to a maximum of three months and that an average of 2,200 applications are reviewed monthly.

“In total, 20,239 decisions were issued in 2023” the Minister said, adding that the Government’s goal for 2024, as announced by the President of the Republic recently, is to further reduce this time so that decisions are issued within 30 days.

Moreover, Ioannou noted that combined with the reduced arrivals, it was possible to process several of the backlogs and the number has now been reduced to around 26,000.

The Minister also said that the shortening of the examination period is a very important pillar of the policy, as it now acts as a deterrent to anyone who would consider the possibility of arriving in Cyprus, with the aim of abusing the system to ensure long-term residence and employment.

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