EU aiming a deal with Turkey to stem migrant flows to Cyprus

The European Union could work out ways to stem the flow of migrants from Turkey to Cyprus and other EU nations when it holds high-level talks in Ankara next month, a top EU official said on Tuesday.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said “it’s not impossible to find a way forward” on preventing migrants from leaving Turkey to reach Cyprus because the number of migrants reaching Cyprus isn’t very large relative to the huge number of refugees whom Turkey hosts. But she couldn’t say what such a deal would look like.

Johansson said she wanted to learn first hand the difficulties faced by ethnically divided Cyprus, which she said has the most asylum applications among all EU nations relative to its population. She also visited a migrant reception centre on the outskirts of the Cypriot capital of Nicosia.

“We have faced…a lot of challenges in our relations with Turkey. Now, we are in a situation where these relations are … being better,” Johansson said after talks with Cypriot Interior Minister Nikos Nouris.

Nouris accused Turkey of “systematically and on a daily basis” encouraging migrants arriving at Cyprus’ breakaway Turkish Cypriot north to cross a United Nations buffer zone into the internationally recognised south, where they apply for asylum in an EU nation. Cypriot officials say about 80 percent of migrant arrivals to the south are channelled from the north

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognises a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence.

Nouris said Cyprus is strengthening its marine police to prevent the arrivals of smuggling boats full of migrants and is stepping up patrols and electronic surveillance along the southern edges of the buffer zone. He said since the start of the year, 7,000 out of 8,500 asylum applications have been rejected but only 300 people have been repatriated because of an EU-wide policy “weakness.”

Johansson said she has “question marks” about an agreement Cyprus has with Lebanon to send back migrants aboard boats nearing the Cypriot coastline. She said EU regulations stipulate that people can seek asylum at the bloc’s sea borders.

Nouris has said the agreement with Lebanon stands and the return of migrants to that country will continue.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)

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