Cyprus suspends Syrian asylum applications as it struggles with arrivals spike

NICOSIA (Reuters) -Cyprus has suspended the processing of asylum applications from Syrians following a sharp increase in irregular arrivals this month, authorities said on Sunday.

More than 1,000 people have arrived in Cyprus on boats from Lebanon since the start of April amid deepening tensions in the Middle East. It has triggered calls from Nicosia to its European Union partners to do more to assist Lebanon, as well as reconsider the status of war-torn Syria, which is at present considered unsafe to repatriate asylum seekers.

"This is an emergency measure, it's a difficult decision to protect the interests of Cyprus," Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides told reporters.

Christodoulides and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen later discussed the possibility of offering a reinforced package of economic aid to Lebanon, a Cypriot government spokesperson said in a statement. To this end it was agreed they would jointly visit Lebanon after a preparatory visit by Commission officials, the statement added.

Lebanon, in the throes of a deep financial crisis, hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Cyprus, the EU's easternmost state and the closest to the Middle East, lies about 160 km (100 miles) west of the shores of Lebanon or Syria. It recorded more than 2,000 arrivals by sea in the first three months of this year, compared to just 78 over the same period in 2023.

In practice, suspending processing of applications means asylum seekers will be confined to two reception camps offering food and shelter and regulated exits, with no other benefit. Those who choose to leave those facilities will automatically forfeit any kind of benefit, and will not be allowed to work, government sources said.

(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Sharon Singleton and Susan Fenton)