Explainer: The Refugees on British Soil in Cyprus Who Are Facing Deportation

Refugees Dhekelia
Refugees and migrants are seen at a temporary transit facility at the British sovereign base of Dhekelia in Cyprus, October 28. The migrants are among 115 mainly Syrians and Palestinians who came ashore at RAF Akrotiri, a British army base, on the south of Cyprus last week. Britain has said Cyprus is responsible for processing the migrants and dealing with any potential asylum applications. Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters

More than a hundred refugees marooned on a British military base in Cyprus have been given a one-week ultimatum to apply for asylum in Cyprus or face deportation, ITV reported on Monday.

Since they landed at the Akrotiri Royal Air Force (RAF) Base in October, the fate of 115 refugees has been a matter of dispute between British authorities and the refugees themselves. Newsweek considers what the problem is and how it is likely to be resolved.

What's the problem?

At around 7 a.m. on October 21, two small fishing boats packed with refugees washed ashore on the southern coast of Cyprus, sending the RAF Akrotiri base into lockdown for two hours, ITV reported. Some of the refugees told ITV that they had originally set out for Germany and were hoping to arrive in Greece before they ended up in Cyprus. The refugees—29 children, 19 women and 67 men who mostly come from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, according to AFP—have since been transferred to a larger British base at Dhekelia from Akrotiri, which is the docking site for British planes involved in the U.K.'s bombing mission against the Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group in Iraq.

The U.K. government's position is that the refugees must either claim asylum in Cyprus or face deportation to their home countries. A U.K. government spokesman told ITV that the refugee had been given letters informing them that they face "removal to their place of origin" should they not claim asylum in Cyprus and that they have been given one week to set out why they should not be sent back. Thirty-eight of the refugees have handed in asylum applications for Cyprus, the spokesman said.

Why can't the refugees claim asylum in the U.K.?

Since 2003, the U.K. has had an agreement with Cyprus concerning the resettlement of refugees who arrive at the two military basesknown collectively as the Sovereign Base Area (SBA)that are technically classified as British soil. The British Ministry of Defence said that the agreement ensured that "the Cypriot authorities take responsibility in circumstances like this," the Guardian reported.

The U.K. is keen to protect the bases from being viewed as an alternative migratory route into Europe, with British Forces Cyprus spokesperson Sean Tully telling AFP that "the bases are not a back door to Britain." However, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said the responsibility lay with Britain and that refugees arriving "directly onto the SBA are the responsibility of the U.K. but they would be granted access to services in the Republic [of Cyprus] at the cost of the SBA."

Are there any other refugees at the bases?

To complicate the issue, at least six refugee families who have lived at the SBA for more than 17 years are currently seeking a judicial review on their status. The Guardian reported that the families have lived in Dhekelia since 1998 and have repeatedly had asylum applications for the U.K. turned down. British authorities are reportedly keen to resettle the refugees on Cypriot soil, despite them arriving at the SBA five years prior to the 2003 agreement. The refugees have "been living in legal limbo on British territory for over 17 years," said Tessa Gregory, of Leigh Day solicitors, who are representing the six families. Gregory told the Guardian that it was "astonishing" that the U.K. had allowed the case to drag on for so long and that "we can only hope the recent arrivals do not suffer the same fate." A judicial review of the families' cases is scheduled for March 2016.

What's going to happen if the refugees refuse to claim asylum in Cyprus?

British authorities remain firm that the refugees will face deportation if they choose not to apply for asylum in Cyprus. The Times reported that Lebanon has already agreed with the U.K. to accept its nationals back if they are forcibly deported from Dhekelia. However, it seems that many of the refugees do not intend to go quietly. According to the Times, two tents have been set alight and one refugee has threatened to hang himself in protest at the situation, while others are planning a hunger strike if British officials attempt to remove them from the base.