Cyprus president discusses Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon visit

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati and visiting Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides on Monday discussed the Syrian refugee crisis, Beirut said, as Nicosia pushes the Lebanese authorities to stem boat departures.

Cyprus says the Israel-Hamas war since October, which has triggered a flare-up on the Israel-Lebanon border, has weakened Lebanon’s efforts to monitor its territorial waters and prevent migrant vessel departures, reporting a surge in Syrian arrivals.

Authorities in Lebanon, hit by a grinding economic crisis that has turned it into a migrant launchpad, hosts some two million Syrians, with 800,000 registered with the United Nations — the world’s highest number of refugees per capita.

In Beirut, Mikati and Christodoulides emphasized “the importance of finding a comprehensive and sustainable solution to the Syria displacement crisis”, a statement from the Lebanese premier’s office said.

“Lebanon’s army and security forces are doing their best to stop illegal immigration,” Mikati was quoted as saying in the statement.

“But this cannot be achieved without the return of those seeking safety to safe areas in Syria or securing their residency in third countries,” he added.

Mediterranean island Cyprus is the European Union’s easternmost member, located less than 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the coast of Lebanon and neighbouring Syria.

Nicosia, which for several years has had an agreement with Beirut for the return of irregular migrants, last week urged Brussels to compel Lebanon to stop migrant boats from leaving for Cyprus, suggesting EU assistance should be cut if flows persist.

Mikati urged the EU and the international community more broadly to “take new steps and reconsider their policies on Syria’s security”, but noted that “it is also necessary to increase efforts to address the root causes of the refugee crisis”.

Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests, has killed more than half a million people and ravaged the country’s economy and infrastructure, while security remains tenuous across swathes of the country.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, told AFP that as of April 4, more than 40 boats carrying some 2,500 people had landed in Cyprus this year, but was unable to specify which departed from Lebanon and which from Syria.

Last year, UNHCR expressed concern over the return of more than 100 Syrian migrants to Lebanon, saying they had not been screened to assess whether they needed legal protection, or might be deported to their homeland.

Nicosia insists returns are legal under the bilateral agreement with Beirut, and has demanded a reassessment of Syria’s status, seeking safe zones so countries can send asylum seekers back.

Christodoulides met with Mikati as Lebanon’s presidency is vacant amid protracted political wrangling.

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