NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus on Monday sent 88 Syrian migrants back to Lebanon after they tried to reach the eastern Mediterranean island nation on two boats.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told The Associated Press that rescue crews continue to search for one of five men who jumped overboard after police vessels intercepted their boat off Cyprus’ eastern coast. Nouris said police picked up four men, but the fifth, who was wearing a mask, flippers and a life preserver, managed to swim away.
One pregnant woman and another man who was ill were airlifted to hospital.
Coastal radar had picked up two vessels approaching the Cypriot coastline Sunday evening. Marine police vessels intercepted the boats — which carried a combined 48 men, 15 women and 25 minors —15 kilometers (9 miles) from coast.
They were transferred to a chartered boat on Monday for the trip back to Lebanon under police escort.
Cyprus signed an agreement with Lebanon last year to take back anyone trying to reach the island by boat.
Nouris said Cyprus has a right to protect its borders from such irregular migration despite criticism by human rights groups that the deal violates international law because migrants aren’t given the chance to apply for asylum.
More than 1,337 Syrians have reached Cyprus by sea since 2019. Many more migrants come from Turkey through the ethnically divided island’s unrecognized, breakaway north. Authorities say the number of migrants who have either received or have applied for protection in Cyprus now accounts for 4% of the population.
Cyprus has asked the European Union’s border agency Frontex to stem the flow of migrant arrivals from countries including Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
Cyprus lies 170 kilometers (100 miles) west of Syria and 230 kilometers (140 miles) west of Lebanon.
Follow all AP stories on global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.