Nearly 200 Syrian asylum seekers are stranded in northern Cyprus after they were pushed back in the middle of the sea by authorities in the government-controlled south.
Quarantined and under threat of deportation, they have become the latest victims of a multiplying border shutdown as countries grapple with the advance of coronavirus.
On Friday, March 20, several Greek Cypriot patrol vessels approached a vastly overcrowded boat several miles of the coast of Cape Greco.
A police translator with a megaphone informed the passengers in Arabic that they could not enter Cyprus and would have to turn back. The craft was holding 175 people including 69 children.
According to authorities in northern Cyprus, all are Syrian.
Al Jazeera spoke to three Syrians who were on board. Their names are being withheld to not invite reprisals by authorities.
One mother in her twenties from Aleppo said: “It was very crowded, the waves were high and the boat was moving a lot. I held my children tight. The police said you cannot enter because of the coronavirus, we said we were joining our husbands and families and if you are scared about coronavirus you can put us in a camp alone or quarantine. But they refused and then the boats started to circle.”
On March 15, Cyprus shut its borders to all except Cypriots, European workers and those with special permits for a period of two weeks.
As of Sunday, the country had recorded 214 confirmed cases and six have died.
In a statement given to Al Jazeera, Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said: “The police acted on the ministerial decrees concerning the prohibition of entry … to protect against the distribution of coronavirus. The police made it clear that they will not allow anyone including immigrants to enter in violation of these decrees.”
A man from Idlib told Al Jazeera: “A bigger boat came after an hour with a cannon and weapons on top. They had personnel with guns on board who said, ‘If you want water, food and fuel we will give it to you but entry to Cyprus is not allowed’.
“We asked even for them just to take the women and children. They threw us a small bottle of diesel and drove behind us for an hour and we continued to the Turkish side. A storm came and waves started to hit the boat.”
After a standoff of several hours the boat, that had begun its journey in Mersin in southern Turkey, turned around and eventually upturned near the shore of northern Cyprus.
Local authorities rescued the passengers from the shoreline, and they are now being housed in apartments.
The Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the north following a Greek-backed military coup by forces seeking to unify the country with Athens.
Although Cyprus is an EU member, the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised only by Turkey and the territories are separated by a 120-mile long UN-monitored buffer zone which cuts through the nation’s capital, Nicosia.
Gulfem Verizoglu-Sevgili of the TRNC ministry of foreign affairs told Al Jazeera in a statement: “In the early hours of March 21, a rescue mission took place off the eastern coast of TRNC by the Karpaz Peninsula. The refugees were primarily taken to a sports hall where they underwent medical examinations and were provided with clothes and food. They have now been moved into flats.”