Shipwrecked migrants end up stuck in Cyprus

“Where is humanity?” reads this sign, which sits in front of a camp of refugees located on a British military base in Cyprus.
“Where is humanity?” reads this sign, which sits in front of a camp of refugees located on a British military base in Cyprus.

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is best known as a picturesque tourist destination. However, for a group of refugees who have been stranded on a British military base there, it is more like being trapped in limbo. A Palestinian migrant who has been stuck on the base for four months after being shipwrecked shared his story.

Bilal (not his real name) is a 26-year-old Palestinian. In October 2015, he secured passage on a boat carrying about 100 migrants from Lebanon to Greece. The boat got into trouble and starting sinking off of Cyprus on October 21. The shipwrecked passengers were helped by the staff at a British Royal Air Force base on Cyprus. However, the United Kingdom has refused to consider the refugees’ asylum applications. Since then, Bilal has been living on the British base, called Dhekhelia.

"The only solution is to secretly take a boat to Turkey”

They told us that we couldn’t claim asylum in the UK or in Greece, so we all claimed asylum here in Cyprus, even though no one actually wants to stay here. All the Syrians had their applications accepted. Some Palestinians did, too, so they were able to leave the military base. But there are about 30 of us still stuck here. We’re either waiting for a response or we’ve already had our application refused. We’ve been stuck here for four months. We aren’t allowed to leave, even if it is possible to get out by jumping the fence.

Tents torn down by the wind. 

Here, we’ve been sleeping in small beds in tents. But a month ago, the tents were blown away by the wind and we had to install new ones. Two months ago, a short circuit started a fire in one of the tents. We get three meals a day, but the food is bad.

A fire destroyed part of the camp two months ago.

We have received very little help since we arrived here. For example, it is very hard to see a doctor if you fall ill. Shortly after our arrival, some doctors came and examined us. But only one doctor came back to see us, even though there’ve been several cases of gastro-enteritis. There are also about a dozen children who live here. A baby was even born in one of the tents!

About a dozen children are still living on the military base of Dhekelia, four months after they landed on Cyprus.

Two NGOs came to see us, but they only made one visit each. KISA, an NGO, came to take stock of what we needed and to bring us some clothing. Then, people from the AVR Cyprus programme came. They said they could help us return to Lebanon or, if we didn’t want to go back there, to go to Brazil or Venezuela. Apparently, it is fairly easy to get papers to go there.

My application for asylum in Cyprus was rejected last week. After a rejection, you have 20 days to file another asylum claim. But I’m pretty positive that I’ll be rejected again.

The Brits warned that they would send us back to Lebanon if our asylum claims were rejected. But there’s no way I’m going back there, so I have decided to leave Cyprus to travel secretly to Turkey. I already paid a smuggler 2,000 euros to get on a boat in the next few days. Everyone wants to do the same. Some people have already paid smugglers to get them to Turkey or Greece.

Some of the migrants may end up staying a lot longer on the Dhekelia military base. A Sudanese family living there has been stuck on the base for 17 years.

Landing on a British military base in Cyprus is not a shortcut to getting asylum in the UK. Due to agreements signed between the UK and Cyprus in 2003, the Cypriot authorities have to take responsibility for any migrants who land there. Moreover, while Cyprus is part of the European Union, it is outside of the Schengen area, which means that it is not a gateway to free movement in Europe for the migrants who arrive there. That is why very few migrants aim to go to Cyprus – most end up there accidentally after being shipwrecked.

When contacted by France 24, the NGO Kisa explained that, under Cypriot law, migrants who are from countries considered dangerous can’t be deported: “Therefore, some of them might end up staying on the military base for quite a long time. For those migrants, the best choice is to get a visa to travel to a third country, like Brazil or Venezuela”.