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Cyprus steps up efforts to stop irregular migration, patrol off Lebanon

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A Cypriot law enforcement vessel was off the coast of Lebanon on Wednesday amid reports that Cyprus is stepping up efforts to prevent Syrian refugees reaching the island on small boats.

Migrants wait at a fishing shelter in Paralimni, Cyprus, April 5, 2024. This week the island has seen un unprecedented influx of hundreds of refugees from Syria, whom Cypriot authorities said set off from the coast of Lebanon. Reuters/Yiannis Kourtoglou

A Cypriot law enforcement vessel was off the coast of Lebanon on Wednesday amid reports that Cyprus is stepping up efforts to prevent Syrian refugees reaching the island on small boats.

An advocacy group reported that up to five boatloads of refugees were being prevented from sailing onward because of the presence of the vessel. Authorities in Cyprus declined comment.

Nicosia last weekend announced it was suspending the processing of asylum applications amid a sharp increase in the number of Syrians arriving in Cyprus from Lebanon. It wants its European Union partners to reconsider the status of Syria, currently out of bounds for returns.

One Cypriot maritime police patrol vessel, the Evagoras, was seen on ship tracking websites in international waters off the coast of Tripoli in Lebanon.

"These people are trapped in a cruel and dangerous game between Cyprus and Lebanon and remain at sea with no food or water and in urgent need of help," Alarmphone, an advocacy group, wrote on X.

Cyprus police, the interior ministry and a government spokesperson declined any comment.

"We have taken some other measures to avert arrivals, such as those announced which concern suspending assessment of new asylum applications," said Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou. He declined to comment specifically on the presence of the Cypriot vessel off Lebanon.

Suspending the examination of asylum requests means new arrivals will either have to stay in government reception camps with food and shelter and regulated exits, or live independently and forfeit the right to any benefits.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was closely monitoring the situation. It was unclear how many Syrians might be affected by the move; just over 8,500 asylum applications were made from 2023 to the end of March 2024.

"While we recognize the challenges that increased arrivals can pose to host countries, we urge the Republic of Cyprus to continue upholding its international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement," a UNHCR spokesperson told Reuters.

That convention requires that asylum-seekers are admitted to territory and granted access to asylum procedures. It also prohibits the return of individuals to a place where they would face threats to their life or freedom.

Cyprus says the EU already has an assessment by its own asylum agency, the EUAA, that two governates in Syria - Damascus and Tartous - present no real risk to civilians of falling victim to indiscriminate violence.

Multiple NGOs, including Amnesty International, say Syria is not safe for returns.

Reporting by Michele Kambas

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