Cyprus extends the hand of friendship and support to Ukrainian refugees

Nicosia Letter: Island has witnessed waves of refugees throughout its long and complex history

Demonstrators carry a banner for refugees as they march against corruption in the Cypriot capital Nicosia. Photograph: Lakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP via Getty Images

Cyprus is gripped by angst and anger over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Greek Cypriots feel dread because they identify with Ukrainian victims who are fellow Europeans and Orthodox Christians in desperate straits.

The small island republic has dispatched to Ukraine the largest ever shipment of food, clothing, and medicine contributed by its citizens. Anti-war demonstrations have erupted in Nicosia, Limassol, Larnaca and Paphos.

Although far from the field of battle, Cyprus has warmly welcomed 6,000 Ukrainian refugees and provided freezing weather so they feel at home. Nicosia has also offered assistance to another 2,300 Ukrainians who were visiting the island before the conflict .

Some 3,000 hotel rooms have been blocked for housing, identity cards are being issued allowing Ukrainians to work and secure healthcare and children are admitted to schools. Ukrainian residents harmed by the conflict are receiving aid.


Most of the 3,000 initial arrivals have moved in with resident relatives like Tanya, a Ukrainian friend living in the port city of Larnaca.

Last Sunday, after spending weeks of tearful misery, she welcomed her parents, sister, and two nieces who came via Moldova and Romania after a cold, stressful journey from Kyiv by train and minibus and on foot. Their dog was not quarantined on arrival and is getting on famously with Tanya’s two mutts.

Tanya’s mother is recovering from Covid-19 contracted a month ago, her younger niece (14) has joined a drama class while the elder (24) and her Ukrainian boyfriend, who came before the war, continue to work remotely.

The republic hosts large Ukrainian and Russian communities. Limassol, where thousands dwell, has been dubbed “Limassolgrad” and “Moscow on the Mediterranean” and boasts a Russian radio station and newspaper. The communities had close, complex connections: friendships, mixed marriages and cross-national employment. War has strained and even ruptured relations.

Greek Cypriots empathise with Ukrainians due to a long history of receiving refugees dating from the 1334 BC Trojan war to the present. In the modern era, Greeks fled Turkish violence in Anatolia in 1922, Jews from Nazi persecution in Europe ahead of the second World War, and Greeks from Israel’s 1948-49 war in Palestine.

During Turkey’s 1974 occupation of north Cyprus, 150,000 Greek Cypriots became refugees in the south and 32,000 Turkish Cypriots in the north. Lebanese fled to Cyprus during their 1975-90 civil war and stayed until it ended while more Lebanese have settled on the island since their homeland’s economic collapse began in 2019.

Granted asylum

My late friend Theo Lambrides’s mother was a refugee from Anatolia, his wife Eleni a refugee from Palestine, and his daughter Evie married a Palestinian refugee whose mother was a refugee from Turkey. Theo’s architectural business suffered when Turkey conquered the north. Theo used to say, “You have to teach your children that at least once in their lives they will be refugees”.

Cyprus has granted asylum to Syrians escaping war and has reluctantly received African and other economic migrants. More than 90 per cent cross the ceasefire line from the north. Cyprus is the EU member with the largest number of per capita refugees and migrants, who account for 4.4 per cent of the republic’s population of 850,000.

While opening its doors, Cyprus has closed its airports and ports to Russian aircraft and ships and is boycotting Russian oil, goods and produce. Petrol prices have risen and the government has ordered 36,000 tonnes of barley and corn to increase stocks at a time when Russian and Ukrainian grain exports have faltered.

Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots are angry as they have also suffered from war and division. Greek Cypriots believe Moscow has let down Cyprus by becoming an international pariah by waging war on Ukraine. Russia has long been a friend and ally, the island's pro-Russian Communist party is a major political player, and Russia has been a large source of investment and tourism revenue.

Left-leaning Turkish Cypriots castigate as hypocritical their right-wing leadership and Ankara for condemning the Russian war while Turkey occupies north Cyprus. Rather than the war, most Turkish Cypriots are preoccupied by daily power cuts, economic meltdown and spiralling inflation.

Cypriots from both communities are bitter over the failure of the West and Nato to rescue Cyprus in 1974 when Nato member Greece mounted a failed coup and Nato member Turkey seized the north, dividing the island. They resent the failure of the West, which has mobilised mightily to defend Ukraine and punish Russia, to end the occupation and reunify the island in a bizonal, bicommunal federation.