Cyprus urged to probe migrant pushbacks from Lebanon

Nicosia (AFP) –


Europe's top human rights body has urged Cyprus to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of migrants arriving by boat from Lebanon last September, but Nicosia insisted it had respected the law.

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, sent a letter to Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris, in which she also raised concerns about poor reception facility conditions.

Mijatovic said she received reports "indicating that boats carrying migrants, including persons who may be in need of international protection, have been prevented from disembarking in Cyprus, and summarily returned, sometimes violently."

Mijatovic's letter, dated March 10, was released Thursday by the Council of Europe, along with Nouris' March 16 reply.

Nouris said Nicosia had respected European Union and international law, and that an agreement was negotiated with Lebanon to send back its citizens trying to arrive by boat.

Cyprus lies just 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Lebanon, a country mired in political and economic crises.

Last September, Lebanon was reeling from a massive August 4 blast in Beirut's port, which left swathes of the capital in ruins.

"I urge the Cypriot authorities to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out into allegations of pushbacks and ill-treatment by members of security forces," Mijatovic added.

She acknowledged that sea crossings and arrivals pose considerable challenges for Cyprus, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but said human rights obligations must be "respected."

Conditions in reception facilities "raise a number of concerns", Mijatovic said, such as "overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and difficulties in accessing health, social and asylum services."

Nouris said that in September 2020 it was agreed that six out of the 10 vessels carrying Lebanese nationals should return.

"Cyprus authorities prevented the irregular entry of Lebanese migrants that did not request international protection, and managed to return them with safety to Lebanon," his reply read.

Some 24 Lebanese nationals disembarked to apply for international protection, but 210 others detected at sea were returned home, since they had stated their destination was not Cyprus but Italy, Nouris said.

Nicosia argues that Cyprus is on the EU's frontline for managing migration and asylum from the eastern Mediterranean.

In the past four years, the number of asylum seekers in Cyprus has reached four percent of the country's population, compared to one percent in other EU states, said Nouris.

As the EU's most south-easterly member state, the island has the highest per capita number of first-time asylum claims in the 27-member bloc, according to the Eurostat statistics agency.