Cyprus wants to donate ships and boats to Lebanon to carry out joint sea patrols against migration. The EU island state could also pay the salaries of Lebanese soldiers for this purpose.
Cyprus wants to provide Lebanon with a total of 12 ships and boats “to combat people smuggling” by the end of 2024 and carry out joint patrols in the sea area between the two countries. This was stated in a letter from the Cypriot Interior Minister to his Lebanese counterpart dated 26 September 2023, as reported by the media in Cyprus. According to the document, the EU state wants to train Lebanese soldiers for this purpose and even pay salaries for ten military personnel if they “actively contribute to the interception of boats transporting irregular immigrants to Cyprus”.
Even after the Hamas attacks in Israel on 7 October and the shelling of the country by Hezbollah militias from Lebanon, the offer remains valid. This was communicated by a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior in the capital Nicosia in response to an enquiry from “nd”. The ministry understands “the changed circumstances” in the Middle East conflict, but wants to do everything in its power to continue to control “illegal migration in the region”.
In its response, the ministry also provides details of the planned measures, which critics have labelled a “pullback”. According to this, Lebanon could receive six used speedboats as well as two large and four medium-sized rigid-hull inflatable boats as a “donation” by the end of 2024. Cyprus intends to provide technical assistance from marine engineers for the maintenance and repair of the maritime equipment. The ship’s petrol would also be paid for from Nicosia.
According to the plans, eight Lebanese soldiers could be trained in maritime law and the recovery of ships and boats in Cyprus at state expense from this December. Other members of the navy could undergo training with the island nation’s police force. They would then be deployed together with the Cypriot maritime police in Lebanese territorial waters. The Ministry of the Interior wants to permanently station a patrol ship from Cyprus in the harbour of Beirut. “This would help increase the Lebanese authorities’ response capabilities in minimizing unauthorized departures” the spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior wrote to “nd”.
Finally, Cyprus is offering to apply for EU funding together with Lebanon for a “practical and operational partnership between Cyprus and Lebanon for preventing and combating people smuggling in the Eastern Mediterranean”. The Interior Minister has already sent a letter to this effect to the Vice-President of the EU Commission and the Commissioner for Home Affairs in Brussels. The letter suggests that Lebanon should be considered a “country of priority” with regard to the “external dimension of migration”.
Brussels is already supporting Lebanon in several projects to control migration. This month, for example, the “Enhanced Capacity for Integrated Border Management” project, which is being implemented by the Austrian Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) at a cost of almost €20 million, comes to an end. It is intended to “strengthening the resilience of its security institutions and increasing the effectiveness of their action”. The focus is on the “influx of refugees or any other border related issues”. The border agency Frontex is also training border troops from Lebanon, with courses being held in Germany and elsewhere.
For years, human rights organisations have reported that Cyprus has been returning people fleeing across the Mediterranean from Syria and other countries to Lebanon in violation of international law. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also confirms these “pushbacks”. In August, for example, more than 100 Syrian nationals from Cyprus were returned to Lebanon under police escort after reaching the island in three boats.
The Cypriot government cites a bilateral agreement with Lebanon from 2004, which authorises such returns. In line with this, the Cypriot authorities did not process the migrants’ asylum applications as it was seen as “clearly an illegal entry”, reports the AP news agency.
Cyprus believes that Lebanon is safe for refugees from Syria. However, according to the UNHCR, around 90 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the extreme poverty line. Meanwhile, support groups write that many of the Syrians returned to Lebanon face imprisonment, abuse and deportation to Syria. Four Lebanese and Cypriot non-governmental organisations therefore published an open letter to the governments in August in which they called for an end to “chain deportations” from Cyprus via Lebanon to Syria.
The pushbacks from Cyprus are also being carried out indirectly with EU support. The country has received funding from various EU funds to monitor the Mediterranean, including with infrared cameras and drones. Officially, this equipment is used for “sea rescue”.
Despite the migration defence measures, the number of refugee arrivals in Cyprus has continued to rise this year – but remains very low compared to other EU countries. In 2022, 41 boats with 807 people were counted. According to information from “nd”, the authorities have already registered 68 boats with 2,337 people on board as of October. However, many of them are taken to other EU countries for their asylum procedure as part of the “Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism”. In comparison with Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta, Cyprus is therefore at the top of this distribution system.
The island state is now lobbying Brussels to reassess Syria’s status and categorise the country as a “safe third country” across the EU. According to the EU Agency for Asylum, only one of the 13 Syrian regions poses “no real risk” to the civilian population from arbitrary state violence. This is the region of the port city of Tartus, from where most departures to Cyprus are said to take place.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: A Cypriot coastguard vessel during a “sea rescue” exercise. The island state is receiving EU funding for drones and sensors for maritime surveillance for this alleged purpose (Cyprus Joint Rescue Coordination Centre).