Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that Cypriot coast guard forces summarily pushed back, abandoned, expelled, or returned more than 200 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers coming from Lebanon during the first week of September 2020 without giving them the opportunity to lodge asylum claims.
The organization quoted some asylum seekers as saying that Greek Cypriot coast guard vessels circled them at high speeds, swamping their boats, and in at least one case abandoning them at sea without fuel and food, adding that their asylum claims were ignored and that in some cases Greek Cypriot marine police officers beat them.
“That Lebanese nationals are now joining Syrian refugees on boats to flee Lebanon and seek asylum in the European Union is a mark of the severity of the crisis facing that country,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Cyprus should consider their claims for protection fully and fairly and treat them safely and with dignity instead of disregarding the obligations to rescue boats in distress and not to engage in collective expulsions.”
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 15 Lebanese and Syrian nationals who embarked from Tripoli, Lebanon, and entered or attempted to enter Cyprus or its territorial waters on one of seven boats between August 29 and September 7, along with a survivor from another boat that left Lebanon on September 7 that did not encounter Cypriot authorities. United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon rescued them on September 14, after at least 13 people on that boat had died or been lost at sea.
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Reuters cited Cypriot authorities as saying they returned 230 people to Lebanon between September 6 and 8. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), people left Lebanon irregularly on 18 boats between August 29 and September 14, with five of them intercepted by Lebanese naval forces while in Lebanese territorial waters.
A tally of boat pushbacks and arrivals compiled by a local Cypriot nongovernmental organization, KISA, based on Cypriot police statistics, indicates that in the first eight and a half months of 2020, Cypriot authorities encountered 779 people on boats seeking to enter Cyprus irregularly, with 431 people on six boats coming during the first six months, and 348 people on 11 boats coming from late August through the first two weeks of September.
KISA reported that 375 people were taken directly to a camp after landing or being interdicted by Greek Cypriot authorities, that 221 landed in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and then crossed into Greek Cyprus, and that 185 were summarily pushed back at sea.
Every migrant interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had encounters with Cypriot authorities said that they pleaded not to be returned to Lebanon – and some explicitly requested asylum – but in no case were any allowed to lodge asylum claims.
Human Rights Watch inquiries about its findings to the governments of Cyprus and Lebanon were not answered. The Cyprus Mailquoted Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris saying: “We are unequivocally declaring that we can no longer afford to receive additional numbers of economic migrants simply because the reception facilities are literally no longer sufficient and the country’s capabilities are exhausted.”
Migrants told Human Rights Watch that Greek Cypriot coast guard vessels tried to prevent them from landing by shouting and brandishing weapons at them, and circling at high speeds to create waves to swamp or capsize their boats. In one case, on September 3, a metal coast guard vessel rammed into a wooden boat full of people, injuring children and a woman. In some cases, while still at sea, Cypriot coast guard forces transferred people onto civilian passenger vessels guarded by the marine police and took them directly back to Lebanon.
Others who had managed to land or whom Cypriot authorities had interdicted and brought ashore were taken to Pournara camp in Kokkinotrimithia, Cyprus, a dirty, insect-infested, open-air camp that held about 600 people in mid-September. Some of those who were returned to Lebanon said that camp authorities called families and individuals by name and told them they were going for second coronavirus tests, but instead put them on buses and took them to a port where police forced them onto passenger ships. The passenger boats picked up additional people from other ports or from other boats at sea, taking about 80 people at a time back to Lebanon.
In one case, Cypriot coast guard forces encountered an inflatable boat in distress and then abandoned it to drift without fuel. A Lebanese fishing boat found that boat, and Lebanese naval forces rescued them after six days at sea.
Witnesses and victims on two boats returned to Lebanon said that Cyprus marine police handcuffed and beat individuals who resisted being returned. Bassem, 47, a Lebanese national whose full name, as with others quoted, is withheld for his protection, said that he started yelling for the boat to stop when he saw a husband and wife jump overboard after they discovered the boat was heading back to Lebanon on September 6.
“I shouted for them to rescue the man and woman who jumped into the sea, but they started beating me, handcuffed me, and hit me with sticks that are used for shocks,” he said. “I still have pain and trouble moving my fingers. I lost consciousness and had a seizure with white foam coming out of my mouth. They had a doctor who yelled at the police to take off the handcuffs so she could treat me.”
The Cypriot authorities should rescue vessels in distress and order their security forces to stop endangering lives by using maneuvers such as high-speed circling of boats and to end the brutal treatment of people on the vessels.
Cypriot judicial authorities should conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation into allegations that Cypriot coast guard personnel are involved in acts that put the lives and safety of migrants and asylum seekers at risk. Any officer engaged in illegal acts, as well as their commanding officers, should be subject to disciplinary sanctions and, if applicable, criminal prosecution. The European Commission should press the government of Cyprus to respect the right to seek asylum and the principle of nonrefoulement – not returning people to a place where they could face threats to life and freedom and other serious harms – in line with EU and international law.
“People who risk their lives and their children’s lives by fleeing Lebanon by boat do so when they are truly desperate,” Frelick said. “They have a right to have their claims for international protection considered. Their pleas should not be muzzled nor their cries for help ignored.”