Cyprus seeks EU help to curb surge of Syrian refugees from Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Pournara refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia on the outskirts of Nicosia

NICOSIA (Reuters) -Cyprus appealed on Wednesday for vigorous action from the European Union to stem a recent tide of mostly Syrian refugees arriving by sea via Lebanon, saying the island's reception capacity was at breaking point.

At least 600 Syrians have arrived in Cyprus in the past four days on small boats, spurred by milder weather. The sea journey from Lebanon or Syria to Cyprus takes about 10 hours.

"There is a serious crisis with these almost daily arrivals," Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides told a cabinet meeting.

Some 2,004 people arrived in Cyprus by sea in the first three months of this year, compared to just 78 in the same period of 2023, according to official data.

Christodoulides, who on Tuesday said Lebanon should not 'export' its migration problem, said he had a telephone conversation with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the matter. Lebanon hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Shunned by traffickers in the past because of its isolation from the rest of contiguous Europe, Cyprus has seen a spike in arrivals primarily from Syria because it is cheaper and easier to get to relative to other destinations - and because of the pull of a steadily growing Syrian population on the island itself.

Based on interviews with refugees, traffickers were charging $3,000 for a journey to Cyprus, compared with $7,000 for Italy, Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou told state radio.

"The situation is getting progressively worse, and in the past few days we have essentially been experiencing an onslaught of rotting boats and refugees putting their lives at risk," said Constantinos Ioannou, Cyprus's interior minister.

"All indications are that it will continue," Ioannou told state radio about the increase in arrivals.

That's being further fuelled by the fact that Lebanese authorities' focus on stemming migration at its coastline has waned in recent months, Ioannou said, amid escalations on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Cyprus has long appealed to its EU partners to declare parts of war-ravaged Syria safe, which could facilitate the return of its fleeing citizens. It also wants EU aid to Lebanon to be contingent upon stopping the migrant outflow, Ioannou said.

"(Traffickers) just give them a compass set at 285 degrees, food and water for a day and they set off," said Ioannou.

(Writing by Michele Kambas;Editing by Bernadette Baum, Alexandra Hudson)