The transaction was sealed in anonymity. "You don't know me, I don't know you," the 32-year-old Saleh said he was told by the trafficker before he climbed into a van on the Turkish Cypriot side. The crossing was easy, Saleh said. Two soldiers manning a guard post on the Turkish Cypriot side checked the driver's ID, then waved the van through to the buffer zone that divides the breakaway northern part of the Mediterranean island from the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member.
Saleh, who said he fled religious fundamentalism in Iraq, is one of the thousands of migrants who have slipped into Cyprus this year across its porous 180-kilometer-long (120-mile-long) buffer zone. Migrant arrivals by sea have also increased, turning tiny Cyprus into the EU's top recipient of asylum-seekers relative to its population size, as other EU countries have tightened their borders.
Government statistics show that about 5,000 people — mostly from Syria but also Somalia, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cameroon — had claimed asylum in Cyprus by the end of August. That's expected to reach 8,000 by year's end, up from 3,000 in 2016. While that's a fraction of the hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in the EU, it's putting pressure on a country with just over 1 million people.
"We're trying to cope, but for a long time, now, we have exceeded our fair share," Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides told The Associated Press. Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Authorities in the north aren't recognized by the international community except for Turkey, which itself doesn't recognize the Cypriot government in the Greek-speaking south.
Despite its proximity to the conflict zones of the Middle East, Cyprus received relatively few asylum-seekers during the peak of Europe's migrant crisis three years ago, when most migrants arrived in Greece and made their way through the Balkans toward countries in northern Europe. An island nation just emerging from a severe economic crisis, Cyprus wasn't seen as an attractive destination for migrants and refugees seeking shelter and a new life in Europe.
But that changed as nations in Europe shut their borders and the economic situation improved. Petrides said Cypriot authorities know about at least one trafficking ring using the breakaway north as a conduit for migrants from Syria via Turkey, from where they either catch commercial flights or boats to the island. Government officials say nearly half of the recent migrant arrivals have entered Cyprus that way.
Others arrive directly in southern Cyprus on rickety smuggling vessels from Turkey or Lebanon, which has taken in about 1 million Syrian refugees. Saleh flew from Irbil in northern Iraq to Turkey's capital, Ankara, where he caught a connecting flight to Ercan airport in Cyprus' breakaway north. In most cases, Turkish Cypriot authorities don't require advance visas for passengers arriving from Turkey.
Saleh is now staying at a center in a village south of Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, where he awaits a decision on his asylum claim. Corina Drousiotou, who heads the Cyprus Refugee Council, a nonprofit group, said there's now a backlog of 8,000 asylum applications and it takes three to five years to process a claim, including appeals.
The EU head office in Brussels told the AP its European Asylum Support office is deploying 29 case workers plus interpreters to help Cyprus clear the backlog, and has given Cyprus almost 40 million euros for migration management in the 2014-2020 period.
Drousiotou said the situation is "manageable" as long as Cyprus taps into support from fellow EU members and other international agencies. She said there's plenty of demand for workers by employers on the island's booming tourism sector. But authorities need to urgently find more housing for migrants as cases of homelessness — previously rare in Cyprus — have now cropped up. She said monthly allowances to asylum-seekers of around $400 (350 euros) also need to be raised.
Petrides, the interior minister, said Cyprus has sought additional funding from the EU to upgrade migrant centers, process asylum applications and monitor the border better. He said Cyprus is also trying to establish a fast-track asylum procedure and set up dedicated courts to hear the appeals of unsuccessful asylum applicants.
Saleh said he's hoping to find a job as soon as he finds out whether he can stay in Cyprus. He has no "Plan B." "I can't go back to my country," he said.
Karl Ritter in Rome contributed to this report.