NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus said Wednesday it dismantled a criminal human smuggling ring responsible for bringing boatloads of Syrian migrants from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The eastern Mediterranean island nation has seen almost daily migrant boat arrivals in recent days.
Cypriot police said three months of investigative work resulted in the arrest of five suspects following a raid by a combined force of 40 officers on several homes in the island’s southeast.
A Cyprus court ordered the detention of the suspects, all Syrian nationals, for eight days until police wrap up their investigation. The suspects face charges of belonging to a criminal migrant smuggling organization.
Police spokesman Christos Andreou told The Associated Press that seven more Syrians were being sought in connection with the ring, including the ringleader who is believed to have fled abroad along with another ring member.
Andreou said the police raid also found 44 Syrian migrants living in those homes, all of whom are asylum seekers or have been accorded international protection status. The migrants will be questioned and released, if they’re not found to belong to the same ring, according to Andreou.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the detained suspects had legal representation. Andreou said they could apply for legal aid and have a public defender appointed at any time, but he was unaware if that had happened Wednesday.
The arrests come as Cypriot authorities rescued 142 Syrian migrants aboard four separate boats over four consecutive days this week.
Cyprus’ Interior Ministry had noted an increase in seaborne arrivals of Syrian migrants in recent months, although asylum applications have dropped significantly as a result of government actions to deter such arrivals, especially from sub-Saharan Africa.
According to official figures, asylum applications in June and July reached a combined 1,285 this year – less than a third than the same period last year.
A newly formed group composed of members from the Asylum Service, Migration Department and Labor Ministry has been tasked with revising policy regarding Syrian nationals living in Cyprus who are found to be implicated in migrant smuggling rings “in order to deter further inflows,” a government statement said.
To discourage more migrant arrivals, the Cypriot government decided to exclude migrants who arrived after Jan. 1 from eligibility for relocation to another EU country.
“The Cyprus Republic, within its international obligations, will continue to undertake and strengthen measures aimed at managing as well as deterring migration inflows,” the government statement added.