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Refugees: Cyprus, all alone

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Translation by:

Anam Zafar


Asylum seekers cannot avoid the incertitude and complexities of bureaucracy. On the other end of the scale, an entire country declares to be out of its depth with the migrant influx. Is Cyprus sinking under the pressure of the refugee crisis?

Kofinou is Cyprus’ asylum reception centre, located thirty minutes south from the capital Nicosia. Its pre-fab containers, covered in graffiti and children’s drawings, seem out of place amongst the rolling hills, splitting the beautiful landscape in two. Inside the containers, people from all over the world practically live on top of each other. This is where the Cyprian government has chosen to house the refugees that come to its shores, for the most part from the Middle East and Africa.

An island’s impossible situation

The morning of our visit, rain pounds down on the rooftops. A Somali girl has just moved in to one of the containers. Having just turned 18, she has had to leave the camp for unaccompanied minors in the town of Larnaca. At the same time, tensions erupt when a group of ten people begin protesting against their refused asylum claim. It takes the intervention of the Cyprian police to contain the situation. The staff here seem overwhelmed – and today wouldn’t be the first time. This camp is no stranger to incidents such as this. In February 2018, fifteen political refugees started an uprising against accommodation conditions and a lack of benefit payments, setting fire to several places in the town centre.

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Since these incidents, the reception centre no longer accepts single men – only families and single women. Considerable efforts have been made to improve the conditions at Kofinou. While the exact cost of these efforts is unknown, the measures taken by the Cyprian government have primarily consisted of infrastructure repairs and improvement as well as increasing the number of administrative staff. Around 1.7 million euros in European aid is directed towards Kofinou every year. The centre’s initial capacity, run by the State since 2004, was 120 people. 10 years later, faced by a huge influx in refugees, the authorities have had to extend the centre’s perimeters to increase the capacity to 400 people. This may be one of the biggest State-run camps in Europe in proportion to country size.

Due to its proximity to the Middle East, the migrant crisis on this Mediterranean island has been intensifying, with smuggling networks taking advantage of the country’s partition. According to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), the number of asylum applications in Cyprus has considerably increased in recent years, with 2871 in 2016, 4459 in 2017 and 7761 in 2018, placing Cyprus in first place in the EU when it comes to the number of requests per citizen (the country has a population of around 1 million, note from the editor), followed by Greece, Malta and Luxembourg. The trend continued upward at the beginning of this year. In January 2019, 1090 people applied for asylum, compared to 440 in January 2018. Cyprus considers itself to be more or less at its limit for receiving refugees, compared to other European countries – and the government has no qualms with clamping down on people seeking asylum. Last year, half of the applications made in the country were refused.

While Cyprus is still far off from the infernal situations that neighbouring countries such as Greece are facing, Kofinou still raises issues of human dignity. The smell coming from the containers is sickening. As well as having to share toilets, sometimes one 5m² room will house up to four people. For the past year, Nina (names have been modified to protect identities, note from the editor), a 25-year-old Cameroonian woman, has been sharing a tiny room with three other women – and now she has a four-month-old baby.

Nina lived through atrocities while trying to flee the army in Cameroon. “I was raped twice, once by the army and once in an abandoned hangar in Libya, where refugees from all over were crowded together in awful conditions. I walked from Cameroon to Niger, then from Niger to Libya. I crossed the desert by foot, and then left Tunisia by boat to get to Cyprus. I gave birth to my child here, in Cyprus, in this camp”, she tells us, gazing lovingly at her son. Nina admits that she has thought about suicide more than once. “I can’t stop thinking about what I’ll be able to say to my child when he asks me who his father is”, she admits, with tears in her eyes.

Nina receives a modest sum of 150 euros’ aid per month. The jobs available to people seeking asylum are often very precarious. Neglected by the authorities, they are left to fend for themselves, with few choices outside of agriculture or waste management. Nina’s only choice is to work as a round-the-clock home carer for the elderly, which proves to be an impossible task with such a young child. But she counts herself as one of the lucky ones. Too often, the most vulnerable women descend into prostitution.

“We are on an island, it is difficult for the refugees to leave, and all of the pressure is on us”

In Cyprus, people seeking asylum can only register with the government if they have a fixed address and a tenancy agreement. The asylum process itself can take years. Like Nina, Mohammed, his wife Armena and their two sons, aged 7 and 8 years old, have been waiting for a better life for more than a year. They dream of settling in Germany or Canada – considered paradise to most refugees.

Unlike Greece, most Syrian asylum seekers in Cyprus do not have refugee status. All they receive is subsidiary protection. This means that they don’t have a passport and can’t travel abroad. “We won’t give up on our hopes of living somewhere else. We just need the Cyprian government to help us”, argues Mohammed emphatically. Here, with the entire family receiving just 1000 euros in aid, they can hardly pay for housing. Many Syrian refugees have integrated into Cyprian society, but the rent for a half-decent place can be as high as 600 euros per month. While they wait for their situation to improve, their children go to the local school and can speak perfect Greek.

The looming shadow of the far-right

Mohammed and his family were forced to flee the Syrian city of Idlib by foot. After crossing the border into Turkey, they spent 2 months in Turkish camps. After this, when Mohammed paid 10,000 dollars to a group of smugglers, the destination they originally promised him was not Cyprus. “The smugglers tricked us. Our boat was old and broke down three times in the sea. There were 5 children and a pregnant woman on board”, recalls Armena. After two terrifying days at sea, the boat, which was supposed to arrive at the south of the island in Paphos, ended up landing in the north because of a storm.

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Stavros Christofi is the Head of Cyprus’ Department for Asylum and reports to the Interior Minister. In his opinion: “The rest of Europe may be experiencing a decrease in the migrant flux, but Cyprus isn’t. There is no progress in the refugee resettlement scheme. The numbers are so big. We are trying to react, but to say that we are ready for this crisis is a lie. We really don’t have the means. We are on an island, it is difficult for the refugees to leave, and all of the pressure is on us”.

According to the Department for Asylum, 60% of people seeking asylum in Cyprus take aerial or sea routes and arrive in the north – in other words, a part of the country which is solely governed by Ankara. Considering the island’s political situation and the Turkish army’s occupation of the north, receiving people who arrived on this side of the island remains a delicate operation for the Cyprian authorities. Since the invasion in 1974, the Republic of Cyprus has had no diplomatic relationship with Turkey. This makes it difficult for Cyprus to lead its own negotiations with the country, so it is urging the European Union to place pressure on the Turkish government on its behalf. “Turkey has respected its 2006 EU deal with Greece, but not with Cyprus. The EU needs to control the flux into this country”, says Stavros Christofi.

Cyprus intends to request EU aid again in 2019, putting the money towards a new reception centre. This comes in the shadow of hostilities that have broken out in the country in reaction to the refugee crisis: in November 2018, residents of the village of Zygi and members of its community council opposed the government’s decision to open a centre for unaccompanied minors in an abandoned military camp. They didn't want migrant children attending the local school. They had received support from the neo-Nazi party Elam, known for its extremely tough stance on migrants. With the European elections approaching, the party can expect to receive around 10% of the votes and may even nab a seat in the European Parliament, according to polls. Elam is truly riding on a wave of hostility: a wave which could submerge the whole country.

Cover photo: (cc)dimitrisvetsikas1969/flickr

*Names have been modified.

Translated from Réfugiés : Chypre, seule au monde