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28th Feb 2024

Cyprus ups pressure to label Syria safe to return refugees

  • Constantinos Ioannou, the interior minister of Cyprus (r), upping pressure to designate Syria as safe enough to return refugees (Photo: Andreas Loucaides/PIO)
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Cyprus is demanding that parts of Syria be designated safe enough to return prospective Syrian asylum seekers, an assertion that the island-nation has been pressing for months.

"The time has come to collectively open the discussion for the revaluation of the state of affairs of Syria," Constantinos Ioannou, the interior minister of Cyprus, told reporters on Tuesday (9 January).

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Given its geographical proximity, he said Cyprus is receiving a disproportionate number of irregular migrants from Syria.

Nearly all seaborne arrivals in Cyprus last year came from Syria. Cyprus handled around 10,600 asylum applications last year, down from around 21,500 in 2022.

It also repatriated proportionally more than other EU state. Some 11,000 people were returned last year, more than double the number in 2022. Most were voluntary returns.

"The fact that during 2023, we had a 116 percent return arrival rate is remarkable, especially taking into consideration the situation in the rest of Europe," said Ioannou.

It is also not the first time he suggested Syria be designated as safe for refugees, having made similar comments in an interview with Reuters news agency last December.

He said two Syrian governates — Damascus and Tartous pose no real risk of indiscriminate violence, citing a report by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA).

However, the Malta-based agency, also said that people being returned to Damascus could still be at risk of persecution.

And it said that sending people to Damascus could only be done "in exceptional cases," noting they would need significant financial means or a strong support network.

Ioannou also floated the idea in September after the United Nations Human Rights chief Volker Türk warned of worsening security in Syria due to fighting in the country's northeast.

Syria remains the largest displacement crisis in the world with over 12 million Syrians displaced in the region, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

And the UN agency says over 750,000 Syrian refugees are projected to be in need of resettlement over the next 12 months.

Ioannou's most recent remarks on Syria on Tuesday were made alongside the EU's home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson.

Johansson did not specifically address the issue on Syria and safety for refugees, but issued other warnings.

Instead, she framed that war between Israel and Hamas as a threat, noting that efforts are needed to counter new and emerging migratory routes "from Lebanon or maybe Syria into Cyprus."

Cyprus received over €23m in emergency EU funding for immigration last year.

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