Cyprus, a bridge to safety from the war zone

The crisis in the Middle East has once again underscored the European Union’s inability to speak with a single voice and act effectively at the political level to deal with the consequences of a crisis. At the same time, it has highlighted the strategic advantage of the Republic of Cyprus in relation to the Middle East, a geographical advantage which the EU may not have appreciated until now. The role that Cyprus has played at its own initiative in dealing with the humanitarian crisis was a revelation for European and other countries, including the US, which hastened to make use of the infrastructure of the island and evacuate its citizens from dangerous areas. There is a desire to make greater use of Cyprus’s potential, especially now that it appears that the humanitarian crisis generated by the war will not be easily overcome. With attention now focused on sending aid to Lebanon – medicine, foodstuffs and temporary shelters for refugees – the role of Cyprus is becoming even more important. But Cyprus’s assumption of the role of a bridge to safety has also shown up the limitations of its infrastructure when it comes to dealing with a problem of such dimensions. The port of Larnaca cannot cater to more than a limited number of ships at the same time, so vessels lie at anchor offshore awaiting their turn for mooring slots. Congestion in port In the port itself, limitations of space made it hard to serve the foreign arrivals quickly. And it took even longer because Cyprus wanted to implement all EU regulations. In the case of EU member state citizens, matters were relatively simple. Problems arose with nationals of third countries. The procedure is time-consuming, which causes congestion. The same problem applies at the airport, where foreign nationals are being sent so they can return to their homelands. This is the middle of the high season for tourism in Cyprus and, in addition to the usual traffic, as many as an extra 40 flights a day have been scheduled. The airport buildings were designed to cater to around 2.5 million passengers a year and they now cater to 6.5 million, not counting the additional flights. There is no space to park extra planes, so Cyprus has asked the EU to send aircraft that foreign citizens arriving from Lebanon can board with simplified procedures. This matters, as the crisis in Lebanon shows no sign of ending soon. Those who have to stay in Cyprus for a few days before their trip home can be arranged face difficulties. The US has estimated that some 6,000 Americans will arrive in Cyprus. Accommodation has already been arranged at the Cyprus State Exhibition halls, where basic services can be provided. But this is not enough. Hotels and rented rooms are full at this time of year, and schools are suitable only for very brief stays. What will happen when the foreign nationals have gone home and Lebanese refugees start arriving? They will presumably want to stay on the island until they can secure visas and travel on to other countries. Cyprus does not possess the infrastructure to cope with thousands of refugees. It will need help from the EU, especially now that Israel has allowed the creation of a «humanitarian corridor.» Having had the experience of war and of being refugees, the Cypriots identify with the fate of the Lebanese and want to help them. They would like to extend further solidarity, but their ability is limited. Finally, what will happen to the thousands of Asian citizens who work in Lebanon and who are now leaving? Cyprus is trying to deal with the problem by means of bilateral agreements. For instance, there is an agreement that the Indian government will send two jumbo jets to take around 1,000 Indian citizens who are expected to arrive in Cyprus shortly. And Cyprus Foreign Minister George Lillikas has asked for planes from the EU to transport the citizens of other countries that cannot send planes.