Syrian refugees rescued from sunken trawler live in limbo in Cyprus

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By Patrick Galey, AFP

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Amr spent three days and nights adrift in the Mediterranean, battered by a storm in a fishing boat crammed with hundreds more Syrian refugees who thought they were going to die. ��We spent days at sea with no food and no water. There were so many people on the boat. We called it the journey of death,�� said the 18-year-old.

��But we were also escaping from death. From Syria, from the war.�� Amr, who hails from Homs and gave only his first name, is one of more than 300 Syrians and Palestinians who survived more than three and a half years of civil war before finally deciding in September to flee.

Some paid as much as US$8,000 each to hitch a ride on an unseaworthy trawler local smugglers claimed would make the treacherous voyage to Italy, and asylum in Europe.

But when the storm hit the smugglers abandoned ship, leaving the refugees to their fate. They were picked up days later by a Cypriot cruise liner and brought to shore.

Of the more than 123,000 people from Syria to have sought asylum in Europe since the war’s outbreak, thousands have done so by attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, many with disastrous consequences.

The United Nations estimates more than 3,000 people have perished on the voyage in 2014 alone.

The 345 men, women and children aboard Amr’s boat know they are lucky to be alive. Most of them now live in a temporary camp in Kokkinotrimithia, just west of Nicosia, sleeping in plastic tents on a site that once served as a British jail. Asylum Backlog

Although safe for now, the refugees, who set out for western Europe, face a stark choice: apply for asylum in Cyprus or await a transfer elsewhere that might never come.

Many are reluctant to register, as receiving official status in Cyprus could prevent them from joining up with family in other European countries. ��We left with the aim of securing our future,�� said Basel Meshal, 17, a Palestinian from Damascus who had been aiming for Germany. ��But getting legal papers (in Cyprus) as a refugee is very difficult.�� The island lies just 100 kilometers (60 miles) off the Syrian coast but has not seen a major influx of refugees from the conflict.