Cyprus sees surge in migrants crossing from breakaway north

Cyprus sees surge in migrants crossing from breakaway north
In this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, a migrant from Syria rests at a refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia outside of Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (Petros Karadjias)

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — On the final leg of his journey from Iraq to Europe, Hawye Rasool Saleh paid 400 euros ($457) borrowed from his best friend to a smuggler who would help him across the cease-fire line of ethnically split Cyprus.

The transaction was sealed in anonymity.

"You don't know me, I don't know you," the 32-year-old Saleh said he was told by the trafficker before he climbed into a van on the Turkish Cypriot side.

The crossing was easy, Saleh said. Two soldiers manning a Turkish Cypriot guard post checked the driver's ID, then waved the van through to the buffer zone that divides the northern part of the Mediterranean island from the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member.

Saleh, who said he fled religious fundamentalism in Iraq, is one of the thousands of migrants who have slipped into Cyprus this year across its porous 180-kilometer-long (120-mile-long) buffer zone. Migrant arrivals by sea have also increased, turning tiny Cyprus into the EU's top recipient of asylum-seekers relative to its population size, as other EU countries have tightened their borders.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, a migrant walks past graffiti at the UN buffer zone in central Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, a migrant walks past graffiti at the UN buffer zone in central Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Government statistics show that about 5,000 people — mostly from Syria but also Somalia, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cameroon — had claimed asylum in Cyprus by the end of August. That's expected to reach 8,000 by year's end, up from 3,000 in 2016. While that's a fraction of the hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in the EU, it's putting pressure on a country with just over 1 million people.

In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 a homeless migrant is seen at a place under of a hotel in central city of Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there’s now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 a homeless migrant is seen at a place under of a hotel in central city of Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there’s now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

"We're trying to cope, but for a long time, now, we have exceeded our fair share," Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides told The Associated Press.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, migrants stand outside of a shop in central Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there’s now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, migrants stand outside of a shop in central Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there’s now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Authorities in the north aren't recognized by the international community except for Turkey, which itself doesn't recognize the Cypriot government in the Greek-speaking south.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, Hawye Rasool Saleh, 32, a migrant from Iraq washes his face at his living space under a hotel in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, Hawye Rasool Saleh, 32, a migrant from Iraq washes his face at his living space under a hotel in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Despite its proximity to the conflict zones of the Middle East, Cyprus received relatively few asylum-seekers during the peak of Europe's migrant crisis three years ago, when most migrants arrived in Greece and made their way through the Balkans toward countries in northern Europe. An island nation just emerging from a severe economic crisis, Cyprus wasn't seen as an attractive destination for migrants and refugees seeking shelter and a new life in Europe.

In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 a homeless migrant stands on a street in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 a homeless migrant stands on a street in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

But that changed as nations in Europe shut their borders and the economic situation improved.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, Hawye Rasool Saleh, 32, a migrant from Iraq holds a t-shirt at a living place under a hotel in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, Hawye Rasool Saleh, 32, a migrant from Iraq holds a t-shirt at a living place under a hotel in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Petrides said Cypriot authorities know about at least one trafficking ring using the breakaway north as a conduit for migrants from Syria via Turkey, from where they either catch commercial flights or boats to the island. Government officials say nearly half of the recent migrant arrivals have entered Cyprus that way.

In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, migrants stand at a market stall in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, migrants stand at a market stall in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Others arrive directly in southern Cyprus on rickety smuggling vessels from Turkey or Lebanon, which has taken in about 1 million Syrian refugees.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, a migrant from Africa uses his mobile in a neighborhood in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, a migrant from Africa uses his mobile in a neighborhood in central Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for this small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Saleh flew from Irbil in northern Iraq to Turkey's capital, Ankara, where he caught a connecting flight to Ercan airport in Cyprus' breakaway north. In most cases, Turkish Cypriot authorities don't require advance visas for passengers arriving from Turkey.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, migrants reflected on a window of a market at a neighborhood in central city of Nicosia, Cyprus. Migrant arrivals are down overall in Europe as some countries tighten their borders, but migrant trafficking networks seem to have set their sights on Cyprus. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, migrants reflected on a window of a market at a neighborhood in central city of Nicosia, Cyprus. Migrant arrivals are down overall in Europe as some countries tighten their borders, but migrant trafficking networks seem to have set their sights on Cyprus. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Saleh is now staying at a center in a village south of Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, where he awaits a decision on his asylum claim.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, a migrant from Syria at a refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia outside of Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for the small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, a migrant from Syria at a refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia outside of Nicosia, Cyprus. Cyprus was not seen as an attractive destination for migrants seeking shelter and a new life in Europe, but that has changed as other nations in Europe have shut their borders and the economic situation has slowly improved for the small island nation. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Corina Drousiotou, who heads the Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there's now a backlog of 8,000 asylum applications and it takes three to five years to process a claim, including appeals.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, a migrant with his children walk by shops at a neighborhood in central city of Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, a migrant with his children walk by shops at a neighborhood in central city of Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

The EU head office in Brussels told the AP its European Asylum Support office is deploying 29 case workers plus interpreters to help Cyprus clear the backlog, and has given Cyprus almost 40 million euros for migration management in the 2014-2020 period.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, Hawye Rasool Saleh, 32, a migrant from Iraq washes at his living space under a hotel in central Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, Hawye Rasool Saleh, 32, a migrant from Iraq washes at his living space under a hotel in central Nicosia, Cyprus. The Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there is now a backlog of about 8,000 asylum applications as of late 2018, and it takes three to five years to process each claim, including appeals.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP)

Drousiotou said the situation is "manageable" as long as Cyprus taps into support from fellow EU members and other international agencies. She said there's plenty of demand for workers by employers on the island's booming tourism sector. But authorities need to urgently find more housing for migrants as cases of homelessness — previously rare in Cyprus — have now cropped up. She said monthly allowances to asylum-seekers of around $400 (350 euros) also need to be raised.

Petrides, the interior minister, said Cyprus has sought additional funding from the EU to upgrade migrant centers, process asylum applications and monitor the border better. He said Cyprus is also trying to establish a fast-track asylum procedure and set up dedicated courts to hear the appeals of unsuccessful asylum applicants.

Saleh said he's hoping to find a job as soon as he finds out whether he can stay in Cyprus. He has no "Plan B."

"I can't go back to my country," he said.

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Karl Ritter in Rome contributed to this report.