UK bases on Cyprus boost fight against migrant smugglers

PERGAMOS, Cyprus (AP) — Authorities at a British military base on Cyprus have hired 50% more customs officers and procured detection equipment to better thwart illegal immigration from the breakaway north of the ethnically split island.

The addition of 24 new officers and four SUVs — two with thermal imaging cameras — allows authorities to patrol around-the-clock along a 45-kilometer (28-mile) boundary, Customs and Immigration Chief Adam Chatfield said.

More migrants have arrived on Cyprus without authorization in recent years. In 2018, authorities located 17 people trying to cross in six instances. That jumped to 33 people in 16 crossing attempts a year later, while 67 people were intercepted in nine attempted crossings last year.

Cyprus was cleft along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aimed at union with Greece. The breakaway Turkish Cypriot north declared independence nearly a decade later, but only Turkey recognizes it. Turkey also maintains more than 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus.

A buffer zone controlled by U.N. peacekeepers separates the north from the Greek Cypriot south where the island’s internationally recognized government is seated. Although Cyprus is a European Union member, only the southern part enjoys the bloc’s full benefits.

The EU is boosting the role of its border guard and ramping up security and surveillance along its eastern borders, including nearby Greece where authorities have extended a border wall facing Turkey and set up high-tech observation towers.

Dhekelia Garrison, one of two military bases that the U.K. retained after Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960, directly abuts the north along a corridor of farmland, abandoned homes and fields that offers secluded routes for smugglers, or for migrants to cross.

There’s not even a fence to separate the base from the north.

Chatfield told The Associated Press that migrants are intercepted in groups of 10 to 20 at an average rate of once a month. The overwhelming majority now are Syrian men seeking asylum in the south.

About 5 million Syrians have fled their country during a 10-year conflict that has killed about half a million people. Many more have been displaced inside Syria.

Authorities on the base in Cyprus have an agreement with the government to transfer asylum-seekers to the south where their claims are processed. Chatfield said arrangements are made to return those who don’t apply for asylum to the north.

Chatfield said an international network of smugglers charges $5,000 per person to slip migrants through into the south.

“Some come soaking wet straight from the boat with nothing but the clothes on their back,” he said. “Detecting traffickers is a key priority for us and we’ll continue to do so.”

Cyprus has accused Turkey of deliberately channeling migrants in from the north, and has asked the EU’s border agency Frontex to step in and help.

The government says its ability to host more migrants has been stretched beyond its limits, and also wants the EU to manage the arrival of Syrians — either directly from Syria or from Lebanon or Turkey, including relocating them to other EU states.

Officials say 3,896 Syrians have reached Cyprus from Turkey in the last two years, usually flying into the north before crossing southward.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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