Mohammed, a 20-year-old Syrian who left Turkey on an inflatable boat in the middle of the night, arrived in October on the northern coast of the divided island of Cyprus, less than 100 km from the Turkish shore.
“There were women and children” on board, says Mohammed, who prefers to use a pseudonym so as not to endanger his relatives who remained in Idleb in Syria.
After arriving in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC, self-proclaimed and recognized only by Ankara), he crossed the buffer zone between the two parts of the island monitored by UN patrols, to cross into the Republic of Cyprus , internationally recognized and member of the European Union, where he applied for asylum.
“It is not easy to leave your country, but the situation in Syria is pushing you to leave,” he said.
The Republic of Cyprus, which has seen an increasing number of migrants arrive in recent years, claims that it is now facing a “migration crisis”.
Expected on the island from December 2 to 4, Pope Francis is to participate in an ecumenical prayer with migrants. He wants to organize a trip allowing migrants to reach Rome, according to the spokesman for the Cypriot government.
The island has been divided since the invasion of northern Cyprus by the Turkish army in 1974 in reaction to a coup by Greek-Cypriot nationalists wishing to reattach the island to Greece.
The Republic of Cyprus only exercises its authority over the southern two-thirds of the predominantly Greek-speaking island.
She says she has the highest number of first asylum applications of the 27 members of the EU compared to its population of nearly one million inhabitants and accuses Turkey of instrumentalizing irregular migrants by allowing them to cross. south side from the TRNC.
– “Not a priority” –
Turkey, which has nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees, “could, if it wanted, flood the island,” said Corina Drousiotou of the Cypriot Council for Refugees.
“I have no doubt that stopping ‘arrivals from Northern Cyprus’ is not a priority for Turkey” but if this flow were orchestrated the number of arrivals would be “much higher”, she continues.
The 180 km line separating the two parts of the island from east to west is 30 m to 8 km wide, according to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.
Its topography is complicated, underlines Aleem Siddique, its spokesperson.
The Republic of Cyprus claims that 10,000 irregular migrants arrived in the first ten months of the year, most of them from the north of the island.
Some 20% of asylum seekers have already traveled to the Republic of Cyprus legally in the past, for example as a student or to work there, according to the representative in Cyprus of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Katja Saha .
In the first nine months of the year, more than a fifth of new asylum seekers were Syrians, according to data from the Republic of Cyprus released by UNHCR.
Many more arrived in Northern Cyprus by plane from Turkey, the only country with links to the state not recognized by the international community, often with student visas.
According to Ms. Saha, the number of asylum seekers from West Africa increased in 2019, “via smugglers or as ordinary students” from the north.
– “Hostile environment –
Frida, a 33-year-old Cameroonian who arrived in North Cyprus on a student visa, says she paid 500 euros to go to the South.
Ioannis-Sotirios Ioannou of Geopolitical Cyprus News and Analysis site denounces “scam” for students which has had the side effect of exerting pressure on the south by luring students from fee-paying universities to economically isolated TRNC only to see them pass to the other side.
On the North side, the small Association for the Rights of Refugees says that people in an irregular situation are being returned and that human trafficking and smuggling have been banned since last year.
“We do not have an asylum mechanism. We only have a definition of a refugee,” explains Deniz Altiok, member of this association.
On the south side, some accuse the government of being alarmist for political ends and to obtain more aid from the EU.
Nicos Trimikliniotis, a human rights expert, says the government is deliberately ignoring the plight of desperate people, stressing the “very difficult” living conditions in Pournara, the island’s main reception center.
According to him, “the policy is to create a hostile environment.”