Nearly 200 Syrian asylum seekers are stranded in northern Cyprus after they were pushed back in the middle of the sea by authorities in the government-controlled south.
Quarantined and under threat of deportation, they have become the latest victims of a multiplying border shutdown as countries grapple with the advance of coronavirus.
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On Friday, March 20, several Greek Cypriot patrol vessels approached a vastly overcrowded boat several miles of the coast of Cape Greco.
A police translator with a megaphone informed the passengers in Arabic that they could not enter Cyprus and would have to turn back. The craft was holding 175 people including 69 children.
According to authorities in northern Cyprus, all are Syrian.
Al Jazeera spoke to three Syrians who were on board. Their names are being withheld to not invite reprisals by authorities.
One mother in her twenties from Aleppo said: “It was very crowded, the waves were high and the boat was moving a lot. I held my children tight. The police said you cannot enter because of the coronavirus, we said we were joining our husbands and families and if you are scared about coronavirus you can put us in a camp alone or quarantine. But they refused and then the boats started to circle.”
On March 15, Cyprus shut its borders to all except Cypriots, European workers and those with special permits for a period of two weeks.
As of Sunday, the country had recorded 214 confirmed cases and six have died.
In a statement given to Al Jazeera, Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said: “The police acted on the ministerial decrees concerning the prohibition of entry … to protect against the distribution of coronavirus. The police made it clear that they will not allow anyone including immigrants to enter in violation of these decrees.”
A man from Idlib told Al Jazeera: “A bigger boat came after an hour with a cannon and weapons on top. They had personnel with guns on board who said, ‘If you want water, food and fuel we will give it to you but entry to Cyprus is not allowed’.
“We asked even for them just to take the women and children. They threw us a small bottle of diesel and drove behind us for an hour and we continued to the Turkish side. A storm came and waves started to hit the boat.”
After a standoff of several hours the boat, that had begun its journey in Mersin in southern Turkey, turned around and eventually upturned near the shore of northern Cyprus.
Local authorities rescued the passengers from the shoreline, and they are now being housed in apartments.
The Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the north following a Greek-backed military coup by forces seeking to unify the country with Athens.
Although Cyprus is an EU member, the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised only by Turkey and the territories are separated by a 120-mile long UN-monitored buffer zone which cuts through the nation’s capital, Nicosia.
Gulfem Verizoglu-Sevgili of the TRNC ministry of foreign affairs told Al Jazeera in a statement: “In the early hours of March 21, a rescue mission took place off the eastern coast of TRNC by the Karpaz Peninsula. The refugees were primarily taken to a sports hall where they underwent medical examinations and were provided with clothes and food. They have now been moved into flats.”
Normally we would be able to conduct interviews but because of the curfew we are not allowed to do anything, and we don't how they are being treated.
The refugees received a warm reception by Turkish Cypriot authorities, but their fate is uncertain and local NGOs say they have been denied access to the apartments.
A partial curfew is in place with movement largely restricted to essential businesses.
Fezile Osum from Refugee Rights Association, an NGO based in northern Cyprus, told Al Jazeera: “The situation is complicated because the south closed their asylum system and here we don’t have one. Normally we would be able to conduct interviews but because of the curfew we are not allowed to do anything, and we don’t how they are being treated.”
All crossing points that connect the Greek and Turkish Cypriot territories are currently closed.
A man from Aleppo living in the Republic of Cyprus told Al Jazeera that his wife and children were among those stranded in the north. They are treated well, he said, but lack information.
“Nobody is telling them anything. They should at least let us be together. If we knew about the border closures, they wouldn’t have come,” he said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Emilia Strovolidou confirmed that deportation orders had been issued by the TRNC, but Turkey had refused the request.
“Authorities in the north have placed them in 14-day quarantine in apartments and afterwards they will try again to deport them to Turkey.”
Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s senior researcher on Turkey, told Al Jazeera he was concerned by cases of refoulement from Turkey to Syria.
“Turkey has punished misdemeanour offences by arbitrarily sending people back to Syria, either those living there for a while or potentially those deported back from Northern Cyprus. There is definitely a problem with independent oversight of returns and people in detention.”
Osum, of Refugee Rights Association, believes a dangerous precedent has been set.
“I am afraid that Cyprus will continue to push back people and we will have more arrivals or even deaths in the sea.”
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi recently said that while everyday life for many has stopped, “war persecution have not.”
He advised that screening and quarantine arrangements can be put in place “to enable authorities to manage the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees in a safe manner, while respecting international refugee protection standards designed to save lives.”
Despite being relatively untouched during the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015-2016, Cyprus is now the top recipient of first-time asylum seekers in the EU per capita registering 12,695 in 2019, the majority Syrian.
Even pre-coronavirus the Cypriot government has taken an increasingly strident tone against irregular immigration, pr opagating the idea that refugees and migrants crossing over the porous buffer zone from north to south have been encouraged or sent by Ankara as an orchestrated attempt to alter the country’s demographics.
Aside from the pandemic, the Cypriot asylum system may prompt yet more treacherous boat journeys.
Corina Drousiotou from the Cyprus Refugee Council told Al Jazeera that almost all Syrians in Cyprus receive subsidiary protection status, which does not allow them to bring over family members legally.
“We are extremely saddened by the pushback as until now the Cypriot authorities had taken every step to ensure refugees arriving on boats were able to reach our shores safely. We are contacted every day by devastated fathers desperate to be reunited with their families.”
The woman from Aleppo who was on board the boat, said: “We didn’t go to Cyprus as tourists. We went to become refugees there.”