Over 100 migrants land on British base in Cyprus

AFP , Wednesday 21 Oct 2015

A Syrian father hugs his children as he is reunited with his family after their arrival from the northeastern Greek island of Chios at the Athens' port of Piraeus, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015 (Photo: AP)

Some 120 migrants crowded in two boats landed at a British airbase on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus Wednesday, their legal fates unclear as the base is British sovereign soil.

Personnel at the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri, near the island's second city Limassol, said those who came ashore included women and children and all were in good health.

British authorities could not say whether they were refugees fleeing Syria or whether Cyprus was their intended destination.

"There were two boats carrying around 120 people, there are no reports of anyone being unhealthy and we are trying to establish where they came from," a British bases spokesperson told AFP.

Akrotiri -- from which British planes are carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq -- lies in one of two base areas over which Britain retained sovereignty when Cyprus won independence from colonial rule in 1960.

As the migrants landed on British territory, their status on the island is unclear.

In 1998, a ramshackle fishing boat crammed with 75 migrants landed at Akrotiri. Seventeen years on, some of them are still living in limbo on another British base on the island.

European Union member Cyprus lies just 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the coast of Syria but has so far avoided a mass influx of refugees from the country's conflict, with most preferring to bypass the island.

Britain too has been spared the huge wave of refugees that has swept through Greece and the Balkans headed for Austria and Germany.

The migrants who landed in Akrotiri in 1998 were mostly Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, who had given their life savings to people smugglers to ferry them from Lebanon to Italy. But the boat's engine sputtered out and the Lebanese crew fled in an inflatable dinghy.

The migrants were moved from Akrotiri to Dhekelia, Britain's largest base on the island, where they were housed in rudimentary, former quarters for British service families that were due to be demolished.

In what was meant to be a temporary measure, they were provided with weekly welfare allowances but 17 years on, 21 of them remain on the base.

With children born there and family members who later joined them, they make up a group of 67.

Although Cyprus has not been a favoured destination for migrants risking the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean, several rescue operations have been undertaken for boats that got into trouble off its coast.

In September, 115 refugees, including 54 women and children, were rescued from a small fishing boat that ran into trouble about 40 nautical miles off the southern port of Larnaca.

Last year, 345 Syrian and Palestinian refugees were rescued by a cruise liner in stormy waters off the island's coast.

Two months later, about 220 Syrian refugees crammed onto a fishing boat were rescued off the coast of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus after hitting rough seas.

Under an EU deal reached last month to relocate 66,000 refugees in Italy and Greece, Cyprus has agreed to accept 147, while Britain opted out.

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