25 migrants sustained "minor injuries" after a large fight broke out in an overcrowded migrant camp near the Cypriot capital Nicosia on Tuesday. The fights were reportedly between migrants from Syria and several different African countries.
During the fight between a large group of migrants, in the Pounara camp just outside the Cypriot capital Nicosia, windowpanes were shattered. Beds and other furniture and equipment smashed up and a section of fencing around the camp sustained "extensive damage," a spokesperson for the Cypriot interior ministry told the news agency Associated Press (AP).
25 migrants sustained “minor injuries,” reported AP, saying the fights lasted for "seven hours." The brawl finally ended when riot police were sent in to intervene.
According to AP, the altercation began between a small group of people but quickly grew. Loizos Michael, the spokesperson at the Cyprus interior ministry confirmed that the camp houses 1,500 migrants at the moment but actually only has capacity for 1,000.
A group supporting migrants and refugees in Cyprus, Refugee Support Europe, re-tweeted a video posted on a Twitter page @pounararefugee from the camp on Tuesday, January 12. Refugee Support Europe captioned the video by explaining that the camp was overcrowded and facilities "are inadequate." They called on the authorities to shut the camp down.
Not the first time?
The person behind the Pounara Refugee account said there had been "serious bloodshed" in the Pounara camp and that the camp was "no more safe for asylum [seekers]." In another video taken at night, there appeared to be smoke or steam rising above buildings that looked like they were taken at the camp. Sounds of banging and a crowd of voices could be heard in the background.
The voice commenting in the foreground of the videos appears to be African-accented although it is unclear who is posting to this account, or if is curated by one or several people. According to that account, this is not the first altercation which has occurred in Pounara camp recently.
On December 26, Pounara Refugee posted another photo of the camp, saying there had also been a "Christmas Day Riot" and claiming that the Syrian residents "attacked the Africans." The poster alleged that the camp authorities "always favored the Syrians with [their] selfish and racist interest."
Increased COVID-19 prevention measures
Interior ministry spokesperson Loizos Michael said that 600 of the camp residents are in quarantine due to coronavirus prevention restrictions. The restrictions mean that the residents have been barred from leaving because of a nation-wide lockdown in the country to try and prevent the numbers of COVID-19 infections rising.
New stricter measures came into effect on Sunday, January 10 and will last until at least January 31, according to the Cyprus Refugee Council which posted a summary of the new measures on its website.
Local Sigma TV network reported that one resident had spoken to them through the fence and explained that "tensions have risen among migrants from Syria, Nigeria and Sierra Leone" because of these restrictions.
A police spokesperson, Christos Andreou also told Sigma TV that this was the first time that "unrest on such a scale had occurred at the camp."
The pro-Turkish government newspaper the Daily Sabah reported that in the end "more than 600 people" were involved in the brawl.
In absolute terms, there are not that many migrants on Cyprus, but because the population of the island nation is so small, about 900,000, the numbers of migrants per head of population is the highest in the EU.
Issues are further complicated by the fact that the island of Cyprus is divided between a Turkish recognized northern part and the Greek-speaking southern part which is a member of the EU.
Some migrants arrive directly by boat from north Africa and Lebanon to the EU-member southern republic, but many others fly on visas to Turkey and on to northern Cyprus. They then cross the so called Green Line, a UN-controlled buffer zone between the two halves of the island, which is relatively porous.
The authorities in the southern half have long said that they are unable to cope with the numbers of migrants arriving on the island and accuse Turkey of orchestrating a campaign "to alter Cyprus' demographic character" by sending migrants across the buffer zone, according to AP.
Last year, according to the Interior Ministry, 7,000 migrants applied for asylum in Cyprus. A quarter of those were Syrian, reported AP and the majority of them are single males.
The Daily Sabah reported that police registered 19 new migrant arrivals in the northwest of the island on Tuesday morning, January 12. The same newspaper said that Greek Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told the state radio channel RIK3 that his country was "no longer [able] to accept people."
Cyprus and the EU
Cyprus has been calling on the EU to make the redistribution mechanisms "fairer" so that Mediterranean states which are receiving the majority of migrants do not have to host all those who arrive. They also want the bloc to properly enforce the 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey so any migrants ineligible for asylum could be sent back to Turkey or their own countries of origin more quickly.
Reportedly the asylum process in Cyprus though is long, with many asylum seekers waiting several years for their claims to be processed. According to the Asylum Information Database, supported by the European Union, in 2019 there were 13,259 asylum claims filed. By the end of that year, 17,171 cases were still pending, only 147 people had been granted refugee status and 1,149 subsidiary protection. 2,053 people had been rejected, and the rejection rate in Cyprus stood at 61.3% in 2019.
With AP, Daily Sabah