Two Syrian refugees fight to make EU pushbacks illegal

In Depth: After being returned to Lebanon without being allowed to seek asylum, two Syrian refugees are suing the Cypriot government over its pushback policy and hope their case will help end the deadly practice.

When Ahmad* and Hussein* saw the Cyprus Coast Guard, they thought their perilous journey was over. In the fall of 2020, the two Syrian cousins ​​had each paid $2,500 to be smuggled by boat from Lebanon to Cyprus in hopes of reuniting with their families and seeking asylum there, the final stage of their ongoing displacement from their hometown of Idlib.

The Cyprus Coast Guard intercepted them before they reached land and forced their boat to stop, Ahmad said. But instead of taking them ashore, they reportedly left the boat carrying around 30 people floating in the water for two days, providing passengers with no food or water.

“They told us that we could not enter, that no refugees were allowed to enter. They treated us terribly, insulting us and threatening to fight us,” Ahmad said.

When their boat continued to try to reach the shores of Cyprus, the coastguard rammed the vessel, causing it to begin to sink. It was only when the boat was taking on water that the coastguard allowed passengers to approach the shore, Ahmad said.

“Deprived of their right to apply for asylum, Ahmad and Hussein decided to sue the Cypriot government, filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights”

But instead of allowing them to land and submit their asylum claims, officers quickly put them on another boat and sent them back to Lebanon.

“In Lebanon, there is nothing for us. I don’t have a job, my children don’t go to school and we need medical care. I can’t describe how bad it is. I want my children to have a future,” Ahmad said.

Deprived of their right to apply for asylum, Ahmad and Hussein decided to sue the Cypriot government, filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The parties failed to reach an agreement on July 21 and will proceed to trial.

The lawsuit alleges that Ahmad and Hussein were subjected to inhuman treatment by the Cyprus Coast Guard and that by refusing to hear their individual asylum claims and summarily returning them to Lebanon, Cyprus violated their human rights.

He further claims that the Cypriot government puts them at risk of being deported from Lebanon to Syria, where their lives are in serious danger. Lebanon’s Ministry of Displaced Persons recently announced that it would begin deporting 15,000 Syrians per month to Syria.

Both men are wanted for military service in Syria and could be arrested or sent to the front, where they risk death.

If Ahmad and Hussein win their case, the result could set an important precedent for Cyprus migration policy and have implications for European border policies more generally. The ruling would help establish definitively that Cyprus’ push-back policy, which has become the modus operandi of several European countries, is a violation of international law.

“For the first time in relation to Cyprus, you would have a decision from the European Court of Human Rights declaring that this pushback policy is illegal. The government can no longer claim that this policy is legal. They will have to change their policy,” said Nicoletta Charalambidou, the lawyer representing Ahmad and Hussein. The new Arabic.

Khaled Abdallah, a 47-year-old Lebanese migrant after trying to reach Cyprus, stands along a pier in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli September 15, 2020. Abdallah said life is not was more durable in Lebanon, which prompted him to undertake the perilous journey. [Getty]

In previous judgments, the ECHR has found that countries have breached Article 4 of Protocol 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits collective expulsions. Countries have been accused of preventing migrants from filing asylum claims and disregarding individual circumstances.

However, the court also ruled in favor of pushback governments. In February 2020, the ECHR concluded that the collective expulsion of migrants by Spain was admissible because the migrants had not used “official entry procedures”.

The new Arabic submitted questions to the Cypriot government about the court case and its policy towards asylum seekers, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

“At sea, Cyprus has intensified patrols and pushbacks of incoming refugees – especially those from Lebanon”

Increase in boat crossings and controversial agreement

The number of asylum seekers in Cyprus has exploded over the past decade. The small island nation has the highest rate of asylum seekers per capita in the EU – with a massive backlog of pending cases.

The influx of refugees has triggered a popular reaction and migration has become a burning issue at the national level. Parliament has formed a “demographic commission” led by the right-wing ELAM party, which activists accuse of fomenting hatred against refugees.

The government has decided to secure its borders and to prevent refugees from being able to physically present their asylum applications. On land, Nicosia has sought to bolster policing on the Green Line that separates Cyprus from Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, where many asylum seekers cross.

At sea, Cyprus has apparently stepped up patrols and pushbacks of incoming refugees – particularly those from Lebanon.

Historically, boat crossings from Lebanon to Cyprus have been rare. But, in 2020, as the economic situation in Lebanon deteriorated, there was a significant increase in attempts to travel across the Mediterranean.

While the total number of attempted boat crossings from Lebanon to Cyprus in 2019 was 17, 21 attempted crossings were made in the three months between July and September 2020. In response, Cypriot authorities reportedly increased pushback operations ; In September 2020 alone, five boats carrying 230 people were pushed back to Lebanon, according to Save the Children.

In October 2020, Cyprus and Lebanon reaffirmed a highly controversial bilateral agreement. The agreement saw the two countries agree to cooperate on preventing the departure and return of asylum seekers.

The document, which was not previously available to the public, was the implementation of a 2002 agreement between the two countries, the Cypriot Interior Ministry said. The new Arabic in response to an access to information request.

Mohammed Msawel shows the boat he and others boarded in an attempt to reach Europe and escape Lebanon’s financial crisis before being arrested by the Greek coast guard, in Tripoli on December 9, 2021. [Getty]

In essence, the “Agreement on the readmission of persons illegally entering and/or residing in the territory of the two countries” allows Cyprus to return anyone from Lebanon, regardless of their nationality.

The deal between Cyprus and Lebanon has raised concerns among human rights groups.

In a March 2021 letter, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights wrote to the Cypriot Ministry of Interior regarding reports that boats carrying migrants “have been prevented from disembarking in Cyprus and dismissed summarily, sometimes violently, without any possibility of return”. their passengers to access the asylum procedure.

At the same time, the Lebanese Navy has taken on a more active role in border policing, warning and returning asylum seekers before they leave Lebanese waters.

“This is an externalization of EU border policy and unsavory border practices that EU states do not want to carry out themselves,” said refugee rights researcher Nadia Hardman. and migrants to HRW’s Human Rights Watch. The New Arab.

““The core of the EU strategy has been to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the EU by shifting the burden and responsibility of migrants and refugees to countries outside the Union “”

“The core of the EU strategy has been to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the EU by shifting the burden and responsibility of migrants and refugees to countries outside the Union” , Hardman explained.

“Refoulements seem to have become part of the externalization of migration control from EU member states,” she added.

In April, a boat carrying 84 passengers, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees hoping to seek asylum, departed from the northern port city of Tripoli. They were intercepted by Lebanese authorities and survivors say a navy boat rammed their ship twice, sinking it and killing dozens.

Authorities have promised a transparent investigation, but lawyers representing the Tripoli families have expressed doubts.

As the Lebanese crisis worsens, the boats will increase

Ahmad and Hussein fled the bombs in Idlib. The signs of danger in Syria – fighting, warring factions and the drone of warplanes – were tangible and ubiquitous. By contrast, the worst effects of the Lebanese crisis, with its sagging economy and gross inequality, are often invisible but no less deadly.

The return to Lebanon was a nightmare for the two cousins. There, they have little hope for the future. Lebanon is in the midst of what the World Bank calls one of the worst economic crises in 150 years – and Syrian refugees are among the worst affected.

The two cousins ​​live in difficult conditions. Ahmad’s son and his wife suffer from health problems. They were unable to receive treatment from the public health system in Lebanon, and private health care is unaffordable.

“Things are getting worse. We have work one day, then nothing the next. We can’t even afford to buy bread anymore,” Ahmad said.

“The signs of danger in Syria – fighting, warring factions and the buzz of warplanes – were tangible and pervasive. The worst effects of the Lebanese crisis by contrast, with its sagging economy and stark inequality, are often invisible. but no less deadly”

Although Syrian refugees are among the most affected, almost everyone in Lebanon is suffering. Bread lines have popped up across the country, and hyperinflation has put basics out of reach for most.

Attempts to reach Europe by sea will no doubt continue as long as Lebanon’s economic crisis persists, said Mohamed Sablouh, a Lebanese lawyer representing the families of the Tripoli disaster. The new Arabic.

Ahmad and Hussein’s trial, if successful, could guarantee refugees more dignified journeys and the opportunity to have their asylum claims heard.

“People take this trip because they are forced to; it is incredibly dangerous. The trial should help others,” Ahmad said.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals for security reasons.

Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist who writes about Middle Eastern politics, human rights, migration and media studies. She is also part of the editorial team of The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat

William Christou is the New Arab’s Levantine correspondent, covering Levant and Mediterranean politics. Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou

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