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Cyprus president wants the European Union to discuss designating Syria safe zones for refugees

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The European Union won't serve its own best interests if it doesn’t consider designating some parts of Syria as safe zones so refugees and migrants can return there, the president of Cyprus said Monday.

President Nikos Christodoulides said Cyprus is working with like-minded EU member nations to start a discussion about that goal in order to help alleviate the pressure that Mediterranean countries receiving the most refugees and migrants are under.

“I don’t consider not discussing the situation inside Syria as an appropriate option for the European Union,” Christodoulides said after talks with Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“The Cyprus Republic, in cooperation with other member states which share this approach, is working toward initiating a discussion within the European Union about the Syria situation,” he said.

In his most candid remarks on migration to date, Christodoulides said he acknowledges the “sensitivities” that some EU countries have on the issue but that the bloc “must address” whether some parts of Syria are safe enough for migrants to return.

“There are areas in Syria in which we must examine whether they are safe and by extension, enable the return of migrants from those specific areas,” he said.

Although 37% fewer migrants reached Cyprus last year, official figures show migrant arrivals by boat from Syria and Lebanon increased 355% - 4,259 in 2023 as compared to 937 in 2022.

Christodoulides thanked Steinmeier, the first German president to visit Cyprus, for his country's decision to voluntarily accept 1,000 asylum-seekers from Cyprus. Steinmeier said through a translator that Germany understands the burden that Cyprus is under from people-smuggling.

Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou said earlier this month that the overwhelming majority of those arriving to Cyprus by sea are Syrians who have fallen prey to people-smuggling rings in Syria and Lebanon.

He said an agreement was in place for the more active involvement of EU law enforcement agency Europol in helping to bust such smuggling rings, while Cypriot authorities have set up a dedicated unit to augment policing and patrols.

Ioannou said asylum applications in Cyprus dropped by 46% in 2023 while repatriations and voluntary departures increased by 66%. Overall, Cyprus recorded some 10,991 migrant arrivals last year, some 6,447 fewer than in 2022.