Q&A: Legal rights of migrants in Cyprus explained

  • 4 November 2015
  • From the section UK

Footage has emerged of burning tents and angry scenes at a UK military base in Cyprus where about 100 migrants are being held. They say they want to leave, but what are their rights and who is responsible for them?

Who are the refugees?

Two weeks ago, 115 migrants came ashore on two fishing boats at a Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri on Cyprus' south coast. Among them were 67 men, 19 women and 29 children, including at least one baby. Most are Syrians and Palestinians. Some say they were trying to get to Germany, and had never intended to land in Cyprus.

What happened to them?

They stayed overnight at the RAF base, where they were given food and water. Shortly afterwards, they were moved to a large, fenced camp near another military base, in Dhekelia.

What are their options?

There are two: they can either claim asylum and be handed into Cypriot care - or go home. Going to the UK is not an option and the UK government has repeatedly stressed it will not allow Cyprus to become a route into the UK. So far, just 12 asylum applications are understood to have been made. If asylum is granted, the Cypriot authorities will find accommodation and offer support.

Image copyright MOD

Who has a legal responsibility for them?

This falls to the UK's Sovereign Base Area Authority (SBAA). It is overseen by a civilian administration made up of mainly UK nationals. It has its own police force, staffed mostly by Cypriots, although the chief officers are British. The Sovereign Base Area has its own laws.

The UK has a duty of care to the migrants because they landed on a SBAA beach. They must stay in the fenced camp and are not permitted to wander around the island. They can only leave once asylum has been granted or they are sent home, the Ministry of Defence says.

A UK-Cyprus agreement from 2003 means the UK will pay Cyprus- a British colony until 1960 - to help out in circumstances such as these, including processing asylum claims and accommodating asylum seekers.

Who deals with the asylum process?

SBAA staff and some RAF personnel gathered some initial details, such as name and date of birth. By day two, the Cypriot authorities had taken over and were conducting interviews, and carrying out health assessments and security checks on every migrant.

How long does it take?

It's not clear. All 115 migrants still remain in the camp, although it is thought there may be some movement in the next few days.

What rights do they have?

The Ministry of Defence says the migrants have access to three meals a day, shelter, privacy and communications. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which visited the camp, said the set-up was considered acceptable for a short-term stay, with 10 people to a tent, separate areas for women and single men, space for families and a medical tent. A UNHCR spokesman said it was hard to say how long they should be expected to say until they had all been identified and their needs assessed. Until the asylum applications are fully processed, the migrants must stay put. The MoD said its approach was guided by the UNHCR and the UK's Department for International Development.

Are there any other migrants in Cyprus?

Unlike a number of Greek and Italian islands, Cyprus has not seen an influx, despite its relative proximity - less than 100 miles - to the Syrian coast. It is believed that this is the first time during the current Mediterranean migrant crisis that people have arrived on UK sovereign territory.

In 1998, a number of Iraqi Kurds landed at RAF Akrotiri. They tried to apply for asylum in the UK, but were repeatedly turned down by the government and are still living in former military accommodation in Dhekelia.

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