Cyprus feels strain of Lebanon's evacuees

A child who is one of the British evacuees staying in a converted aircraft hangar on Akrotiri Air base in Cyprus.

KAI RYSSDAL: Condoleeza Rice is going to the Middle East. She said today she'll get there on Sunday. But tens of thousands of people who are already there are trying to get out. Expat residents and visitors to Lebanon are streaming out of the country as fast as they can. Mostly by boat. Cyprus has opened its ports to the evacuees. Twenty-thousand of them are reported to have gone through already. So many the government's warning it might not be able to handle more. We wanted to get a sense of what it's like on the ground in Cyprus. It's a small country. An island 150 miles off the Lebanese coast. About eight hours away by boat. We spoke to two journalists today who live there and who've been covering the evacuation. Constantine Markides reports for the Cyprus Mail.

CONSTANTINE MARKIDES: Well, right now most of the evacuees are coming in by boat. There are warships and and there are cruise ships. And they're coming into the two southern ports, Limassol and Larnaca. And at that point . . . It's quite a chaotic scene because there isn't that much dock space and there are a lot of boats coming in, and a lot of confusion about when they're arriving. But when the boats do finally get there, they go through immigration and then they get bused out, often to hotels. But the idea right now, because there are so many people and the hotels are at full capacity is to get them out of the country as soon as possible. They're trying to get people out in anywhere from four to eight hours.

RYSSDAL: Mike Theodoulous with the Times of London says, despite the huge numbers of evacuees, they're still out of sight of most of the vacationing tourists.

MIKE THEODOULOUS: In general you don't really notice them unless you're at a port where we're seeing the influx, or an airport, the people leaving from Laudica and Pathos, the two big airports here. That would be about the only time. But the operation, despite the huge numbers involved, seems to be going, at the moment, remarkably smoothly.

RYSSDAL: The government estimates somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 evacuees will arrive in the next few weeks. Mike Theodoulous points out that's about a tenth of the Cypriot population.

THEODOULOUS: The Greek Cypriot population of the island is 650,000. The equivalent in the United States would be something like 28, 29 million. It's a huge influx.

RYSSDAL: Some countries are sending planes and money. And the home countries of evacuees are paying much of their costs. The larger problem for Cyprus, though, is the strain on the infrastructure. It's the height of tourist season there. Just as in Lebanon and Israel. Hotels and flights are full of tourists. Airports have had to add as many as 40 unscheduled flights a day. Most of the people being evacuated now have someplace to go when they get on those planes. But that might not be true for long. Again, Constantine Markides:

MARKIDES: As you can imagine, if suddenly we have a huge wave of Lebanese refugees coming into Cyprus, they're not people that are just in Lebanon, in Beirut, on vacation. So, they're going to be in Cyprus and they're not going to have anywhere to go. And this is a real problem. There haven't been any requests yet made to the Cyprus government about accepting refugees, but it certainly is a possibility, especially if things get worse.

RYSSDAL: Constantine Markides is a reporter with the Cyprus Mail. We also spoke with Mike Theodoulous, a correspondent for the Times of London.

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