Rising numbers of migrants are entering Cyprus through the Turkish-administered north of the country, on order to gain access to the Greek-speaking southern part of the island which is an EU member state. But what’s the situation like for migrants on the ground?
In 2018, the number of migrants arriving in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC, henceforth Cyprus) increased dramatically, with migrants arriving both by sea and flying in via the Turkish-administered north and then crossing the border. While the applications for political asylum in the European Union dropped last year to pre-2015 levels, Cyprus recorded a 70 percent increase - the biggest among the EU's 28 member states.
Last year, Cyprus saw the number of asylum applications spike from 4,459 in 2017 to 7,713. The Mediterranean island also recorded the highest number of applications per capita with almost 6,000 for a population of about one million, followed by Greece and Malta.
Surge in arrivals
The surge in migrant arrivals has plunged the Mediterranean island into crisis as smuggler networks take advantage of its partition and proximity to the Middle East, and as the country’s asylum and reception systems are becoming overstretched.
“The social welfare system is not coping at all,” Caritas Cyprus executive manager Elizabeth Kassinis told InfoMigrants. “If the number of asylum seekers continues to rise, without enough reception camps or affordable housing, the inevitable outcome is increasing homelessness and exploitation.”
There are currently about 10,000 asylum seekers in Cyprus, one of the highest ratios per capita in the EU. The number of asylum applications in the EU’s easternmost state has steadily increased since 2013, when 1,346 applications were lodged. With almost 2,000 asylum applications filed in the first two months alone.
From 2002 until February 2019, almost 70,000 asylum applications have been submitted in Cyprus. Of those received and processed, 10,618 (18.4 percent) of those have been granted protection, the vast majority of which subsidiary protection. 11,717 cases are currently pending.
Some 21 percent of all applicants are Syrians and thus refugees according to UNHCR guidelines. However, 96 percent of Syrians receive subsidiary protection in Cyprus, which does not entitle them for family reunification. “Consequently, the family members of Syrian refugees put their lives at risk by resorting to smugglers and attempting to reach Cyprus by boat,” a UNHCR spokesperson told InfoMigrants. Smugglers reportedly charge €2,000 ($2,250) per person for the ride. The top ten countries of origin of asylum seekers in 2018 were Syria, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq, Cameroon, Georgia and Sri Lanka.
Crossing the ‘green line’
According to UNHCR, approximately half of asylum seekers enter Cyprus from the areas not controlled by the Republic of Cyprus, in the northern part of the island, where there is no asylum system in force. They then take the increasingly well-trodden route of sneaking across the dividing buffer zone, or ‘green line,’ into the internationally recognized Greek-controlled south. UNHCR said the number of persons irregularly crossing the line increased last year.
Stretching 180 kilometers across Cyprus and ranging from a few meters to a few kilometers in width, the UN-patrolled ceasefire line offers innumerable blind spots for those determined to evade detection.
While the ‘green line’ is not considered a border, there are authoriszed points of crossing along it. These are not considered official entry points into Cyprus (RoC) though. Crossing the buffer zone is regulated, as the Asylum Information Database (AIDA) writes in its 2018 country report on Cyprus:
- If a person has entered the areas in the northern part without permission from the authorities there, they may be arrested and returned to Turkey and possibly from there to their country of origin.
- In order to cross the ‘green line’ through the points of crossing, a person needs a valid visa and will be checked by police acting in the northern part and then by RoC police.
- If a person has been in the RoC before and had been forcefully or voluntarily returned, they may be arrested and detained
“If migrants want to seek asylum in the EU, they have no choice but to get to the Greek Cypriot-controlled area,” Caritas’ Kassinis told InfoMigrants.
Besides arrivals from the north, a smaller number of asylum seekers enter Cyprus at official points of entry, i.e. ports and airports. According to UNHCR, since 2016 there have also been small boat arrivals ranging from 15 to 45 persons per boat reaching both the southern and northern parts.
The majority of boats, according to UNHCR, come from Turkey, and a smaller number from Lebanon and Syria. Last year, Cyprus saw more than 30 such boat arrivals, a significant increase from nine such cases in 2017. “A sufficient number of persons arriving by these boats are relatives of persons already residing in Cyprus and include spouses and underage children,” UNHCR told InfoMigrants.
Slow asylum procedure
In its aforementioned country report, AIDA notes that “overall registration is slow and ineffective” due to “capacity shortages and increasing numbers of arrivals,” which precludes asylum seekers from accessing welfare benefits, medical services and employment opportunities, among other things. UNHCR said the “lack of legal aid in administrative asylum procedure” is another “major challenge,” not least because of the delayed opening of a new asylum court.
According to UNHCR, the asylum procedure takes on average three to five years for a final decision. Considering the number of appeals pending before court, UNHCR estimate that more than 12,000 persons are awaiting a final decision on their asylum claims.
‘Overstretched’ reception camps
Currently, there are two facilities dealing with new arrivals in Cyprus: One is a “Reception and Accommodation Centre for Applicants for International Protection” 41 kilometers south of the capital Nicosia in the village of Kofinou. Asylum seekers are supposed to move out after a few months, but stays last much longer than planned due to the recent surge in arrivals and the lack of affordable housing, which has created a homelessness problem, Caritas’ Kassinis said.
In 2017, UNHCR criticized the living conditions in the center, which is run by the Cyprus’ asylum service. According to AIDA, asylum seekers stay in containers, with rooms designated to accommodate two to four persons. However, UNHCR said the Ministry of Interior has since “significantly improved the conditions” of the camp.
The second facility is the “Pournara emergency tent camp” (UNHCR), or “temporary accommodation centre” (RoC asylum service), in Kokkinotrimithia, a village some 20 kilometers west of Nicosia near the buffer zone. The facility hosts asylum seekers for up to 72 hours upon arrival. Afterwards, asylum seekers are expected to find private accommodation. While UNHCR told InfoMigrants the “reception capacity is overstretched” due to “increased arrivals and backlog in processing asylum claims,” Kassinis said the center isn’t overcrowded yet.
After a vetting process and several tests at a local hospital, migrants can turn in the asylum application and receive an alien registration number. From that point they have to wait up to five years for a decision, which they may appeal.
The absence of social services at the emergency camp adversely affects the ability to transition into the community, UNHCR told InfoMigrants, adding that many Syrians who arrive in Cyprus being accommodated by residing family members is the only reason a “reception emergency” has so far been prevented. However, many recent arrivals are people who do not have relatives on the island, and as a result end up homeless.
“Many migrants are homeless because they don’t have a place to go,” Kassinis said, adding that “woefully inadequate” government benefits are also to blame. Similarly, UNHCR calls social allowances “insufficient to secure private housing.”
Calling the homelessness issue “a major challenge to address,” UNHCR said it also leads to “exploitation of asylum seekers, exchange of sex for shelter and gender-based violence.”
In Cyprus, a recognized refugee and citizen on welfare usually receive €760 in minimum guaranteed income per month. Asylum seekers, in contrast, are entitled to €320, or less than half, which include a rental allowance of €100, €150 in food coupons they can redeem in certain stores for certain items, and a €70 check for incidental expenses like water and electricity.