Refugees in Cyprus
Google "refugees in Cyprus", and you'll get quotes like "In 2017, refugees are unlikely to create any issues for tourists in Cyprus"; thus, you can sigh with relief and go buy your tour package to the sunny island. Do you feel like there's something wrong with the way this information is presented? If you feel that it's just fine, and if you'd vote "no" to refugees in a poll (Russia turned out to be the most anti-refugee country in a recent international poll, by the way), then you needn't read what follows.
I first visited a refugee camp in Cyprus (yes, a real refugee camp with real refugees, located between Limassol and Larnaca) about two months ago, and it was out of curiosity - a lawyer's, rather than day-to-day, curiosity. What I saw struck me. According to a report published by the UNHCR, the refugee situation in Cyprus is rather complicated. It is indeed so, and the main issues are two: 1) refugee status application process is extremely slow and full of red tape, and 2) some categories of refugees are supposedly kept in questionable conditions. What interested me most was to see if human rights (specifically, the right to liberty of movement) were being violated in Menoya, where one of the centers for asylum seekers is located, but then I found out that most refugees actually live in a different, larger camp near Kofinou, and that only aggressive or otherwise deviant asylum seekers get sent to Menoya.
I've always maintained a very positive attitude towards refugees, since I believe that every human being has a right to live a safe and dignified life; I don't blame people for trying to flee from war, for trying to stay alive, for not wanting to see the death of their children - war does not choose its victims, after all.
"Bicycles to children" organised by Kofinou We Care and Cyprus Cycling Federation
But it amazes me that among my compatriots (partly due to lack of adequate information in the media) the general attitude towards refugees is staunchingly negative, as opposed to the situation in, say, Germany or the Netherlands, where refugee numbers are huge, and yet locals are very tolerant when it comes to the "European refugee crisis". If you know enough English to be able to browse Western websites, you won't be surprised to learn that helping and supporting refugees has become a trend. Canadians welcome refugees into their families on a sort of a "work and travel" program basis, in the Netherlands they are teaching refugees IT programming, so that they can be weaned off welfare, while IKEA has launched a new carpet manufacturing line in order to help refugee women who are unable to find work.
I believe that such initiatives demonstrate a high level of development and stability in a society; only in those countries that are experiencing severe internal issues (including human rights issues) can people honestly believe that refugees are some sort of crawling evil, trying to spread to developed countries just to do nothing, receive welfare and be a general burden for everybody. People who are trying to relocate to more developed countries do so in the hope of finding a future and a possibility to build a new life, instead of moving to a country with less developed social programs and then remaining stuck between ghosts of war and a total lack of prospects (you can read more about EU refugee programs by following this link).
And while in Russia the intolerance is due to lack of information, in Cyprus the existing negative attitude stems from other factors, such as the conflict between Greeks and Turks that has led to the partition of the island; since the occupied part of Cyprus is Muslim, many Greeks are suspicious of incoming Muslim refugees simply because of their faith (in theory, if the number of Muslims on Cyprus were to exceed that of Christians, it could heavily influence the outcome of the current conflict on the island).
Kofinou We Care Volunteers
At present, around 300 people reside in Kofinou camp. When you first meet these smiling people who rush to greet you, a newcoming volunteer, it can be hard to believe they have been through horrors of war and subsequent escape. You notice how many children there are at the camp, while trying not to think of why some of them are here without their parents. People flee for different reasons, but mostly out of fear for their own lives and for those of their kids; some flee from a raging civil war, some from bombings, some are forced to leave by a repressive regime persecuting them for their political views (including journalists) or personal beliefs (including LGBT community members). Socially they are a mixed bag: there are both educated people and those who can hardly read and write, single men and women, families with lots of kids; some are shy and humble, some cunning and loud; but they are all in it together, lucky (or maybe not?) to end up in Cyprus. According to the data published on the Cyprus Asylum Service website, the highest number of asylum seekers come from neighbouring Syria, but I've also seen many people from Africa (Somalia) and Afghanistan.
I'll be honest with you: after all that I've seen on TV about the refugee crisis before my visit to the camp, I expected to see tents and squalor, but it turned out to be much better than I thought. Kofinou camp is basically a small settlement of tiny houses resembling camper vans or roulottes, equipped with basic furniture and appliances (cooking stoves, AC), surrounded by a fence with a checkpoint. Residents may enter and leave as they please; generally they come out to search for work (which can be difficult due to limited public transportation links), while children go to school. On their website you can see pictures of the camp (of course, now the buildings don't look as nice and new anymore). But it hasn't always been this way, and even now appliances frequently break down (imagine being left without AC in 40-degree heat), and often big families have to fit into tiny (even if equipped and furnished) houses.
On the one hand, living conditions are acceptable, and several NGOs function in the camp. For example, volunteers from Kofinou We Care managed to open a "distribution center" where camp residents can obtain free donations of clothes, cleaning products, and other necessities. Kofinou We Care and Cyprus Cycling Federation have organized a joint bicycle collection event for the camp's children, attended by the Minister of Education of Cyprus Costas Kadis and Child Rights Commissioner Leda Koursoumba. I was lucky to be present at the event, and I can't even begin to tell you how excited the kids were to receive their bicycles - used, but perfectly functional and, most importantly, their own! Among other bodies studying the refugee situation on Cyprus are UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), KISA NGO, Future Words Center, etc.
Child Rights Commissioner Leda Koursoumba
Juridically speaking, however, there are few prospects on Cyprus for refugee assimilation and adaptation. After submitting an application for refugee status - which can also be denied (in practice, it can take years to process an application) -, an asylum seeker is given the right to work after residing on the island for six months, but even then he or she can only work in several specified areas (analogous to students, who are only allowed to work in low-paid positions); further, an asylum seeker is given the right to collect welfare (which the authorities now want to reduce to only 20% of that paid to citizens), the right to move freely around the country (that is, the island), but without leaving its borders. In practice, refugees have zero chance getting a visa to a country that requires one, and even then you have to get a leave permit from the Immigration Services. If you are denied such a permit, you are forbidden from leaving the island under threat of ban from re-entering and denial of asylum request.
Thus, refugees in Cyprus find themselves stuck on the island indefinitely amid general conditions of hopelessness. Their only choices are to leave the country illegally, thus further endangering their future (since current regulations forbid them from applying for asylum for a second time in the EU or the UK), or wait for seven years and try to obtain Cyprus citizenship through naturalisation ( and with it the right to work in any position or leave the island legally) - which, in practice, is a difficult process, too.
Minister of Education of Cyprus Costas Kadis
After a day of volunteer work at the camp, I left with an understanding that the living conditions, while far from perfect, were still better than I had expected, and the refugees, while of a different faith and skin colour, were the same as me in their joys and sorrows, and very open and friendly, too; I was overcome by conflicting feelings and a desire to help these people who have so few possibilities open to them. If you too want to help them, it is easy to arrange: go visit a camp in your area, donate a little bit of money to the volunteers (and here are a few more tips from wikiHow), but most importantly, do not ignore the issue - one little thing that you actually do is more important than a thousand beautiful ideas you don't realise.
The law governing the status of refugees in Cyprus - Ο περί Προσφύγων Νόμος του 2000 (6 (I) / 2000).
Photos are presented on the website for information purposes, source: official group Κυπριακή Ομοσπονδία Ποδηλασίας - Cyprus Cycling Federation on Facebook.