The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a statement issued on Wednesday that Britain must resettle more than a hundred Syrian asylum seekers who arrived at a British military base in Cyprus on boats after being abandoned by people smugglers.
The 114 Syrian refugees, including 28 children, arrived on two boats at the British base of Akrotiri on the southern Cypriot coast on Wednesday, after people smugglers left them at sea. They were permitted a temporary stay at the base despite arriving there illegally, as they had no legal permission to be present at the base. However, UNHCR says that Britain now has a legal responsibility to settle them.
“Asylum seekers arriving directly onto the SBA [Sovereign Base Area] are the responsibility of the U.K. but they would be granted access to services in the republic at the cost of the SBA,” the agency said in a statement released to British newspaper The Guardian, referring to the 2003 U.K.-Cyprus memorandum.
However, the U.N. agency did not specify that Britain should resettle the refugees in Britain. The 2003 agreement between Britain and Cyprus says that the U.K. will “endeavour to resettle persons recognized as refugees…in countries willing to accept those persons.”
The British Ministry of Defence, the department that oversees the base, said that the responsibility for the refugees lies solely with the Cypriot government.
“At the moment our key priority is ensuring everybody on board is safe and well,” a Ministry of Defence official told The Guardian. “We have had an agreement in place with the Republic of Cyprus since 2003 to ensure that the Cypriot authorities take responsibility in circumstances like this.”
“That’s not our understanding,” a spokeswoman for Britain’s Home Office said when asked by The Guardian if the refugees would be able to seek asylum in Britain. “The resettlement of refugees landing on the southern bases in Cyprus is not the responsibility of the United Kingdom.”
The influx of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and other conflict-affected areas such as Afghanistan in 2015 has been the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees, from camps in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, over a five-year period.
Cyprus was a British colony until 1960 and the base was kept by the British government after the island’s independence. The military now uses the Akrotiri base as a launching pad for airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group in Syria.