Groups of migrants and child with SOS signThe International Organisation of Migration estimates that more than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by land and sea

When is sovereignty not really sovereignty? When a few boatloads of Middle Eastern refugees are abandoned by people smugglers and wash up on the shores of a British military enclave in Cyprus.

The legal maze that is Britain’s colonial legacy on Cyprus has had tragic consequences for the human flotsam unlucky enough to find themselves in UK territorial waters off the Mediterranean island. There were distressing scenes in November of Syrian and Palestinian refugees pleading to be allowed to leave the British base of Dhekelia, when the Guardian obtained videos of one man apparently trying to kill himself, another covered in blood after cutting himself, and a man heard shouting: ‘We are people, not animals.’

For Layali Ibrahim, it has literally been the story of her life—she was born on a boat left to drift helplessly off Akrotiri 17 years ago when the Lebanese crew, paid to smuggle the families to Italy, fled in a dinghy after the engine broke down. She has been living ever since in a corner of a British base with 66 others.

Like all the other children of these ‘boat people’, Layali remains stateless, ‘in limbo’ the Guardian reported, with neither Cyprus nor Britain prepared to give the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds nationality or a permanent home. ‘Our situation is unbearable,’ Layali said. ‘We feel so cut off from the rest of the world.’

Akrotiri and Dhekelia are two British sovereign base areas (SBAs) on either side of the ‘Green Line’ dividing the Cyprus government-ruled area of the island from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The bases became a British Overseas Territory when the island became independent in 1960.

The UK government has been grimly determined not to open a new route into Britain for migrants desperate to enter the European Union, insisting that it is not responsible for the refugees. The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said in October: ‘What I can say with absolute clarity is that there is no route for them into the United Kingdom. Sovereign bases are not a back door to migration.’

In January 2016, the Scottish National Party MP Stuart McDonald asked in the House of Commons for the government to clarify ‘on what legal grounds [the Home Office] has sought to pass responsibility for assessing the claims of refugees arriving at the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus to the government of the Republic of Cyprus’.

James Brokenshire, a minister for immigration in the Home Office, replied: ‘The Refugee Convention places no obligation on the UK to consider asylum claims made outside its immediate territory. Since 2003, under a Memorandum of Understanding agreed with the Republic of Cyprus, anyone seeking asylum will have their claim processed by the Cypriot authorities on behalf of the Sovereign Base Area in Cyprus. The SBA is responsible for payment of any associated costs.’

However, the situation is far less clear-cut according to the United Nations. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees argued that the UK was legally obliged to resettle refugees on its bases. The UN refugee agency said the 2003 UK-Cyprus memorandum made it clear that ‘asylum seekers arriving directly on to the SBA are the responsibility of the UK.’

It claimed that the agreement between Cyprus and Britain states: ‘The United Kingdom, through the SBAA [SBA administration], will endeavour to resettle persons recognised as refugees or granted any other form of international protection in countries willing to accept those persons, and not later than one year after the decision granting the relevant status has been taken.’

The British government, adamant that it would not take in the refugees, eventually persuaded Cyprus to take in most of the 115 people in November, the Guardian reported.

The problem is an enduring one. ‘Britannia waives the rules,’ a Cyprus Mail editorial declared in 1998, as the UK insisted Cyprus had responsibility for refugees in the SBAs. ‘All of a sudden the Brits are full of respect for the Cyprus government and its sovereignty over all of Cyprus, including the bases.’

But it is far from clear what rules govern these pockets of land. The constitutional history of the UK and Cyprus is entangled with that of the Ottoman Empire and is appropriately byzantine, dating beyond the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which dismembered the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, to the secretly negotiated Cyprus Convention of 1878, which established British suzerainty.

As the ‘winds of change’ blew through the remains of the British empire in the 1950s and its military presence shrank east of Suez, Cyprus became the UK’s prime strategic base in the eastern Mediterranean, considered vital as a military staging post and for gathering signals intelligence in the Middle East. Under the 1960 Treaty of Establishment, 3% of the land area of Cyprus, a total of 98 square miles, was retained by Britain—a mixture of privately owned land, crown property, and land owned or leased by the Ministry of Defence. The legal oddity of the SBAs, which were created under a British ‘order in council’—a form of secondary legislation—means that many local functions are carried out by the Cyprus Republic.

Protocol No 3 on the Sovereign Base Areas of the UK in Cyprus, annexed to the Cyprus republic’s 2003 Act of Accession to the EU, seems to be clear that migrants are the responsibility of the British government. It states: ‘An applicant for asylum who first entered the island of Cyprus from outside the European Community by one of the Sovereign Base Areas shall be taken back or readmitted to the Sovereign Base Areas at the request of the Member State of the European Community in whose territory the applicant is present.’

However, to muddy the waters further, Claire Palley, a constitutional expert who had advised the Cyprus government, gave evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2005 and claimed the SBAs’ status as UK territory was ‘uncertain in international law’.

‘The Republic of Cyprus has a right to claim self-determination in relation to the residual Crown Colony territory still in Cyprus. The Treaty of Establishment 1960 is not determinative of this issue,’ she said. Nevertheless, as Palley makes clear, Cyprus has largely complied with agreements on the handling of refugees and asylum seekers between the UK and Cyprus.

‘The achievement is a joint one of the UK and Cyprus governments, the latter having afforded full co-operation to the SBA administration in spheres ranging from day-to-day administration to security issues, policing issues, harmonisation of laws, and handling of illegal migrants—particularly those intending to use Cyprus as a transit point to the UK.’

It is impossible to know how exactly many illegal migrants have passed through the island, from either side of the Green Line—in 2015 alone, more than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by land and sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Although UN peacekeepers were first mandated to prevent fighting between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in 1964, their role expanded hugely in 1974, when the Turkish army invaded after a Greek coup on the island deposed the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, in an apparent attempt at Enosis—‘union’ with Greece. Since the island was partitioned, Ankara remains the only country to recognise the TRNC. The United Nations has maintained the buffer zone ever since.

However, due to the financial constraints facing the UN peacekeeping operations, only 860 troops, plus some police officers, now maintain the 180km-long Green Line. As the UNFICYP tried to reconcile its mandate with its constrained budget, a restructuring in 2004 ‘sought to place emphasis on liaison and mediation rather than interposition of forces’. This was in keeping with efforts to defuse tensions between the two sides amid UN attempts to create a federation—the Annan plan.

The Green Line has become more porous over the years. Illegal human trafficking was a problem on the island in 2003, as the Cyprus Mail reported. The island had become a key transit point in international prostitution rings, according to Emmanuel Herman, a senior Belgian police officer. He told a Unesco conference in Brussels on the sex trade that young Asian girls recruited as prostitutes were often taken first to Cyprus, where they were trained and then provided to clients from the Middle East, according to the New York Times.

In 2003 the TRNC unexpectedly opened the Green Line but without either side imposing any effective border controls. After Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, the Green Line became a de facto frontier of the EU. ‘As a result,’ a Turkish police academy study in 2014 declared, ‘it became an attractive route for human traffickers to maintain illegal migration across the Green Line.’

Last October the Daily Mirror reported that Isis recruits were travelling to the self-declared caliphate in Syria through northern Cyprus. In 2007, it was claimed, refugees were being smuggled in the opposite direction through northern Cyprus: ‘Once the immigrant reaches the Green Line (having paid the gangs thousands) the UN cannot interfere as the boundary is not a recognised international boundary. Once in Cyprus they cannot be returned to a region which has a government which is not recognised by anyone.’

In 2011, after the SBA terminated welfare payments in an effort to force refugees to leave Dhekelia, where they had been housed, and claim asylum in Cyprus, several refugees appealed against an SBA court’s refusal to consider a judicial review. The appeal court ruling was that ‘the evidence in the case does not begin to support the proposition of any legitimate expectation of resettlement to the UK’ and noted that Cyprus had agreed in 2005 to apply retrospectively a Memorandum of Understanding so as to extend its terms to the appellants. ‘Most of the appellants have so far refused to move to the RoC [Republic of Cyprus], preferring instead to continue their attempts to seek entry to the UK.’

A further memorandum of understanding in 2008 seems to reiterate previous agreements and a 2010 report by the European Commission to the European Parliament and Council on Protocol No 3 said: ‘With regard to asylum … the responsibility of examining the applications of asylum seekers who first entered the island of Cyprus through the SBAs is delegated to the Republic of Cyprus.’

While the issue of legal responsibility for refugees seems far from being resolved, prospects for reunification of the island have never looked better, the Cypriot President, Nicos Anastasiades, told Reuters ahead of an unprecedented joint appearance by him and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akıncı, at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

As reported last June in Commonwealth Update, peace talks resumed last year after a 12-year hiatus. In December, in a first for the divided island, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders stood side by side to deliver Christmas greetings to islanders.

The optimism was shared by the United Nations, AFP reported. Espen Barth Eide, the UN mediator, said: ‘We’ve made significant progress on some of the most difficult issues.’ But he warned: ‘There are still significant outstanding issues that have to be tackled … what will be done in the future, how Cypriots can live in security.’

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, is just as upbeat, according to the Cyprus Mail. In his latest report on UNFICYP to the UN Security Council, Ban said he was ‘heartened by the steady determination shown by the leaders’ and encouraged them to maintain the momentum’.

Turkey’s Minister for EU affairs, Volkan Bozkır, also voiced confidence in the reunification talks. ‘The Cyprus issue has reached a point to be solved,’ he said, adding that a referendum on uniting the island would probably be held in the first half of 2016, the Daily Sabah reported in December.

Greek Cypriots appear less hopeful: a survey by Cyprus’s Simerini newspaper found that 35% believed there would be reunification but nearly twice as many Greek Cypriots did not expect a deal this year.

Ban also welcomed the confirmation by Akıncı that the excavation teams of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus would have access to 30 suspected burial sites in military areas in Turkish-occupied Cyprus.

The little-known issue of missing persons is one of the many painful legacies of the 1974 invasion—and the often-forgotten original outbreak of inter-communal violence in December 1963, known in Turkish as  ‘Kanli Noel’ (Bloody Christmas). There are 1,508 Greek Cypriots missing and 493 Turkish Cypriots. Roughly 100 bodies a year have been exhumed over the last decade by the team of nearly 60 Cypriot archaeologists, with about half of the remains successfully identified through DNA samples. When there is a 99.95% genetic match of bone and blood samples, the remains are returned to the family, who are also offered psychological counselling and a contribution towards funeral costs. So far, 476 Greek Cypriots’ remains have been returned to their families, and those of 149 Turkish Cypriots.