Cyprus president and Lebanese caretaker premier urge EU financial aid to curb migration from Lebanon

The Lebanese caretaker prime minister and the Cypriot president are calling on the European Union to provide financial support to help cash-strapped Lebanon stop migrants from reaching European shores

Kareem Chehayeb
Monday 08 April 2024 13:59 BST

The Lebanese caretaker prime minister and the Cypriot president are calling on the European Union to provide financial support to help cash-strapped Lebanon stop migrants from reaching European shores.

President Nikos Christodoulides’ visit to Beirut Monday, alongside his country's interior and foreign ministers and army chief, came after he urged the EU last week to intercede with Lebanese authorities to help stop boatloads of Syrian refugees from heading to the east Mediterranean island nation.

Migration in recent years has become a priority issue between the two countries.

Najib Mikati said the Lebanese military and security agencies have been doing their utmost to curb migration, but the situation was so dire that it needed “a framework agreement” with the EU. He was referring to already sanctioned migration-linked European financial packages with cash-strapped Mediterranean countries Tunisia and Egypt.

Christodoulides agreed with Mikati on the importance of reaching a similar agreement with Lebanon as Cyprus, along with other European countries, has been witnessing a spike in migrant arrivals.

According to the Cypriot Interior Ministry, some 2,140 people arrived by boat in Cyprus between Jan. 1 and Apr. 4 of this year, compared to only 78 people during that same period in 2023. The vast majority were Syrian nationals departing from Lebanon.

Lebanon — which is coping with a crippling economic crisis since 2019 — hosts some 805,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees, of which 90% live in poverty, the UN’s refugee agency says. Lebanese officials estimate the actual number is far higher, ranging between 1.5 and 2 million. Many have escaped the civil war in their country which entered its 14th year.

The UN refugee agency also noted the surge in migrant departures from Lebanon and confirmed that most were Syrian refugees.

Lebanon and Cyprus already have a bilateral deal where Cypriot authorities would return migrants attempting to reach the island from Lebanon.

Mikati said Monday most of Syria has become safe as the conflict is now at a stalemate. He called on the EU to support the repatriation of Syrian refugees or help them resettle in other countries.

Christodoulides said that most Syrian migrants fled their home country mainly for economic reasons and called on the international community to fund development projects in Syria that would help incentivize or motivate their return, according to a statement issued by Mikat's office.

However, UN agencies, human rights groups, and Western governments maintain that Syria is not yet safe for repatriation.

Cyprus has been pushing for the EU to re-designate some areas within war-torn Syria into “safe zones” for such repatriations. Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou said last week the proposal is gaining traction among the 27-nation bloc but it wouldn’t happen in the near term

A Lebanese diplomatic official familiar with Monday’s talks said that both delegations are discussing a joint proposal focused on Syrian refugees returning home. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Talks between Syrian parties to find a political solution are currently frozen. While Damascus was reinstated in the Arab League last year, the EU previously said conditions to restore ties were yet to be met.

Lebanon’s interior minister and army chief were part of Mikati’s delegation.

Associated Press writer Menelaos Hadjicostis in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

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