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More Than 100 Migrants Made a Surprise Landing at a UK Base in Cyprus

Around 114 migrants, including 28 children, were intercepted at the RAF Akrotiri base. They join a group of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds who landed on Cyprus in 1998 and have been stranded there since.

by Nicholas Ismail
Oct 21 2015, 6:42pm

Photo via RAF Akrotiri

VICE News is closely watching the international migrant crisis. Check out the Open Water blog here.

More than 100 people landed at a British airbase on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in unusual circumstances this morning, also representing the first time in the migrant crisis that refugees have landed directly on UK sovereign soil.

The Cyprus Interior Ministry said it was holding consultations with the British High Commission (embassy) on the matter, but British officials have indicated that they will not be allowed to claim asylum in the UK.

Two 40-feet-long wooden boats carrying 114 migrants, including 28 children, were intercepted at the RAF Akrotiri base, and the facility went into security lockdown on their arrival.

The two fishing boats carrying them were sighted in the early morning off the sprawling base on a peninsula on the southern coast of the island, a British colony until 1960. Local media said the vessels had been spotted by fishermen who raised the alert. "We have not established where they are from yet," a spokesman for the bases said.

Kyriacos Mavri, the Commander of Cyprus Coastguard, said in a statement: "The people who were trafficking them abandoned them in two fishing boats about one or two miles from the beach just outside the SBA [Sovereign Base Area]. They left in a fast boat." 

Mavri said that all the people on board were Syrian and the group consisted of 67 men, 19 women, and 28 children.

They join a group of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds who found themselves in a similar situation in 1998 when their ramshackle fishing boat failed and they were abandoned by traffickers before landing at Akrotiri. Seventeen years later they remain effectively stateless on the island having failed to gain asylum in the UK.

While 21 original survivors were relocated from Akrotiri to Dhekelia, a larger British base on Cyprus, this number has risen to 67 after children have been born and relatives joined, according to the Guardian.

Although the refugees arrived on what is considered UK territory, officials said an agreement was in place with Cyprus, which would assume responsibility for them.

Cypriot newspaper Politis reported that today's incident would appear to be the culmination of a plan: "Relatives of the passengers of the two ships have gathered at the gates of the military base on Akrotiri. According to what they have said, they were informed of the arrival of their relatives and [knew] that there final destination was Cyprus." 

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) stated: "Under the terms of the 2003 memorandum of understanding signed between the Republic of Cyprus and the UK, asylum seekers arriving directly onto the SBA are the responsibility of the UK but they would be granted access to services in the Republic at the cost of the SBA." The earlier group arrived before the migrants exchange agreement took effect in 2003, and the accord does not apply to them.

The refugees are now being held in a hangar at the base, and all are believed to be in a healthy condition, with the UK Ministry of Defense releasing a number of photos confirming this.

Photo via RAF Akrotiri/EPA

A base for Tornado jets, Akrotiri has played a role in many military operations in the Middle East, and in recent months as a launchpad to bomb Islamic State (IS) targets in Iraq. Its land perimeter is heavily guarded and under constant surveillance.

Cyprus is not a migrant hot spot, despite being roughly 170 miles off Syria's south coast. The sight of migrant boat landings is uncommon compared to the proximity of the country's neighbours, Italy and Greece, who have seen a massive influx of migrants reaching their shores.

The number of migrants who have arrived this year in Italy has surpassed 135,000, while Greece's influx has exceeded 500,000, according to the United Nations, with an overwhelming rising average of 8,000 migrants landing daily on Greek shores.

The International Organisation of Migration has said more than 650,000 have reached Europe by sea in 2015, a jump from 280,000 from last year. Around 53 percent of those migrating are from Syria.

UNHCR estimates 3,135 people have lost their lives by engaging in the dangerous migration route to Europe.

The Mediterranean migrant crisis is to be addressed further at a European Union (EU) summit on Sunday, which will be attended by EU and Balkan leaders. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said there is a need "for much greater co-operation, more extensive consultation and immediate operational action." 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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