After setting off in a rubber boat from Turkey under the cover of darkness, Mohammed, a Syrian in his twenties, arrived on Cyprus's north coast in October.

He had left Idlib province weeks earlier en route to the eastern Mediterranean island, less than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Turkish shore.

"There were women and children" on board, said Mohammed, preferring to use a pseudonym as he still has relatives in Idlib.

After crossing the UN-patrolled Green Line that separates the divided island, he applied for asylum in the EU-member Republic of Cyprus.

"It is not easy to leave your country," he said, but "the situation in Syria pushes you to emigrate".

Cyprus, which has seen a spike in irregular arrivals in recent years, says it is facing a "migration crisis".

Pope Francis will meet with refugees and migrants on a visit this week, and plans to help relocate some from the country.

"Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery," the pontiff said ahead of the trip.

Cyprus has been split since 1974, when Turkey invaded following a Greek-sponsored coup, after years of ethnic tensions and bloodshed.

The Republic of Cyprus, whose overwhelming majority are Greek Cypriots, has effective control over the southern two-thirds of the island.

Only Ankara recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), where Turkey maintains thousands of troops.

Cyprus says it has the highest number of first-time asylum applications in the EU per capita.

It accuses Turkey of orchestrating a crisis by allowing irregular migrants to cross from the north, and wants to suspend asylum applications from "people entering the country illegally". 

While there have been comparisons to the crisis on the Belarus-EU border, refugee groups and observers have painted a more complex picture of the situation in Cyprus.

Turkey, hosting around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, "could flood the island if wanted", said Corina Drousiotou from the Cyprus Refugee Council.

"I don't doubt that it's not top priority for Turkey to stop" arrivals from the north, she said, but added that if the situation was orchestrated there would be "much higher numbers".

Cyprus's 180-kilometre-long buffer zone ranges from 30 metres to eight kilometres in width, according to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. 

The topography presents a challenge, force spokesperson Aleem Siddique said.

Authorities in the south say over 10,000 irregular migrants arrived in the first 10 months of this year, most having crossed the Green Line.

They have said that around 20 percent of asylum applicants had already been in the Republic of Cyprus legally, usually either working or studying, according to UNHCR Cyprus representative Katja Saha.

More than a fifth of new asylum seekers from January to September were Syrians, government figures published by UNHCR show.

Many of the rest first arrived in the north by plane on student visas and transited through Turkey, the only country that flies to the breakaway statelet.

Saha said asylum seeker numbers from western Africa picked up in 2019, in "a combination of smuggling and genuine students" who had come via the north.

Frida, a 33-year-old Cameroonian asylum seeker who arrived in the north on a student visa, said she paid 500 euros ($565) to cross to the south.

The driver "just dropped me... I was just trekking by the roadside, someone decided to help me out", she said.

Ioannis-Sotirios Ioannou from news and analysis platform Geopolitical Cyprus pointed to a "studying scam" that had a secondary effect of putting pressure on the south.

Drawing paying students into the economically isolated TRNC then seeing them cross was a "two-in-one" for Turkey, he said.

On the other side of the divide, the Refugee Rights Association (RRA) is providing outreach and advocacy on a skeleton staff.

"We don't have an asylum mechanism in the north. We just have a refugee definition in the alien and immigration law," said the RRA's Deniz Altiok.

Irregular arrivals are deported, Syrians are sent back to Turkey, and human trafficking and smuggling were only outlawed last year, the organisation said.

Lawyer Sevilay Yildirimer, from the Cyprus Turkish Bar Association's human rights committee, said human traffickers were taking advantage of the island's divisions.

Some observers accuse the Cypriot government of using alarmist rhetoric for political purposes, and to extract more funding from the EU.

Nicos Trimikliniotis, an expert on fundamental rights, said the government was deliberately failing desperate people, pointing to "dire" conditions at the island's main Pournara reception centre.

Officials have said, "'we don't want Cyprus to become a pull factor'," Trimikliniotis told AFP. "The policy is to create a hostile environment."