By Philip Pullella and Michele Kambas
NICOSIA – Cyprus said on Friday that 50 migrants in the country would be re-located as part of an initiative by Pope Francis coinciding with his visit to the east Mediterranean island.
The interior ministry, in an announcement that confirmed an earlier Reuters report, said the 50 included two people who had been stranded in the no-man’s-land dividing the two sides of the divided island for the past five months.
“This symbolic act is an acknowledgement of the difficulties Cyprus faces from an increasing migratory influx through the ‘green line’,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to the dividing line between the two sides.
“It’s this proportional, substantive solidarity we expect from our European partners,” it said.
Cypriot prison officials said 10 of the 50 chosen migrants were inmates jailed for illegal entry.
Reuters, citing a Vatican source, reported on Nov. 26 that the 50 would be re-located to Italy after the pope leaves but most likely not before Christmas due to logistical reasons.
Cyprus, which is geographically the closest European Union member state to the volatile Middle East, says it has been inundated with arrivals in recent years.
Migrant arrivals so far this year are up 38% compared with the whole of 2020, it says.
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.
Of 10,868 arrivals in the first 10 months of 2021, more than 9,000 arrived via that route. Many asylum seekers are from war-torn Syria, but arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa have also increased in recent years.
The pope leaves Cyprus on Saturday for Greece, where he will also visit the island of Lesbos that hosts many migrants.
Francis, who has made defence of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy, visited Lesbos in 2016 and returned with a dozen Syrian refugees.