After the killing of seven women and girls in Cyprus, critics say police did not put much energy into the missing persons reports because the victims were low-paid foreign workers | Photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Karadjias
After the killing of seven women and girls in Cyprus, critics say police did not put much energy into the missing persons reports because the victims were low-paid foreign workers | Photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Karadjias

In Cyprus, a military officer has confessed to killing seven foreign women and girls, four of whom were Filipino. As authorities in the EU member state are being called to account by protestors, advocates for foreign workers say rampant racism contributed to police bungling.

At least seven foreign-born females, some of whom had been missing for months or years, are presumably the victims of an army captain who has confessed to killing five women and two girls in Cyprus. He disposed of the bodies at an abandoned mineshaft, a contaminated lake and a pit in the middle of a military firing range. All victims were foreign women who had come to the tourism-driven island for work.

The 35-year-old captain, who has not been formally identified, told investigators he disposed of three bodies — those of a Filipino woman and a Romanian mother and daughter — in the aforementioned contaminated lake. A suitcase with the remains of a woman was found at the bottom of the lake a week ago.

On Sunday, police in Cyprus recovered from the lake a second suitcase containing decomposed human remains. The lake is part of an abandoned copper pyrite mine where a woman's body was found by chance last month in a flooded shaft, setting off an investigation into what police say is the island nation's first serial killer case.

The case has shocked the small Mediterranean island nation of around one million people and has brought about allegations of police negligence. The country's justice minister and the police chief lost their jobs. Police have been accused of failing to properly investigate when a victim was reported missing two and a half years ago, allowing the suspect to keep killing. Several of the women were reported as missing to police.

Pledging that his government will get to the bottom of the "abhorrent murders" and fully investigate the "actions or failures" regarding missing persons investigations, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades last week apologized to diplomats of the countries of the victims and vowed to bolster protections for foreign workers in Cyprus.

Five victims still unidentified

Only two of the victims have so far been positively identified: 38-year-old Mary Rose Tiburcio and Arian Palanas Lozano, 28, both from the Philippines. Their bodies were discovered in an abandoned mineshaft last month six days apart.

Authorities are also looking for the body of Tiburcio's 6-year-old daughter Sierra in another reservoir. 

The decomposed remains of a woman who is believed to be Ashita Khadka Bista, from Nepal, were found at the bottom of a pit in a military firing range after the suspect led investigators there.

“Mary Rose and her young daughter are the latest victims and the tip of the iceberg of violence against migrant women in Cyprus,” said a statement by KISA, a nonprofit in Cyprus dedicated to battling xenophobia and discrimination.

Investigative missteps

The army captain's crimes have raised questions over police ineptitude and even of racism. Cyprus wants answers to how the suspected killer was able to go unnoticed for around two and a half years following the initial missing people's reports.

Louis Koutroukides, who heads the Cyprus Domestic Workers' Association, said that when reporting Filipino victim Mary Rose Tiburcio's disappearance last year he was told by a policeman that he was "too old to concern himself with Filipino women."

When approached by InfoMigrants, the office of Nicosia mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis said the mayor "has no comment on the serial killing as he has no jurisdiction in making official comments on the matter."

Filipino community hard-hit

As more bodies have turned up, the fury among the thousands of foreign workers who keep Cyprus’ hospitality industry afloat has grown. On April 26, hundreds of people turned up for a protest vigil outside Cyprus’ presidential palace to mourn the seven victims. Organizers read off the names of other missing women and the crowd shouted back, “Where are they?” In all, organizers told the Associated Press, the nation has 80 unsolved missing persons cases dating back almost three decades.

More than 30,000 domestic migrant workers live in Cyprus legally, and another 30,000 without legal status, according to Cyprian NGO Aequitas. Most are from the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.

Four of the victims — including Tiburcio's six-year-old daughter —  were Filipino. Many of Cyprus’ 14,000-strong Filipino community are employed as housekeepers, working long days for a mere €400 ($450) per month. Passports and work permits often stay in the hands of employers. According to rights advocate Lissa Jataas, Filipinos face discrimination and even exploitation.

"We're very vulnerable to abuse and harassment at work because our workplace is our home as well," Jataas said. Ester Beatty, chair of the Federation of Filipino Organizations in Cyprus, said she hopes the killings "serve as a wake-up call to those nasty employers" that they should live up to European standards.

Though the Cypriot government said the law is fully compliant with EU directives, affording foreign workers full protections, Jataas said many workers keep silent for fear of being deported. Corina Drousiotou, who heads the nonprofit group Cyprus Refugee Council, said the whole case has underscored the "institutionalized racism" running through the country's justice system, and that the odds are stacked even more against a complainant if they happen to be a woman.

‘Lackadaisical’ police work

Even the police's most ardent supporters concede that the investigation of the initial missing persons' reports were insufficient. Police Support Association head Neophytos Papamiltiadous acknowledged a lack of proper oversight by those officers' immediate superiors.

However, Papamiltiadous rejected the notion that racism was a major factor, noting that foreign workers do cross into the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north without notifying authorities. Divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece, Cyprus' northern third is an unrecognized entity where Cypriot police have no jurisdiction. The legal vacuum affords those who want to disappear a way out.

But Papamiltiadous said that's certainly no excuse for lackadaisical police work. With no real voice, it is easy for some police officers to ignore foreign worker complaints or missing persons reports if they're under no pressure to do so, said Stefanos Spaneas, a professor of social work at the University of Nicosia.

Spaneas said in his experience with working with migrants and refugees it's less a matter of racism among police ranks than one of "stupidity" within a disorganized force whose members would work less given that low wages offer no financial incentive. "If someone would avoid work, they would," he said.

With material from AP and Reuters

•••• ➤ Where to get help: Support for female migrants

Here's a selection of initiatives geared towards female migrants in Cyprus:

  • Cyprus Refugee Council’s projects: support, rehabilitiation and empowerment for victims of torture; counceling methods for female gender-based violence (GBV) victims; and “Safe Houses”, which provide support for third-country national victims of human trafficking
  • Women’s refuge and crisis center in Nicosia offers services including accommodation, psychological support and counselling
  • Caritas Cyprus runs three types of facilities: “Migrants Centres” in Nicosia and Larnaca, which offer healthcare, and psycho-social support; “The Learning Refuge” in Pafos, which provides “a safe place for families, mainly women, and children”; and a temporary emergency shelter in Nicosia for migrant women and men with children.
  • Domestic violence shelters, run by the Association for the Prevention and Handling fo Violence in the Family


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