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  • Human Rights Research Center

The Refugee Situation in Cyprus: Examining the “Dos” and “Don’ts” Under Human Rights and Refugee Laws

May 28, 2024

While war as well as political and economic crisis in the Middle East has been a major catalyst transplanting millions of refugees to Europe for decades, a significant spike in the number of refugees fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Cyprus has created what has been described as a “refugee crisis” within the island-state. The movement of refugees from the Middle East to Europe is an ongoing and longstanding phenomenon that has defined a key feature of European migration. Therefore, caution has to be exercised in dubbing the current influx of migrants into Cyprus as a “crisis” so as to avoid running the risk of mischaracterization. However, asymmetry in the influx of refugees can potentially create a crisis for some recipient states. In particular, Cyprus, which has not traditionally been the largest recipient state of refugees, is facing crisis-level conditions.

The Cyprus refugee crisis does not exist in a vacuum but is rooted largely in the domino effect created by the inability of Lebanon – Syria’s immediate neighbor – to deal with the influx of refugees crossing its borders. To add context, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there may be approximately 1.5 to 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, almost double the reported figure of 805,000 people. Syrians fleeing Syria as refugees is not a nuanced notion now in the international space. The UNHCR has reported that Syria remains the largest refugee crisis, which has been protracting for 13 years.

While Cyprus, like other European countries, has been a recipient of thousands of refugee applications – exceeding 93,000 applications over the course of the last two decades – the current refugee situation is overwhelming the country’s resources, causing it to reevaluate its policies. Cyprus is geographically the closest European Union (EU) state to Syria and Lebanon, the two Middle Eastern countries from where refugees mainly originate. Notably, Cyprus is the leading recipient of asylum seekers per capita among member states.

Cyprus’ Obligations

i. International Refugee and Human Rights Law

Cyprus is a party to both the United Nations Convention (1951) and Protocol (1967) Relating to the Status of Refugees, where the former has been described as “the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees at the international level” and the Convention and Protocol have been recognized as cornerstones of refugee law. The Convention in turn draws inspiration from Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” While the 1951 Convention deals specifically with refugee law, it is important to note that the general international human rights framework as set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights equally applies to refugees, and “refugee status” does not restrict the enjoyment of those rights.

In addition to ensuring that the basic human rights of refugees are respected and protected, the specific obligations that arise include ensuring that refugees can access the territory of a state (Article 31), and relatedly, not penalizing refugees for crossing national borders; as well as ensuring that refugees are not expelled or turned away, commonly regarded as the principle of non-refoulement (Article 33), which is at the core of international human rights law. Regardless of a person’s status in a country, where there are substantial grounds to believe that a person would face the risk of irreparable harm should they be returned to their country of origin, then the prohibition on refoulement absolutely attaches. Similarly, in ensuring that states meet their obligations under the operating refugee law framework, the international community’s support of countries that shelter people forced to flee their homeland in an effort to ease the pressure put on host countries, is a central part of international responsibility. Importantly, protection under the UN refugee framework applies to all and in accordance with Article 3, which sets out the right to non-discrimination and states that refugee laws must apply “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin,” also analogous to states’ obligations under international human rights law generally.

ii. Regional Refugee Law Framework

In addition to the human rights and refugee law framework that exists in international law, Cyprus, as a member of the EU, is also obligated to adhere to the regional framework that deals with refugees. Under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the right to seek asylum is guaranteed under Article 18, and Article 19, which protects against the removal, expulsion and extradition of individuals, states, “No one may be removed, expelled or extradited to a State where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) was also set up under the EU to ensure that standardized rules and protections are conferred on refugees. Furthermore, on April 10, 2024, the Union Resettlement Framework (URF) was adopted, which will allow for the coordinated resettlement of refugees. This operates alongside the Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been commended by some but criticized by others.

Dimensions of the Current Crisis

In April 2024, the Cypriot government announced that it was suspending the processing of all asylum applications of Syrian nationals, citing that the number of applications has grown 27-fold. During the first three months of 2024, the Cypriot government reported that more than 2,000 Syrian refugees arrived from Lebanon by sea. In comparison, Cyprus only received 78 applications during the first three months of 2023.

Other reports have disclosed that to mitigate the influx of Syrian refugees, the Cypriot government deployed police patrol boats outside Lebanese territorial waters to prevent Syrian refugees arriving by boat from making their way to Cyprus. However, this move, which clearly violates international human rights law standards governing refugees, has received condemnation from the UNHCR. In 2023, it was discovered that Cyprus was sending back refugees to their country of origin and exposing them to persecution and cruel and inhumane treatment. The Cypriot government has also appealed to the EU for assistance in curbing what Cyprus views as an exacerbating refugee crisis. What is paramount, however, is that the Cypriot government must ensure that Cyprus’ obligations under international, regional as well as domestic refugee and human rights law is not fouled in the process of “protecting state interests.”

Cyprus’ deliberate efforts to deter Syrian refugees from entering Cyprus by using police patrol boats to prevent ships carrying refugees from making it to land is an explicit violation of Cyprus’ international law obligations under refugee law, most glaringly the right to non-refoulement and the right to access the territory of another state while fleeing political or other forms of persecution. Further, Cyprus’ announcement to suspend the processing of asylum applications, specifically those from Syrian nationals, is a clear violation of the right to non-discrimination under the 1951 Convention.

Call for the Enforcement of Protections Under Refugee and Human Rights Law

The Cypriot government is therefore encouraged to ensure that protections under refugee and human rights law, which Cyprus is mandated to uphold, are in fact upheld. Additionally, the rights of refugees should take paramountcy, and any state action taken should not violate, frustrate, or undermine the protections of refugees entering Cyprus. Further, these protections should apply regardless of the nationality of refugees.


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