NICOSIA, Cyprus (AFP) — 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 $8,000 (6,400 euros) 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.
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.
Emilia Strovolidou, public information officer in Cyprus for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said around 2,000 Syrians have arrived since 2011.
Of these, just 10 have been granted official refugee status. Several hundred have been granted temporary protection giving them limited rights, while the rest are awaiting decisions on their status.
UNHCR called on Cyprus in July to address “inadequate reception conditions, a significant backlog of asylum applications… and the use of detention” for Syrians.
“People fleeing the war in Syria should be granted refugee status,” says Strovolidou. “Only in exceptional cases should they be granted lesser forms of protection.”
Andreas Georgiades, the interior ministry’s assistant coordinator for asylum services, urged those who arrived on the boat to register as refugees.
“It is so much better for them if they officially request protection from us,” he told AFP.
More than 50 children were rescued from the boat, including around 20 who were travelling alone.
Some take weekly English classes at the American Academy Nicosia, with local students and staff volunteering to help run the lessons.
The children vary in age and fluency, with the younger ones scrawling their names in English in the front of their textbooks and teenagers taking turns to describe an old, monochrome photograph held up to the class.
Eva Argyrou, director of studies at the school, says the sessions offer the children a brief reminder of normal life.
“They are getting some vocabulary, they are getting some sentence structure. They are not learning fluent English,” she says.
“They actually need school everyday… to keep up their education because if they have a big gap it is going to affect their future.”
Amr still hopes to finish his studies in the Netherlands, where he has family, but fears asylum will be all but forced upon him in Cyprus.
“It’s not what I want — (to) stay here, without a residency, working on farms and living a traditional life,” he says. “It’s not the life I dream of.”