European Union member Cyprus said Friday it has asked the bloc to review whether Syria remains an unsafe country to which member states should be barred from repatriating asylum-seekers.
The move follows a flurry of racially-motivated attacks on foreigners in recent weeks amid growing anti-migrant sentiment on the Mediterranean island.
Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou said he would try to persuade the EU and the United Nations to end Syria’s status as an unsafe country for refugees to be returned to.
"We, as Cyprus, consider and find it conducive, along with other member states, that the status of Syria should be re-evaluated," he told reporters, AFP reported.
Ioannou said the bloc had left Syria's status unchanged for 11 years, and a review was needed as some areas were considered safe.
"There are already two areas recognized by the EU Asylum Agency (EUAA) as safe areas," he said.
“So, it must now also be recognized at the level of the European Union, allowing us to deport or return people to Syria. At the moment, no country can do so.”
In a letter to European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, Ioannou said he had also raised the urgent need for aid to Lebanon, where it is estimated that 2.5 million Syrians have taken refuge.
“The information we have from the authorities in Lebanon is that there is an increase in Syrians moving to Lebanon.
"Lebanon is a barrier. If Lebanon collapses, then all of Europe will have a problem," he said.
In recent months, Cyprus has seen a surge of asylum seekers, most of them Syrian, arriving by sea from Syria and Lebanon.
The minister said the government has reduced arrivals of irregular migrants by 50 percent, thanks to external factors and specific measures taken.
"We have managed to increase returns by 50 percent from 3,200 to 4,700, whether they are voluntary, which we have invested a lot in, or deportations."
Ioannou said the processing of asylum applications had been speeded up and now took three months instead of nine.
He said the government aims "to reduce the financial benefits for asylum seekers to make Cyprus an unattractive destination".
Asylum applications fell to 5,866 for the period from March to August, down from 11,961 for the same period of last year, according to interior ministry figures.
The government argues that Cyprus is a "frontline" country on the Mediterranean migration route, with asylum-seekers making up six percent of the 915,000 population in government-controlled areas –- the highest proportion in the bloc.
Although asylum applications are down, there has been a rise in migrants arriving by boat, with a 60 percent increase recorded in the first seven months of the year.