Cyprus on Monday sent 88 Syrian migrants back to Lebanon after they tried to reach the Eastern Mediterranean island nation on two boats.
Rescue crews continue to search for one of five men who jumped overboard after police vessels intercepted their boat off Cyprus’ eastern coast, Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told AP.
Mr Nouris said police picked up the other four men, but the fifth, who was wearing a mask, flippers and a life preserver, swam away.
One pregnant woman and another man who was ill were flown to hospital.
Coastal radar had picked up two vessels approaching the Cypriot coastline on Sunday evening.
Marine police vessels intercepted the boats – which carried 48 men, 15 women and 25 children – 15 kilometres from the coast.
They were transferred to a chartered boat on Monday for the trip back to Lebanon under police escort.
Cyprus signed an agreement with Lebanon last year to take back anyone trying to reach the island by boat.
Mr Nouris said Cyprus had a right to protect its borders from irregular migration, despite criticism by human rights groups that the deal breached international law because migrants were not given the chance to apply for asylum.
More than 1,337 Syrians have reached Cyprus by sea since 2019. Many more migrants come from Turkey through the ethnically divided island’s internationally unrecognised breakaway north.
Authorities say the number of migrants who have received or have applied for protection in Cyprus now accounts for 4 per cent of the population.
Cyprus has asked the EU border agency Frontex to stem the flow of migrant arrivals from countries including Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
Cyprus is 170km west of Syria and 230km west of Lebanon.