NICOSIA, Cyprus – More than 100 asylum seekers, whose rickety fishing boats landed at a British air base on Cyprus' southern coast, are embroiling the east Mediterranean island in a political tussle with its former colonial ruler Britain.
At the heart of the brewing dispute is a 2003 deal Cyprus signed with British authorities about who is ultimately responsible for migrants or refugees who wash up on two military bases that Britain retained when Cyprus gained independence in 1960. Cyprus says responsibility weighs on shoulders of British authorities — the UK government says the opposite.
The stakes are high for British authorities amid fears that its bases — nearly 100 square miles considered British sovereign territory — could now be seen by traffickers as an easy back door to the UK for people fleeing war-torn Syria and other migrants, possibly leading to flood of new arrivals.
Complicating matters is the fact that RAF Akrotiri is the UK's staging post for its warplanes to attack Islamic State group targets in Iraq, as Cyprus' eastern-most tip is less than 100 miles from the Syrian coastline.
The arrival of the 114 people — believed to be mostly Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians, according to British authorities — is putting the Cyprus-Britain agreement to the test for the very first time. The deal came about five years after a boat with 74 Iraqi Kurds aboard washed ashore at RAF Akrotiri, in similar fashion as the latest arrivals. None of those Iraqi Kurds were ever allowed to go to the UK — even those 29 who were eventually granted refugee status. Sixty-six of the Iraqi Kurds, including those granted asylum, are still living at Dhekelia British Base.
The British Bases said in a statement Wednesday that the agreement ensures "that Cypriot authorities take responsibility in circumstances like this" and that "we are working positively and cooperatively with the Republic of Cyprus authorities to manage the situation."
But a Cypriot foreign ministry official told The Associated Press on Thursday that the 2003 agreement does not obligate Cyprus to accept asylum seekers, whether their applications are accepted or not.
"For us it's clear that responsibility lies with the British Bases and the British government," the official said on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to publicly discuss the matter according to ministry rules.
He said the agreement states that Cyprus must help British authorities screen, identify and house asylum seekers until their applications are examined, a process that could take weeks, if not months. Moreover, Britain must cover the costs of processing and housing asylum seekers according to the deal, the official said. Also uncertain is what will happen to those who's asylum applications are rejected or don't even qualify to apply.
What is clear is that Britain "will endeavor to resettle people recognized as refugees in countries willing to accept them" within one year of their application's approval, according to an official with direct knowledge of the agreement, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the document's confidentiality.