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Cyprus: Migrants Trapped in UN Buffer Zone

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Twenty-seven migrants, reportedly from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Sudan and Iran, have been stuck in the neutral area between north and south – known as the buffer zone – for over a week. About half are reportedly women and children.

Authorities in the Republic of Cyprus, part of the European Union, have said that they are determined not to “open another route for irregular migration” by letting the stranded group in via the buffer zone, which is under UN control.

President Nikos Christodoulides told reporters on Tuesday (June 4), that his government was ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the group.

Government remains firm

However, he added that he was determined that the so-called Green Line between the two parts of the island “would not become a new avenue for the passage of illegal migrants.”

Christodoulides said that Turkey, which is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, has been allowing migrants to fly into Turkey, often on visas, and then to Northern Cyprus, before they then cross the border into the EU.

The UN, via its refugee agency UNHCR, has been providing first aid and food and water to the group. However, the UN peacekeepers administering the buffer zone said they had no mandate to process asylum applications themselves, and could not send the group back to Northern Cyprus nor to Turkey.

A spokesperson from the UN peacekeeping mission on the island, Aleem Siddique, told AP, “we are making representations to the Republic of Cyprus to live up to their obligations under European Union and international law.” Siddique added that they were “looking for a solution that worked.”

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‘Increasingly difficult conditions’

Temperatures in Cyprus over the past week have reached 40 degrees Celsius. Siddique told the Cyprus Mail that they were becoming increasingly “concerned for the health and welfare of the asylum seekers that include many women and children.” He added that they are facing “increasingly difficult conditions.”

The UN has confirmed that the migrants have set up tents in the buffer zone, but had no access to decent living conditions. The Cypriot authorities continue to point out that no one can cross the Green Line without a visa or the necessary documentation, papers many of the group are lacking.

However, those who want to see the group enter the Republic have pointed out that asylum procedures circumvent these laws, and that the Republic of Cyprus is therefore not meeting its obligations under international law and human rights conventions.

The Cypriot government says it fears that admitting this small group would send a signal to smugglers that this is a route into the EU and could result in many more attempts to cross the border. In an editorial, the Cyprus Mail asked rhetorically why the group had not sought asylum in Turkey “which is also bound by international conventions, if they are so desperate for international protection?”

The Mail then suggested that since the UN controls the buffer zone, it should be able to send the migrants back to North Cyprus for the authorities there to deal with.

Deportations and voluntary returns

The migrants’ presence in the border zone comes at the same time as EU member states head to the polls. Cyprus has long been a strong voice in the EU to cut irregular migration, arguing that the small island state cannot cope with any more asylum seekers.

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On June 7, the Cyprus Mail reported that since the beginning of the year, Cyprus, with the help of the European Border Agency Frontex, had succeeded in deporting or repatriating under voluntary return schemes nearly 4,900 people who had been “illegally residing in Cyprus.”

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