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Cyprus: Asylum Seekers Summarily Returned

Pushbacks Against Surge of Arrivals by Boat From Lebanon

Cyprus coast guard carrying migrants from a boat from Lebanon interdicted on January 14, 2020. © 2020 Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters

(Athens) – 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, Human Rights Watch said today.

People reported being threatened by Greek and Turkish Cypriot coast guards. They said 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. They said 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 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.

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 the 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 Mail quoted 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.”

Why People Are Leaving Lebanon Now

Lebanese nationals told Human Rights Watch that they felt compelled to leave Lebanon because of the dire economic situation they face in Tripoli and northern Lebanon. Most said they had no income and were running out of ways to feed their children and provide for their basic needs. Some spoke of a general breakdown of order and increasing lawlessness. A 27-year-old woman with three children from the Mena area of Tripoli said she left because “it is not safe to have my kids on the street anymore.”

“We got so tired of what is going on – emotionally, physically,” said a 34-year-old Lebanese man from Tripoli who is married to a Syrian woman. He spoke of the economic situation and said: “There is no government in Tripoli. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Syrian refugees who recently tried leaving Lebanon expressed similar hopelessness about their economic problems, but usually also spoke of problems grounded in social discrimination and political divisions. Mustafa, a Syrian refugee man with a physical disability who was beaten on the return trip to Lebanon, said:

Earlier, UNHCR gave us food assistance, but for the past two years we have gotten nothing from them. I have no work, I can’t feed my kids; they sell flowers on the street. My ID card was damaged and the government authorities would not renew it. I have many problems with authorities here; the political parties give me problems, even beat me, because I don’t support them. I fled Syria because of the political parties, I didn’t want anything to do with them here.

Another Syrian refugee who recently left Lebanon by boat said that he had been a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army and had spent three years in prison there for refusing to fire upon Syrians who opposed the government. He said the Syrian government had put a bounty on him and that unidentified men – who he thought were acting at the behest of the Syrian government – had attempted to kidnap him in Lebanon, and that he had to change where he was living four times. He said that he unsuccessfully sought resettlement through legal channels, and that a friend of his who has connections with an intelligence agency “told me I have to leave now.”

Cypriot Efforts to Deflect Boats

People interviewed consistently said that Greek Cypriot boats warned them not to enter, sometimes citing Covid-19 as the reason, then circled their boats to create waves to swamp or capsize them. In some cases, they directed people on the boats to go to Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus, and migrants told of being pushed back and forth between the two coast guards. Witnesses said that both Greek and Turkish Cypriot coast guard forces brandished weapons and threatened them but that only the Greek Cypriot coast guard tried to capsize or swamp their boats.

Migrants on a wooden boat carrying 52 people said that a Greek Cypriot coast guard boat with the number 21 written on its side approached them about three miles off the coast of Larnaca at 6 a.m. on September 3. Three armed soldiers on board pointed their weapons and shouted at the migrants to turn back. At 7:15 a.m., the metal coast guard boat rammed their wooden boat, injuring several people and poking a hole in the starboard side of their boat, making it unseaworthy. Two people who were on the boat said they thought the ramming was intentional. “From looking at the way the pilot’s head was turned, seeing his face, and hearing the shouting, I think he hit us on purpose,” a 34-year-old Lebanese man said.

The people on the boat spent the next four hours bailing out sea water and calling for help before being towed ashore. The witnesses said that an injured woman and a pregnant woman were taken to a hospital, as well as several children, including one who hit his head when the boats crashed. The witnesses said they did not see the pregnant woman again.

Greek and Turkish Cypriot coast guards pushed another boat carrying 52 people back and forth for four days before it was finally able to land at the UN peacekeeping force (UNFICYP) buffer zone in the Kapparis area that divides Greek and Turkish-controlled Cyprus. At one point, the Greek authorities identified a woman and several children in need of urgent medical care. They took the woman, one of her three children, a 1-year old, and two other children, both under age 2, ashore. The authorities separated the two children from their parents on the boat and separated the woman from her husband and her other two chidren. The woman said:

The children were vomiting and fainting. I was sunburned, my body shaking because it was during my period and I had lost a lot of blood and I was in a very bad condition. They took me and my baby and two other babies on their coast guard boat where they gave us food and a doctor to treat us. They took the two other children from their mothers who were still on the boat. The other mothers went crazy when they separated them from their children. For the next two days in the hospital I kept asking about my husband and children and no one would tell me anything. The whole time in the hospital I couldn’t understand their language and they had no translator. Finally, we were reunited at the Pournara camp.

Abandonment of an Inoperative Inflatable Boat

International maritime law imposes a clear duty on all vessels at sea to rescue people in distress, whether in territorial or international waters. A survivor interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that a Cypriot coast guard or naval vessel encountered an inflatable Zodiac-type boat carrying five men that was in distress on September 4 and then abandoned it to drift without fuel. Their boat left Lebanon the night of September 3 and ran out of fuel after about 12 or 13 hours, at which point the men tied themselves to a fishing trap buoy and waited for help.

The survivor, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee originally from Idlib, said a grey military boat found them. It had “Limassol” written on the side, flew a Cypriot flag, and had a mounted gun. The sailors brought him on board their vessel because of his poor physical condition, as he was overcome with what he described as severe seasickness. He was running a high fever and said that a nurse aboard the Cyprus military vessel examined him but just had him rest on the floor of their boat for about an hour and half with his feet elevated. Then without any other treatment or assistance, they put him back on the inflatable boat with the four other men:

They took off the towline, but we had no fuel. We told them we had no fuel and could not go back or go anywhere without fuel. We showed them our empty fuel containers. They only gave us two bottles of water, about three liters, and left us. They stayed about a kilometer away, watching us, then, at sunset, about 45 minutes later, they just left.

Their boat was left adrift without food, and soon without water. They spent six days in total at sea:

We were just pushed by waves. The sun was very hot. After two days, we started drinking sea water. We thought we would die. I gave up. I only thought of my children in Syria. Then, on Wednesday [September 9] a Lebanese fishing boat saw us and reported us to Lebanese naval forces and we were finally rescued.

Brutal Mistreatment on Return Trip to Lebanon

Multiple witnesses from two passenger boats taking people back to Lebanon said they saw marine police put one man on each of the boats in handcuffs and beat them. Human Rights Watch also interviewed the two men. Mustafa, 32, a UNHCR-registered Syrian refugee from Raqqa who is blind in one eye and has shrapnel in his legs from an explosion that occurred when he was in Syria, said that a group of Cypriot marine police officers handcuffed, beat, and gave him electric shocks in the presence of his wife and four children – ages 1, 4, 6, and 8 – on a boat carrying about 80 people back to Lebanon on September 8:

When they put us on the boat to Lebanon I said I would rather die than go back. I shouted at them but didn’t touch any of them. About 15 police wearing black shirts and camouflage pants jumped me. They put handcuffs on me and then three of them started beating me with sticks and electric shocks. My lips turned blue from the shocks.

Other witnesses on the boat corroborated his account, including a 36-year-old Lebanese man who was on the boat with his wife and three children:

There was a Syrian who did not want to go back. They beat him up in front of his kids, and my kids, too. They handcuffed him, I saw them electric shocking him and beating him with sticks. They handcuffed him to a stanchion and kept him in handcuffs all the way back.

Several witnesses also corroborated Bassem’s account of his beating. One witness, a 46-year-old Syrian man, said:

After the woman and her husband jumped off the boat, Bassem started screaming at them to stop the boat, but the authorities kept on going and jumped on him. In the presence of children, they put him in handcuffs and two policemen kept hitting him. They beat him with sticks on his wrists, back, and legs for 15 minutes. We screamed at them to stop. Then he had a seizure. There was a Red Cross doctor and they took the handcuffs off to give him medical treatment. Everyone saw this while it was happening, including the Red Cross doctor. The commander on the boat was giving instructions. I don’t know what they were saying and can’t identify their names because I don’t speak their language, but they did have the word POLICE written on their shirts. I think they were doing this to scare the rest of us into not resisting them. The boat behind us that picked up the husband and wife who jumped overboard was a Cyprus marine police boat, it had the Cyprus flag and the number 21 written on its side.

Pournara Camp Conditions

Cypriot authorities took people who managed to land as well as some of the people they interdicted at sea to the Pournara camp, a sprawling, open-air camp divided into four sections. Multiple witnesses said that families with children, including female-headed households, women traveling alone, and unaccompanied children were commingled with single, adult men. They said water is scarce, food insufficient, and sanitation conditions poor, with insects and uncollected trash everywhere. All of those interviewed had stayed in tents that had no flooring and no electricity, though they said there were prefabricated containers in other parts of the camp.

UNHCR informed Human Rights Watch that the Pournara reception center is overcrowded, with about 600 people – 300 in four quarantine areas and 300 in the central camp. People said their section had two portable toilets for about 100 people. They said the toilets were filthy and lacked water and showed Human Rights Watch photos, confirming that they were extremely dirty. There were four showers per 100-person section and neither the toilets nor the showers were separated by gender, accessible for people with disabilities, or provided sufficient privacy or security.

A 27-year-old Lebanese woman with three children said that when any member of her family had to use the toilet, the others would escort them and stand watch to guard their privacy. Izat, a 34-year-old Lebanese father of three children, one of whom has a physical disability, spent five days at the Pournara camp in early September:

When I first got to the camp, a woman gave us a bag with shampoo, soap, and tissues. I told her that my child had a disability and needed assistance. She got angry and turned away. I wanted to ease my child’s pain in his legs, but no one answered me. The camp was awful. There was a lot of garbage everywhere. There were two dirty toilets with no water for the toilet and not enough water for drinking or for hygiene. They just dumped food in and left us to fend for ourselves to distribute it. If we wanted anything, we had to shout.

Chamseddine, a 36-year-old Lebanese man from Tripoli who traveled by boat with his three children, said that new arrivals were tested for the virus that causes Covid-19 and told they were being put into quarantine, but they were not told the results of the tests. He said that no protective measures were taken in the camp to enhance hygiene or to prevent the spread of the disease. Instead, he said, the authorities used the coronavirus to manipulate and deceive them:

The authorities told us they would give us another coronavirus test and move us to a hotel or a camp with better conditions. They came at 7 a.m. on September 7, called our names, and told us to come for testing. They told us to leave our possessions behind in the tent because we would be coming right back to pick them up after the test. They put us on a bus that had curtains over the windows so we couldn’t see out. When we discovered they had taken us to the port and were going to put us on a boat, we protested, but they locked us in the bus for a half an hour with no air conditioning, and people were getting ill and panicking. First, they took the children, and then the rest of us.

The Right to Seek Asylum, to Due Process, Denied

None of the people interviewed was allowed to lodge an asylum claim with Cypriot authorities though many made it clear that they wanted to, including by jumping off the ship taking them back to Lebanon. People interviewed said they saw someone they believed was a UN official at the Pournara camp interviewing two unaccompanied children and a stateless person, but none of those interviewed was able to meet with UNHCR or a lawyer. UNHCR confirmed that on September 15 its officials spoke to nine people who had been admitted to the Pournara camp from one boat; they confirmed that some of those returned had repeatedly asked for asylum.

A 24-year-old Lebanese man from Tripoli said that his efforts to lodge an asylum claim upon landing were completely rebuffed and that he was returned without being given any opportunity to challenge his removal:

As soon as we got inside the border, the authorities took our phones, and kept them for three days. We asked for asylum and said we did not want to go back to Lebanon. We were not allowed to see a lawyer or anyone from UNHCR. The authorities told us to sign a paper in a language we couldn’t understand that they told us was for asylum, but they tricked us. They put us on a bus saying we were going for a second coronavirus test, but instead they put us on a boat and sent us back to Lebanon.

A 24-year-old Syrian woman with two children spoke to Human Rights Watch from the Pournara camp, where she had been for nine days:

After we landed, they took my husband, Ahmad Fahel, and three others away in an unmarked car and put us into a bus. I have not heard from my husband since then or been given any information about him. Nothing. He was not a leader of our group, [and] did not pilot the boat. My children are sick and need him. They tested us for coronavirus but didn’t give us any results. They took our passports and IDs but have not interviewed us. We have not seen UNHCR, no Red Cross, no lawyers, no humanitarians. Nobody has explained anything. Nobody has said anything about what will happen to us.

International and European Standards

Article 4 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provides that, “collective expulsion of aliens is prohibited.” The European Court of Human Rights ruled in Hirsi v. Italy that it is a violation of that prohibition to summarily expel multiple migrants traveling irregularly by boat who are interdicted at sea, and in Sharifi and Others v. Italy and Greece made the same ruling regarding those who had landed.

Several returnees have brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights, raising among other things, the lack of due process prior to being returned. The Cyprus Mail reported that KISA, the local nongovernmental group that is supporting the applicants, said: “The Cypriot authorities did not make any individual assessment of the applicants… as to their needs and the reasons why they were on the shores of the Republic. They also did not provide the slightest access to the international protection procedure and did not take into account any of the legal requirements of refugee law, which are not affected by the fact of ‘illegal entry.’”

In Sharifi and Others the European Court of Human Rights held that collective expulsion of migrants who are prevented from requesting asylum is a violation of their right to a remedy as well as the the right to be protected from inhuman and degrading treatment.

Collective expulsions amounting to refoulement are prohibited under article 3 of the ECHR and article 3 of the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The principle of nonrefoulement in article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Cyprus is a state party, prohibits the return of refugees “in any manner whatsoever.” UNHCR, along with a wide body of other legal sources, has made it clear that the principle of nonrefoulement applies wherever a state exercises control or jurisdiction, without geographical limitation.

The prohibition on forced return also applies to asylum seekers who have not been formally recognized as refugees. UNHCR’s Executive Committee affirmed in Conclusion 79 in 1996 that the principle of nonrefoulement prohibits the expulsion and return of refugees “whether or not they have formally been granted refugee status.” A UNHCR advisory opinion says: “The principle of nonrefoulement is of particular relevance to asylum-seekers. As such persons may be refugees, it is an established principle of international refugee law that they should not be returned or expelled pending a final determination of their status.”

In an interview published in Kathimerini Cyprus, UNHCR said:

UNHCR supports the efforts by Cypriot authorities to return those who are not found to be in need of international protection, but only after a formal and individual assessment of their asylum claim if they seek asylum…. The practice of pushbacks of boats is contrary to international law, and those wishing to seek asylum must be admitted to the territory at least on a temporary basis to examine their asylum claims. This is provided for in international law, otherwise the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement would be meaningless. UNHCR does not have information on the reasons that prompted those on board the recent boat arrivals to travel to Cyprus and does not know whether they were migrants or asylum seekers. An individual assessment is always necessary, and it cannot be done at high seas.

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