Cyprus-In the thick of the coronavirus lockdown in Cyprus, authorities gave a group of asylum seekers a stark choice: move to an overcrowded camp or go home.

The Mediterranean island deemed it a necessary step to save money -- the tiny country of just one million people now has Europe’s highest per capita rate of asylum applications. For the migrants, it was tough, said one Nigerian, who now lives in a cluster of UN tents and prefabricated huts surrounded by razor wire, a facility built for 200 people that now houses some 800.

He was one of the dozens of asylum seekers who had initially been housed at hotel apartments in the coastal resort of Ayia Napa, which was otherwise deserted because of the pandemic.

One day, he says, they were told: “Either you get on the bus or you sign a paper saying that you want to go back to your country.”

“It was so fast, nobody had time to decide,” he said. “Everything was in a rush, we didn’t have time to read the paper.”

The Nigerian man, who asked not to be named, is now among the hundreds living in the Pournara camp in Kokkinotrimithia near the capital Nicosia, where a May heatwave saw temperatures soar to 43 degrees centigrade (109 Fahrenheit).

The move angered rights groups such as the Cyprus Refugee Council, which said migrants face “very difficult conditions” in the “closed, overcrowded and tented camp... without clear information as to when they will be allowed to leave”.

But Cyprus says it can no longer afford the 19-million-euro ($21-million) annual bill to house migrants in hotels and is asking for European Union help as the influx shows no sign of abating.

- Divided island -

Interior Minister Nikos Nouris told AFP that for many migrants, the alternative to camps is unsafe city accommodation run by unscrupulous landlords.

Nouris wants to accelerate asylum procedures and repatriations, insisting that “we have a huge volume of migrants, and 75 percent are not refugees”.