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No man’s land: three people seeking asylum stuck in Cyprus’s buffer zone | Migration and development

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A few months after Grace Ngo flew into Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus from her native Cameroon, she decided to head “for the west”. Smugglers pointed the student in the direction of the Venetian walls that cut through the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital.

A little before midnight on 24 May, Ngo leapt from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic into what she hoped would be the war-divided island’s internationally recognised Greek south.

“I just said ‘God protect me,’” the 24-year-old recalled, describing the jump that instead landed her in the UN-patrolled buffer zone, where she has been stranded ever since. “The walls were so high. I hurt my leg quite badly but I was desperate for the west.”

Emil, one of three Cameroonians stranded in the Cypriot buffer zone.
Emil, one of three Cameroonians stranded in the Cypriot buffer zone. ‘If I go back, I will face sure death,’ he says. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

Daniel Djibrilla and Emil Etoundi, two other asylum seekers from Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, were at the same spot that night, equally drawn by the bright lights of the European metropolis beyond. Like Ngo, who says she would not have made the journey had she not been the victim of abuse, both cited Cameroon’s civil war as their reason for leaving home.

“We jumped from over there,” says Etoundi, a former soldier, pointing across the ceasefire line that has partitioned the ethnically split island since Turkey invaded in 1974 after a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. “We had no idea this was no man’s land. I can’t believe it.”

After the refusal of President Nicos Anastasiades’ government to allow them to apply for asylum, the three Cameroonians remain trapped in the buffer zone, protected by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but living in tents and at the mercy of others’ goodwill.

At the height of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Cyprus remained relatively unvisited by displaced people, as the majority headed through Turkey and the Aegean islands en route to Europe.

That changed in 2018, when smugglers began to see the EU’s easternmost state as an easy drop-off.

On 21 May, Anastasiades’ administration declared a state of emergency, with officials saying the Mediterranean island faced insurmountable pressures from continuing arrivals. It came after Cyprus was censured by a human rights watchdog amid allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants at sea.

In late 2020, close to 20,000 asylum applications were pending, according to the Greek Cypriot authorities. A record 13,648 people requested protection in 2019. In the first six months of 2021, more than 5,000 claims had been made, more than half the total in 2020.

Cyprus has the highest per capita number of first-time asylum seekers in the EU, according to the EU’s statistics agency, Eurostat.

“We are in a critical situation,” the interior minister, Nicos Nouris told the Guardian ahead of a EU summit in Slovenia on Thursday. “All the [reception] centres are full and we simply don’t have the capacity to receive more. If we want to talk about solidarity and responsibility, we have to stand by frontline member states like Cyprus, which is the top-receiving country in asylum seekers.”

The majority of migrants entering the Greek south are smuggled illegally through Turkey and areas of Cyprus over which the republic has no control, according to Nouris.

With smuggling networks taking advantage of partition, Nouris said there were genuine fears of a new front being opened on an island where migrants arrive both by boat and along the whole 110 mile (180km) ceasefire line.

“We have to be very careful not to open a new passage,” he says. “It’s not a matter of three people – that would be ridiculous when so many are coming. But if I accept these three people, then [such crossings] will be the next common practice. They’ll be coming by the thousands … Turkey will put them on buses and send them to the checkpoints.”

The Cameroonians’ plight has illuminated the tough stance of a government that, like Greece, feels abandoned by Europe on migration.

“They have the right to have their asylum claims examined,” says the UN refugee agency’s spokeswoman, Emilia Strovolidou, explaining that the trio were returned to no man’s land after approaching a UN patrol unit and going to the nearest Greek Cypriot checkpoint.

“This is a clearcut case of people asking for international protection, and we have made a number of interventions with the competent authorities in an effort to allow them to access the procedure.”

Cyprus is “obliged under international, EU and national law” to process asylum requests and give people access to dignified conditions in reception centres, Strovolidou says, adding: “Their living conditions – right now, in tents, in the sweltering heat – are totally unsuitable.”

Asylum seekers have been stranded in the buffer zone before but none for so long. The near two-month saga has led human rights organisations to accuse the government of inflating the number of arrivals and generating a climate of fear based on xenophobia and anti-immigration hysteria fuelled by the rise of the far-right Elam party.

On an island reliant on low-skilled labour, aid organisations contend that it is often foreigners already in Cyprus on student or work visas who apply for asylum in an attempt to prolong their stays legally.

Corina Drousiotou, at the Cyprus Refugee Council, says migrants keep the agriculture sector alive. “Despite the fact that Cyprus’s economy heavily depends on low-skilled foreigners, the vast majority of whom work in harsh conditions with low salaries and next to zero rights, there is no political willingness to properly address those issues,” she says.

“A complete overhaul of the [asylum] system is required to ensure dignity and equal rights for all, which in turn will have multiple benefits for many industries and the local society.”

For Ngo, Djibrilla and Etoundi, the prospect of any job would be welcome. But as temperatures exceed 40C (104F), the Cameroonians are left anxiously awaiting news under the shade of a strip of trees planted along a thin gravel strip barely a metre wide.

“I’m 33. I [deserted] the military after 10 years,” says Etoundi, as Djibrilla plays a gruesome video on his mobile phone showing decapitations in his country’s conflict. “I do not support the [Cameroonian] separatists’ fight, but I had to leave because I did not agree with what the military were asking us to do. If I go back, I will face death.”

Cyprus’s interior minister says the case could be resolved if the EU agreed to include the island in a reallocation programme.

“I have written to the European Commission, saying we are prepared to transfer them to other member states, but have not heard back,” says Nouris. “If that were to happen, this could so easily be solved.”

The surnames of Grace, Emil and Daniel have been changed

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Russia further tightens EU gas supplies

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Russian firm Gazprom has booked just one third of offered additional gas-transit capacity via the Yamal-Europe pipeline via Poland for November and not booked any volumes via Ukraine, Reuters reports. The tightening of the supplies amid a crunch in world energy markets was “blackmailing Europe in order to obtain Nord-Stream 2 certification”, Yuriy Vitrenko, the head of Ukraine gas firm Naftogaz said, referring to Russia’s new pipeline to Germany.

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Italy using anti-mafia laws to scapegoat migrant boat drivers, report finds | Global development

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Italian police have arrested more than 2,500 migrants for smuggling or aiding illegal immigration since 2013, often using anti-mafia laws to bring charges, according to the first comprehensive analysis of official data on the criminalisation of refugees and asylum seekers in Italy.

The report by three migrant rights groups has collected police data and analysed more than 1,000 criminal cases brought by prosecutors against refugees accused of driving vessels carrying asylum seekers across the Mediterranean.

The report by Arci Porco Rosso, the NGO Alarm Phone, and the nonprofit Borderline Sicilia, found evidence of police officers offering immigration papers and other incentives to migrants to persuade them to testify against the suspected boat drivers, who, in some cases were asylum seekers forced at gunpoint by traffickers to navigate refugee boats.

The NGOs claim the new evidence in the report confirms that Italy has spent decades pursuing a policy of criminalising asylum seekers, alleging prosecutors have been filling its prisons with innocent men used as scapegoats.

“We have examined over 1,000 court cases, spoken to hundreds of people involved,” the report stated. “We spoke to persons accused of boat driving, lawyers, judges and members of the police and coastguard, to reveal the full extent of Italy’s process of criminalising migration.”

Using police data and evidence presented in hundreds of court cases, the report revealed how refugees were targeted for prosecution.

Before sending a boat to Italy, from Libya, Tunisia, or Turkey, the report said smugglers often choose a migrant as a driver. This can be someone who does not have enough money to pay for the trip or with experience of navigation.

When the boat enters Italian waters, the authorities ask passengers to identify the driver, who is then arrested.

An Italian jail.
Boat drivers, who are often refugees, are being prosecuted for serious charges, such as human trafficking and criminal association, with sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Boat drivers, who often come from war-torn countries, are accused of crimes, from illegally piloting migrant boats to the country, to trafficking in migrants, to criminal association. They can face sentences from 15 years to life in prison.

Although in several court cases judges have recognised the “state of necessity” – that the unlawful conduct is justified to protect the perpetrator or another person from imminent and serious danger – hundreds of cases are currently making their way through Italy’s legal system.

Since 2013, at least 24 people have received sentences of more than 10 years, while six have been given life sentences, according to the report.

“This happens when, unfortunately, during the journey, some of the passengers die,” said Maria Giulia Fava at Arci Porco Rosso. ‘‘In that case, the boat driver is charged with murder. It is in those moments that justice is transformed into a terrible machine that risks destroying the lives of these people forever.”

Four Libyan professional footballers were arrested in Sicily in 2015 and sentenced to 30 years after 49 people died during a sea crossing. The men’s families and friends said they were refugees fleeing the civil war to continue their careers in Germany and were forced to pilot the boat. Last year, Libyan warlord Gen Khalifa Haftar reportedly refused to release 18 Italian fishers accused of illegally fishing in Libyan territorial waters until Italy had freed the footballers. But the move was unsuccessful.

Italian prosecutors’ use of anti-mafia laws in the cases of migrant boat drivers, which the report said has been framed as a continuation of the country’s prolonged battle against organised crime, has led to hundreds of boat drivers facing draconian charges, such as criminal association.

Evidence in the report appears to show that in some instances police have offered incentives to migrants to identify those driving the boat as being part of smuggling operations.

“In one case a Nigerian witness told us that the police officers promised him that, by providing an accusatory statement [against a boat driver], he would be allowed to go to school and have a bed in a hostel,”, said the report. “Sometimes, the same thing happens with translators, who are asked by the authorities to find the boat drivers among the other passengers.”

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International monitors suspend Russia-Ukraine mission

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International monitors in Russia-occupied east Ukraine have suspended operations to protect staff following protests in Donetsk over Ukraine’s capture of Andrei Kosyak, who Ukraine said was a Russian national on a covert mission. “Because of safety concerns and because of our safety rules and considerations we suspended our operations,” Yaşar Halit Çevik, the chief monitor of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ‘special monitoring mission’, told Reuters Sunday.

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