Cyprus grapples with highest number of asylum seekers per capita in EU

‘When you meet a Cypriot the first thing they say is, “I’m not a racist” – but their actions say differently’

Asylum seekers in the Pournara centre protest over delays in their application process last February. The camp was originally meant to hold arrivals  for three days while they underwent medical checks. File photograph: Getty

Asylum seekers in the Pournara centre protest over delays in their application process last February. The camp was originally meant to hold arrivals for three days while they underwent medical checks. File photograph: Getty

 

Metres from the UN peacekeeper-patrolled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, a queue forms. In line are people from across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, coming to see volunteers and staff from the Catholic charity Caritas, who offer advice on collecting welfare payments, filling in documentation or the progression of their asylum cases.

To one side stands a Cameroonian 32-year-old with long, plaited hair. She has lived in Cyprus for five years and says she still has got no decision on her asylum case. She requests that her name not be published.

“You have to survive with what they give you,” she says about the treatment of asylum seekers on the island, before asking if I can give her a job. “I prefer to work. There’s too many asylum seekers now.”

At the back, two Bangladeshi men talk. The younger one, who wears a cap, is crouched on a bollard. He complains that his social welfare – of €261 a month – does not come regularly and is not enough to live off. The older man is 50 and has been in Cyprus for a year after leaving Bangladesh because of a “political problem” and “no money”. He is looking for a legal way to be reunited with his sister in the Netherlands.

Unexpectedly for many of Cyrus’s asylum seekers, they are now on the front lines of a heated discussion around migration to Europe and where the continent’s borders begin.

In recent years, Cyprus has become the EU country with the highest number of asylum seekers per capita, a development that some citizens worry could even put the island’s still fragile peace in jeopardy.

The buffer zone between the Turkish north and Greek south stretches for 160km from east to west. Whether it is recognised as a border and should be patrolled as such goes to the heart of the so-called “Cyprus problem”.

The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded following a coup in Cyprus propelled by the junta in Athens. While Turkey says the north is an independent state, the rest of the world say it is occupied by Turkey. Though the whole of the island – with its population of 1.3 million – is officially in the EU, arrivals must travel to the south to claim asylum.

This month, interior minister Nicos Nouris said 800 people had crossed the buffer zone, from north to south, in just 10 days. “We are forced to take important and drastic measures,” he said during a speech at a conference marking a decade since the founding of the European Asylum Support Office, an EU agency set up to increase co-operation between member states on asylum.

Roughly 15,000 people whose asylum applications failed have not been deported due to failures in implementing a coherent EU policy, as well as a lack of agreement with the countries they come from, he added.

Cyprus is one of the five Mediterranean countries – also including Malta, Greece, Italy and Spain – calling for more solidarity from the rest of the EU when it comes to dealing with refugees and asylum seekers.

Africans who spoke to The Irish Times said they flew to northern Cyprus legally after procuring student visas to study at universities there.

“The vast majority of arrivals are through the areas of the north and mainly people arriving on student visas . . . On both sides it’s a very, very lucrative business. In the north, which is financially strained, it’s become maybe their number two source of income,” said Corina Drousiotou, a senior legal adviser at the Cyprus Refugee Council, in an interview in her office in Nicosia.

“It’s quite complicated because of the situation, the division . . . We don’t totally agree with the rhetoric that Turkey is sending [asylum seekers to the south], it’s just not a priority for Turkey to stop.”

Unmanned checkpoints

In some areas along the buffer zone, barbed wire has been pushed downwards, indicating people have crossed there. Refugee rights advocates said they are aware of situations where asylum seekers jump between buildings or duck past sometimes unmanned checkpoints to make the crossing.

Bags of food in a Caritas storeroom in Paphos, Cyprus. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Bags of food in a Caritas storeroom in Paphos, Cyprus. Photograph: Sally Hayden

“God finds a way,” says one Nigerian man, cryptically, when I ask how he has done it. But this journey is not easy for everyone. Two Cameroonian asylum seekers recently got caught trying to cross into the south and ended up living in a tent inside the buffer zone for five months.

There has also been recent outcry about pushbacks at sea. Earlier this year, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, wrote to Nouris, the interior minister, calling for investigations into cases where people seeking refuge were prevented from disembarking on the island, sometimes violently.

Boat arrivals to Cyprus are nothing new and the UK presence on the island has also complicated matters. Six refugee families who washed up on a sovereign British military base in Cyprus spent more than two decades there before they were granted leave to move to the UK in 2018.

When new arrivals claim asylum in southern Cyprus, they are initially placed inside a “first-instance” camp called Pournara, which was originally supposed to hold them for three days while they underwent medical checks. As lockdowns were implemented during the first year of the pandemic, people were kept there as long as nine months, Drousiotou said. “Detention hasn’t proved to be a deterrent to arrivals . . . During the stay of people in the country, the treatment should be humane.”

Asylum seekers in Cyprus can legally work after one month, though they lose the benefit of €261 a month if they do. Drousiotou said the Cyprus Refugee Council was now making attempts to match employers with asylum seekers and refugees, helping them get jobs. “You have employers complaining about not having enough workers and then people in the country complaining that they can’t get work.”

A lot still comes down to goodwill. In Paphos, a coastal city popular with British pensioners and tourists, Caritas volunteers distribute food and clothes to refugees and asylum seekers from a small storeroom every Friday. There are piles of neatly folded trousers and T-shirts, shoes, and plastic bags of food.

“What do you need?” asks a volunteer as a man perused the shelves. “Take one of these.”

Richard Daly, the British volunteer co-ordinator of Caritas Paphos, has lived in Cyprus for five years. He says there has been a “massive increase” in need and his annual spending has nearly doubled to €22,000, which comes from donations. They help about 270 people a month – only those who have already registered with the authorities and only for the first three months, while they get themselves sorted out.

Daly was influenced to work with asylum seekers because of his Christian faith. “There by the grace of God go I,” he says.

Sue Turnbull, a retiree who has lived in Cyprus since 2012, helps out every week. “I think it’s important to give things back, it’s an accident of birth where people find themselves,” she says.

Student visa

Miles John, a 28-year-old Nigerian who has been in Cyprus for six months, says he flew to north Cyprus with a student visa and a place on a biochemistry course. He quickly realised he could not get employment and that the cost of living was high.

Asylum seekers outside a Caritas centre in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Asylum seekers outside a Caritas centre in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photograph: Sally Hayden

In the south, John claimed asylum and works part-time as a painter. “We got a lot of surprises with the rules and how they treat foreigners,” he said. “Every day they’re changing the rules. When you meet a Cypriot the first thing they say is, ‘I’m not a racist’ – but their actions say differently.”

Like many others, he is having problems with accommodation. The government offers just €100 in rent allowance paid directly to a landlord, but getting the rental agreement in the first place is often dependant on paying a deposit and months of rent up front. John moved into a house already occupied by many other Nigerians, but says his landlord is now threatening to evict them all.

Upon arrival in south Cyprus, he stayed nearly four months in the detention camp which was “like a hell”, with up to seven people sleeping in one tent.

Both John, and Emmanuel Osadolor (24) come from southern Nigeria. They say it was easy to find “agents” who organised their student visas. Last year, Nigeria’s federal government warned students against going to northern Cyprus, saying there has been a spate of murders that were not properly investigated because of problems around diplomacy and the lack of recognition of the territory internationally – something few people are aware of before they travel. The warning sparked an almost-hour long debate on Nigerian news channel TVC News about whether Cyprus was safe.

Osadolor says he had no idea Cyprus was split in two when he arrived on a student visa to study marine transport logistics. “I thought you can pay for school and get a good job,” he says.

After a month in the north he also came south and applied for asylum. Now he works in food delivery and is waiting for the decision on his claim. Whatever the verdict, he says he won’t go back to Nigeria as “it’s like a death wish”.

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