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Cyprus coastguard 'beating migrants' and sending boats back to Lebanon, claims HRW

A boat of migrants approaches Italy's Pozzallo harbour in 2019 [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 September, 2020

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HRW has accused the Cypriot coast guard of beating migrants and trying to flood their vessels in an attempt to summarily expel asylum seekers from the country's shores
Cypriot authorities have summarily pushed back more than 200 migrants and refugees arriving from Lebanon by boat earlier this month, ignoring their claims for asylum and even using violence and coercion, Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday.

The group accused Cypriot officers of beating and threatening those aboard the boats, while coast guard vessels attempted to swamp migrant boats by circling them at high speed and abandoned at least one boat at sea without food or fuel.

"That Lebanese nationals are now joining Syrian refugees on boats to flee Lebanon and seek asylum in the European Union is a mark of the severity of the crisis facing that country," said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch.

"Cyprus should consider their claims for protection fully and fairly and treat them safely and with dignity instead of disregarding the obligations to rescue boats in distress and not to engage in collective expulsions," he urged.

The accusations arose from interviews HRW conducted with 15 Lebanese and Syrian nationals who had attempted to reach European Union member Cyprus after setting sail from Tripoli, Lebanon, aboard seven boats between 29 August and 7 September.

According to the group, witnesses and victims on two boats returned to Lebanon said that Cyprus marine police handcuffed and beat individuals who resisted being returned.

The watchdog quoted one Lebanese national identified only by his first name who accused Cypriot police of using a cattle prod on him aboard a boat on 6 September after he shouted at them to rescue a couple who jumped overboard.

HRW urged Cypriot judicial authorities to carry out an investigation into the allegations and prosecute anyone found to have committed any wrongdoing.

It also called on the European Commission to get Cyprus to respect the right of migrants to seek asylum and not return people to a place where their safety and freedom may be at risk.

"People who risk their lives and their children’s lives by fleeing Lebanon by boat do so when they are truly desperate," said Frelick. "They have a right to have their claims for international protection considered."

Cypriot officials did not immediately return calls for comment on the report.

The Cypriot government has said the island nation is willing to offer safe haven to refugees, but has reached its limits in accepting "economic migrants". 

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said earlier this month that the Cypriot government is coordinating with Lebanese authorities to take back migrants arriving from that country in line with international law.

However, Cyprus' actions go against the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees the right to seek asylum.

The fundamental principle of non-refoulement also prohibits the return of refugees and asylum seekers to a country where they face persecution.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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