NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cyprus has been stretched beyond its limits in accommodating asylum seekers and migrants and needs support from its European Union partners, a government official said on Friday.
Previously overlooked as a migratory route, the eastern Mediterranean island has seen an increase in irregular arrivals over the past four years. On Thursday, a European human rights watchdog asked Cyprus to investigate reports of sometimes violent attempts to drive away migrants at sea, a practice that is internationally banned. Nicosia has denied the accusations.
"Cyprus is a country which is at the receiving end of the biggest inflows as a percentage of its population, with the risk of demographic changes," deputy government spokesman Viktor Papadopoulos told a news briefing.
"The capability of the Republic of Cyprus in accommodating these people has been exhausted."
Authorities frequently maintain that asylum seekers have reached 4 percent of Cyprus's overall population of around 850,000 in areas controlled by the internationally recognised government, a figure rights groups say is grossly exaggerated.
They say Cyprus might be quoting accumulated figures of two decades, since it opened up asylum processes in 2002. It also distorts a situation where persons may have integrated into society, left the island, or died, they say.
"It is not correct," said Corina Demetriou, an expert in human rights. "This (4 percent) is a very gross inflation of the number."
Based on data of the island's asylum service, Cyprus - a country half the size of Wales - received 7,094 asylum applications in 2020, falling almost by half compared to 2019.
Many arrive through a porous "green line" - the legacy of a 1974 ceasefire after a Turkish invasion following a brief Greek-backed coup - which bisects the island into a Turkish Cypriot north and internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south.
The Cypriot government has taken an increasingly hard line on asylum seekers. When razor wire went up at one blind spot along the green line earlier this month, one official said Cyprus had a culture and security that needed to be safeguarded.
The same administration was until last November offering rich foreigners citizenship in return for a 2-million-euro investment. It was forced to pull the programme following disclosures that it was open to abuse.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Mark Heinrich)