NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — More than two dozen migrants were injured during a large brawl between nationals from Syria and several African countries at an overcrowded migrant reception camp outside of Cyprus’ capital, a government official said Tuesday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Loizos Michael told The Associated Press that all 25 sustained minor injuries and have since returned to the camp after receiving first aid at Nicosia General Hospital.
He said windowpanes were shattered, beds and other equipment smashed and a section of the camp’s fencing sustained extensive damage as a result of the seven-hour melee that was quelled after riot police intervened. Police investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the brawl, but it's believed that it started with a small number of individuals and quickly grew.
Michael said around 1,500 migrants are housed at the 1,000-capacity camp, with 600 of those under quarantine in line with coronavirus-prevention protocols.
One camp resident told Cyprus' Sigma TV network from behind the facility's fence that tensions have risen among migrants from Syria, Nigeria and Sierra Leone because they have not been allowed to leave during a month-long, nationwide lockdown that the government imposed to curtail COVID-19 infections.
Police spokesman Christos Andreou told Sigma TV that unrest at the camp had never occurred on such a scale.
Ethnically divided Cyprus continues to get small groups of migrants arriving daily, mainly from Turkey, which is 50 miles (80 kilometers) away at the closest point. Most enter the island through the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, cross a porous U.N.-controlled buffer zone and enter the internationally recognized south to seek asylum.
Cyprus is a European Union member, but only the southern, Greek Cypriot part enjoys full membership benefits.
Many of those arriving migrants are Syrians. Michael said that a quarter of the 7,000 migrants who applied for asylum last year hailed from Syria.
The Interior Ministry official said Cyprus, with a population of approximately 900,000, can't cope with the steady stream of migrant arrivals. He said that Turkey was behind an orchestrated campaign “to alter Cyprus' demographic character” by sending migrants to Cyprus.
Michael claimed that interviews with a number of migrants have indicated that many where “forced” by Turkish authorities to come to Cyprus.
Most arriving migrants are single males who are vetted with international law enforcement agencies to discern if they have any links with extremist groups. Michael said at the most recent count, seven individuals suspected of such links were being detained at a different, more secure camp.
Cyprus wants the EU to enact a “fairer" redistribution of migrants arriving to front-line states, enforce a deal with Turkey to keep migrants within its borders and for the bloc to conclude repatriation agreements with third countries.