As the humanitarian situation in Syria becomes increasingly dire, Cyprus is preparing for an influx of asylum seekers. DW looks at how the tiny Mediterranean island is looking to cope.
Despite the island being in the grip of economic upheaval, where unpopular austerity measures have been in force since earlier this year, all government departments have fully mobilized their manpower and resources to deal with the looming crisis.
Even though such an operation could pose staggering logistical problems for the tiny Mediterranean island, authorities in Nicosia are confident they can handle an influx of 10,000 foreign nationals a day so long as an equal number leave the island for another destination within two days.
"According to the plan that has already been put into motion regarding the evacuation of nationals from friendly countries, Cyprus was chosen because Cyprus is a stable, peaceful and secure place and therefore there should be no contradiction to this," said Foreign Minister Yannis Kasoulides.
The greatest fear is that the sheer numbers of evacuees could overwhelm facilities, but Nicosia is keen to emphasise that it will be working only as a 'transit country' and the governments of any foreign nationals that land in Cyprus will be responsible for ensuring their prompt departure from the island.
It is expected that those channelled through Cyprus will be temporarily housed at schools or other public facilities. The Cypriot Communications Minister Tasos Mitsopoulos announced that Greece has also expressed readiness to help Cyprus provide temporary shelter to foreign nationals.
"We are fully prepared to deal with every incident," Mitsopoulos said, adding that Greece has also expressed readiness to aid Cyprus in evacuating foreign nationals en masse.
Nasr Ishak, who represents the UNHCR in Nicosia, said that Cyprus had ensured a safe exodus of civilians during large-scale operations in the past, pointing to the role the island played in evacuating 65,000 foreigners from Beirut in 2006 during the Lebanon-Israel summer war.
"It is something that happened before in the region, and Cyprus has played a very important role in evacuating third country nationals from Lebanon, for example. This time from Syria - and it could be from Jordan or other neighbouring countries - these people might be evacuated by sea initially on their way home," Ishak told DW.
Ishak says the 2006 war highlighted Cyprus' strategic role in a turbulent region and also that the UNHCR trusts the capacity of the government of Cyprus to deal with large numbers of arrivals.
"We have seen them doing this not only in the Lebanon crisis of 2006, but more recently for the evacuation of UN staff from Egypt," he added.
No permanent shelter
One of the major fears expressed by the Cypriot Foreign Ministry is that these refugees will attempt to stay permanently in Cyprus. Recent figures, however, show that Syrian and Lebanese refugees have thus far opted to flee to countries on their borders such as Turkey and Jordan.
"As far as Cyprus is concerned, the country is ready," says Constandinos Tsindas, foreign affairs correspondent for Cyprus state television. He says while it is conceivable that Syrian refugee boats could head for Cyprus if the number of people forced to flee Syria continues to rise, most have so far opted to flee elsewhere.
"The country does not expect a massive influx of refugees. The UNHCR has obviously expressed concerns about the masses of people leaving Syria, but those are concerns which mainly deal with the surrounding border countries - Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and not Cyprus."
Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says that it is now estimated that more than 2 million Syrians are refugees, with the total going up by a million in six months. At least 700,000 have fled to Lebanon, and more Syrians are now displaced than any other nationality,
"The war is already spilling over into Lebanon and into Iraq and the risks of an explosion in the Middle East are growing by the day. We have a planning figure of 3.5 million refugees to the end of the year, which means we are prepared for different forms of escalation. We have had several. We are prepared for things to get worse before they get better," Guterres told reporters Tuesday.
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