Refugees plead for their release from RAF base in Cyprus

UK under pressure to resolve status of migrants at Cyprus base amid footage of children pleading for release and one man apparently trying to kill himself

British defence officials are under pressure to resolve the status of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Cyprus after the release of video showing chaotic scenes at a UK military base on the island.

Among the incidents in pictures, videos and audio recordings obtained by the Guardian is an apparent threat by a man to kill himself before British police officers rush in. Separately, a man is seen with his face covered in blood after cutting himself.

In other videos, members of the group of 114 who landed on the island last month, among them 28 children, plead for their release from Dhekelia, one of two British sovereign base areas (SBAs) in Cyprus.

“I am 12 years old. We are sitting here in the tents and we are cold and we are not allowed to go out from the tents ... Please help us,” said one child.

Refugees’ tents set alight at RAF Dhekelia, a British sovereign base in Cyprus. The UN says Britain should resettle the migrants but MoD says it ‘will not allow a new migrant route to open up to the UK’.
Refugees’ tents set alight at RAF Dhekelia, a British sovereign base in Cyprus. The UN says Britain should resettle the migrants but MoD says it ‘will not allow a new migrant route to open up to the UK’. Photograph: Handout

Another woman, in an audio message, said: “My name is Manar from Syria, I am a 27-year-old woman. We came here by mistake to escape the war. We spent three days at sea and were close to death ... They count us every day as if we were in prison … We can’t stand it any more.”

In another video, a large group is seen protesting by a high wire fence – with one man sitting on top chanting: “Let us leave.” Another is heard shouting: “We are people, not animals,” as a police officer tries to calm him.

On Saturday, unknown members of the group set some of the tents on fire, seen in images passed to the Guardian. Most of the 114 refugees are Syrians but they also include Palestinians and Lebanese.

Takis Neophytou, director general of the Cyprus Red Cross Society, declined to comment on the reports after a short visit to the base on Monday. He acknowledged, however, that those who arrived last month were “very frustrated”.

A child plays outside of a tent at the temporary facility at Dhekelia
A child plays outside a tent at the temporary facility at Dhekelia. Photograph: Petros Karadjias/AP

The group said they set off from Turkey with the aim of reaching Greece to seek asylum. They came ashore on 21 October after a Cypriot fisherman spotted two boats that appeared to be in distress about three miles from the other British base, RAF Akrotiri, according to Kyriacos Mavri, commander of Cyprus’s marine police. They were moved to Dhekelia soon after their arrival.

“The boats were first spotted in the SBA’s territorial waters, we had to coordinate with the SBA, who didn’t have any boats available at that time, so we sent ours,” Mavri told the Guardian. “After a while the boats were successfully driven to the shores of the SBA and unloaded. People from the SBA were there as well as people from our unit. The SBA took care of them, and later they were taken to the base in Dhekelia.”

Map - Cyprus

Cyprus has agreed to process the asylum claims of all the refugees and migrants who arrived at the base, despite the UN’s view that they are Britain’s responsibility.

Under a 2003 agreement between the UK and Cyprus, asylum seekers arriving directly on to the SBAs on the island are the responsibility of the UK, to be granted access to services in Cyprus at Britain’s cost.

The Ministry of Defence would not comment on any of the specific incidents, but insisted that the refugees were being treated well.

“We are aware of a small number of incidents at the temporary accommodation facility,” an MoD spokesman said. “Those staying there have access to food, shelter, privacy and communications, which United Nations staff have visited and say exceeds the standard of comparable setups.

“We continue to work closely with the Cypriot authorities to resolve this situation as quickly as possible. The UK government will not allow a new migrant route to open up to the UK.”

This is only the second time boats of refugees have come ashore at the SBA. In 1998, a boat carrying mostly Iraqi and Syrian Kurds was brought ashore with the aid of British forces. However, due to the legal and political status of the base, the group of 67 asylum seekers remain stuck on the base almost 17 years later.

The current group are being held separately from the 1998 arrivals, in a fenced-off area in tents. Speaking to the Guardian at the weekend, a young man calling himself Hasan, who did not want to give his last name for fear it could affect his situation on the base, said: “On the 22nd we were told we would be moved within five days and then be able to make our asylum applications. But we are still here.”


Radwan Mortada, Chavala Madlena and Mark Tran

The GuardianTramp

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