Growing numbers of people seeking asylum in Cyprus are living in poverty and have no proper accommodation. While the government has announced that newly-arrived migrants will be allowed to work, most asylum seekers on the island - even those staying for the long-term - have little prospect of getting a job, and are forced to rely on relatives, friends and strangers for a roof over their heads.
For many asylum seekers in Cyprus, daily survival has become a struggle. With only one government-run reception center, thousands of people are having to fend for themselves, finding shelter wherever they can.
"Families of six people are living in a room 12 or 14 square meters," says Doros Polykarpou, a migration expert and executive director of KISA, a Cypriot NGO. "We would think that it's impossible, but it is possible if you don't have any other option."
"Recently we have had people who put up tents and were trying to live in the park. This is the reality," Polykarpou says.
NGOs like KISA, and even the United Nations' refugee agency, have been warning since at least February that the risk of homelessness and destitution among asylum seekers in Cyprus has reached a crisis point.
Slow and insufficient
One of the main problems is long delays in processing applications for social welfare assistance. Asylum seekers may receive a small emergency cash allowance to tide them over, but this is only enough to cover basic needs for a few days, while welfare applications can take weeks or even months to be processed, according to the UN.
Welfare payments are also not enough to cover living costs. Asylum seekers receive assistance in the form of vouchers equivalent to less than half of the Minimum Guaranteed Income that Cypriots as well as recognized refugees receive. These vouchers can only be spent in certain small shops and businesses, not in large supermarkets or cheap stores.
Families are given rental assistance up to a maximum of 250 Euro a month, irrespective of the size of the family. However in Nicosia, the capital and largest Cyprian city, it costs at least 450 Euro to rent a one-bedroom apartment, according to Polykarpou. Accommodation for a family costs much more.
State-run facilities for asylum seekers are nowhere near adequate. At full capacity, the Kofinou reception center, which is the only state-run reception center, can accommodate just five percent of the asylum seekers in the country. At the end of July this year, 394 people were being housed there, according to the IOM. Single asylum seekers are no longer admitted in Kofinou.
In May, 130 unaccompanied children were staying in special shelters, the UNHCR says.
NGOs have called for improved reception facilities to house all asylum seekers on arrival, however, currently, the vast majority of asylum seekers live independently.
There is also no central authority to deal with asylum seekers in Cyprus. Welfare benefits, accommodation, legal procedures, integration and other matters are handled by separate agencies.
Some asylum seekers are employed. However, the government has enforced a rule that prohibited asylum seekers from working for the first six months after submitting their asylum claim. After the six-month period, they could only be employed in jobs such as farm labor or garbage collection, which often earn less than basic asylum-seeker benefits.
a crisis meeting last week, Cyprus ministers announced that they
would tackle the employment issue by allowing asylum seekers to work
after one month, instead of six, and by expanding the areas of
employment. They also proposed:
- a mechanism to redistribute asylum seekers more fairly among EU member states
- increased border surveillance and maritime patrols
- a fast-track procedure for dealing with "unfounded applications"
- a crackdown on what they view as abuse of the appeals process for rejected applicants.
No will to fix the problem, critics say
However, migration expert Polykarpou is cautious about welcoming the proposed changes, particularly the employment rules. "Wait and see what jobs are going to be opened up" to asylum seekers, he says. He also worries that one month might not be long enough for asylum seekers to find their feet before being told to find employment. "You can imagine that you arrive here from a war, with your family and your children, and before you find accommodation, employment, before you solve the problems with health, with schools and everything, you have to go to employment.
"This will lead to serious violations and exploitation of asylum seekers in my opinion, because they will not know anything, they will have to struggle immediately."
Strain on the system
Despite being so close to Syria, Cyprus received few asylum seekers before 2016. The deal between the EU and Turkey, which saw the closure of the Balkan route, changed that. Increasingly, people are coming to Cyprus on route to Europe and as an asylum destination. The government is warning that if the numbers continue to grow, they will become "unmanageable."
Since the beginning of 2018, at least 300 asylum seekers have arrived in Cyprus, according to the International Organization for Migration. Greece has received more than ten times that number, but relative to its population, the influx of people landing on Cyprus' shores puts the island at the forefront of arrivals in Europe.
Already this year, Cyprus authorities have received over 4,022 applications for asylum, a huge increase on 2017. The biggest group are Syrians, followed by people from India, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh. Overall, most claims are rejected. In the first quarter of 2018, 40 people were recognized as refugees and 165 were given subsidiary protection, while 305 applicants - 60 percent - were rejected.
The interior ministry says it has more than 7,400 applications pending.
Where to get help
The UNHCR has a mobile-friendly website for refugees and asylum-seekers in Cyprus.
This site is regularly updated and has information about how to apply for asylum, rights, support programs, how to apply for family reunification and the procedure for transferring to another European country.