A few hours into their journey by boat, with 55 people from Syria balancing on an eight-metre vessel, the smugglers asked at gunpoint who would drive the boat the rest of the way.
Then the smugglers left, leaving those on board to navigate the open Mediterranean on their own. They tried to fix their route by the moon and the stars. When the sun rose, they realized they were going the wrong way.
They wanted to reach Cyprus. “Because it’s the closest,” said Zacharia Allouch, who paid US$3,500 to secure passage on the boat.
On Friday, he stood with the others inside Pournara Camp, a former army camp on the western outskirts of the capital Nicosia where Cyprus can house and process 1,000 asylum seekers. Before the group of new arrivals lay a procedural gauntlet of health tests, interviews and an assessment of eligibility for asylum with an uncertain outcome.
In at least one way, though, they had already succeeded: They made it to Cyprus.
Syrians already make up nearly 60 per cent of the asylum seekers who have landed on this Mediterranean island in 2023. Last weekend, 250 arrived on three boats. The previous weekend brought another two boats. By sea, the distance is only about 200 kilometres.
Authorities, aid workers and security officials are bracing themselves for much larger numbers, nervous about the prospect of war breaking out in Lebanon and the refugee crisis that could bring to their shores.
“It’s inevitable, because of our location and because the route, especially to Syrians, is familiar,” said Anna Maria Poullou, an asylum service officer at Pournara Camp.
“We are expecting more to come.”
More than a million asylum seekers have already fled war-torn Syria for Europe. Another 1.5 million now live in Lebanon, where most live in conditions of extreme poverty but have been kept from leaving, in part by the vigilance of the country’s Coast Guard.
If war breaks out, however, few expect Lebanon to maintain a focus on migrants, opening a way out. Some already want to leave Lebanon. If “people have to leave bombing, too, that’s a whole different ball game,” said Elizabeth Kassinis, executive manager of Caritas Cyprus, the local arm of the Catholic relief organization.
When Israel launched a 34-day war with Hezbollah militants in 2006, those seeking safety could cross into Syria. That is unlikely to be a desirable destination in 2023, however, after years of devastating war in Syria.
That leaves Cyprus as one of the nearest options for safety.
With a population of just over a million, the island already counts 26,995 pending asylum applications and another 5,033 who are appealing asylum rejections.
Many are in need. In 2018, Caritas Cyprus had a few hundred on its roster of people to receive help. Now, it’s more than 16,000.
A crisis in Lebanon stands to considerably increase those figures, and in Cyprus, the “asylum system is easily overwhelmed,” Ms. Kassinis warned.
It’s a concern that Cyprus has begun to raise internationally. Last week, Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou spoke at the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council, where he asked for a management plan to respond to a possible crisis.
At home, Cypriot security services have already raised the national readiness alert level for search and rescue.
The country’s government, meanwhile, has taken a fresh look at an existing plan on how to respond to a large influx of asylum seekers.
“We took it out of the drawer and we are refreshing it because we know it’s going to be needed,” said Andreas Georgiades, an adviser to the interior minister on asylum and migration issues.
If asylum camps grow too full, football pitches and army camps can be used to house arrivals. But, he said, Cyprus can only handle so much.
“If you’re talking about 1,000, it’s manageable,” he said. “Five thousand, I would say it’s manageable. But if you get 10,000 in a week, you have to lock Cyprus. It’s impossible.”
Cyprus has sought to whittle its number of asylum seekers, in part through speeding its review of applications and in part through a voluntary return program that offers free flights and cash to those who leave. Those numbers amount to roughly 7,500 who have left Cyprus so far this year, including deportations, Mr. Georgiades said.
If Lebanon is at war, however, “it’s going to be a disaster.” If “they understand that we won’t send them back, they will all be here.”
Such an event will affect “all of Europe,” he said.
Cyprus is a European Union member, and has already sought help from other countries to relocate refugees. As of this week, it has transferred 1,500 people to several countries in Europe. A large number of new arrivals would almost certainly add pressure to such movement.
“In the event of a significant influx of refugees to Cyprus, it is important that Cyprus is not left alone, and this holds true for other front-line countries that may also be impacted,” said Emilia Strovolidou, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cyprus.
But much will undoubtedly be demanded of Cyprus, itself. In Larnaca, the Oasis Community Centre provides food, household items and clothing for refugees. At the moment, it helps a few hundred people, many from Syria, but head of operations Logan Erickson is keeping a careful eye on Lebanon.
Earlier this week, he sent e-mails to church-group supporters in the U.S., with a message that “hey, this could get real bad. We have enough food to support our current refugees. We don’t have enough if we get a major influx of people who don’t have the means.”