BEIRUT: Young people fleeing Lebanon in flimsy boats and heading for Cyprus are adding to the refugee crisis in the eastern Mediterranean.
Four vessels appeared off the eastern and southern coast of Cyprus in the past two days carrying 123 Lebanese and Syrian migrants, island police said on Sunday.
Some have been allowed into Cyprus, but at least 20 migrants are adrift off the southeastern tip in a boat witha faulty engine. Three women and nine children were earlier taken off the boat and transferred to a Cypriot hospital as a precaution.
More than 30 people on a boat that police intercepted on Saturday about 20km off the southern coast have boarded another vessel that Cypriot authorities chartered to take them back to Lebanon. Cyprus and Lebanon have an agreement to stop migrant boats from reaching the island.
More than 50 migrants from Lebanon were taken to a reception center on Saturday after their boat reached a rocky beach along the island’s eastern coastline inside the UN controlled buffer zone separating the main part of Cyprus from the unrecognized breakaway Turkish Cypriot north.
UN peacekeepers transferred the 35 men, five women and 11 children to Cypriot custody. A court on Sunday ordered that four men remain in custody on suspicion that they were the boat’s crew.
Another 20 Syrian migrants were taken to a reception center after being picked up on Sunday morning near the buffer zone 15km west of the capital, Nicosia.
Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said there would be an urgent meeting on Monday to assess the situation. The island’s migrant reception center was reaching its limits amid concerns over adherence to health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he said.
Lebanon hosts 1 million Syrian refugees and 250,000 Palestinian refugees. People smuggling has increased in the past few years, especially targeting young Lebanese disillusioned by the collapsing economy.
September, October and November were high season for fleeing Lebanon by boat because the sea was calm, Mohammad Al-Sarji, head of the Lebanese Union of Professional Divers, told Arab News.
“Smugglers in Lebanon are seafarers with strong knowledge of the sea. They buy used boats, refurbish, and use them for smuggling. If they sink, their loss is not huge, but refugees would have paid huge amounts of money for smugglers,” he said.
“The closest point to Cyprus is the coast stretching from Tripoli to Akkar in northern Lebanon, only 90 kmaway, and it is not monitored due to the state’s impotence and decay.”