“I can only cry. I’m devastated — my family too,” said 25-year-old Syrian Kawthar Raslan, cradling her newborn child in a migrant camp on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
She was dumped at the camp by authorities after being separated at sea from her husband and other children, aged just one and three.
The family left Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 22 on board a boat carrying dozens of other Syrian migrants, destined for Cyprus, a European Union member state 160 kilometres (100 miles) away.
Around 10 kilometres from the Cypriot coast, the boat was intercepted by coastguards seeking to send the vessel back to Lebanon.
A video filmed on board, seen by AFP, shows migrants crying out “Help us!” to the coastguards.
Seeing the pregnant Kawthar was close to giving birth, the coastguards took her to Cyprus.
But they left most of the other passengers — including the rest of her family — in the boat, which returned to Lebanon.
Lebanon is home to more than a million Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s decade-old civil war.
And Lebanon has been beset by a devastating economic crisis, which has propelled hundreds of Syrians towards Cyprus.
But Cyprus, with the EU’s highest proportion of asylum seekers per capita, last year signed an agreement with Lebanon to send back all illegal migrants who attempt to reach the island by boat.
“I almost died when I heard about my family being sent back to Lebanon,” Kawthar told AFP, sitting on a mattress on the floor of a prefabricated cabin in Kofinou camp in the south of the island.
“They knew that my husband and my children were with me and they prevented them from following me,” she said of the Cypriot coastguards.
“I will never forget that moment.”
Kawthar gave birth to a son, Yazan, on August 23, a day after being picked up by the coastguard.
Originally from Idlib in northwestern Syria, she urged Cypriot authorities to “show compassion” and allow her to be reunited with her family.
Kawthar wants to be reunited with her husband Hassan al-Ali and their two other children who were sent back to Lebanon Joseph EID AFP
“I can live neither in Lebanon nor in Syria,” she said.
Cypriot authorities say only migrants with refugee status have the right to be reunited with their families.
But among the 7,700 Syrian asylum seekers who have arrived here since 2018, less than two percent have achieved this status, the UN refugee agency UNHCR says.
Back in Lebanon, Kawthar’s husband is struggling to care for the family.
“The children are traumatised, only one word comes out of their mouths — ‘Mummy’”, Hassan al-Ali told AFP in the village of Ain El-Tefaha, where he rents a room, around 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Beirut.
“We were on board the boat under a scorching sun and the children were very thirsty,” he remembered.
“My daughter wasn’t moving — I thought that she was going to die,” he added, his voice breaking with emotion.
Like Kawthar, Issa Chamma, another Syrian on board that day, found himself in Kofinou camp.
Originally from Aleppo, the 37-year-old migrant suffers from lung problems, and he was also separated from his family after losing consciousness onboard.
His wife and three children, aged from two to 11, even “spent two days in prison on their return to Beirut,” Issa said.
– ‘Lives in danger’ –
According to the UNHCR, returning asylum seekers to places where they risk persecution and torture contravenes international and European law.
Cyprus last year signed an agreement with Lebanon to send back all illegal migrants attempting to reach the island by boat Christina ASSI AFP
“This practice must end because it puts lives in danger,” said UNHCR Cyprus spokesperson Emilia Strovolidou, calling on the island’s authorities to reunite both Kawthar’s and Issa’s families.
EuroMed Rights, a network of 65 organisations that defend human rights across the Mediterranean, will launch an awareness raising campaign on Monday, urging the EU to “investigate violations” committed by the Cypriot border forces.
On September 21, several lawmakers criticised the government’s migration policy during a parliamentary hearing.
“We are asking the government to implement international and European laws,” Alexandra Attalides, a lawmaker for Cyprus’s Green Party, told AFP.
“In the case of this lady from Syria, I am asking that all humanitarian measures are taken to reunite her with her family,” she added.
Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
But he recently argued Cyprus had “the right to refuse the illegal arrival of migrants”, contending asylum seekers are not entitled to family reunification.
On an August visit to Nicosia, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said there were questions about the operation that separated the two families.
Kawthar says she has been “well treated” in the camp, but she “thinks constantly” of her two other children.
“Nothing can compensate for their absence,” she said.