Asylum seekers in the Pournara camp in Cyprus say it is overcrowded and feels "like a prison." Pandemic restrictions have made the conditions worse, causing friction between groups of migrants.
Emmanuel Conteh has been living in the Pournara migrant reception camp in Cyprus for the past two months. In spite of the cold, he wears shorts and torn plastic flip-flops as he negotiates the camp’s muddy paths.
Conteh came to Cyprus after flying to the Turkish side of the border and then slipping into the internationally-recognized south. He says he fled his native Sierra Leone because he was persecuted for refusing to follow in his father's footsteps and practice a kind of witchcraft.
"The head of this society, they want to train me, but I refused," Conteh told the news agency AP.
He wants Cypriot authorities to process his asylum application quickly and let him and others out of Pournara. He says the razor-wire-encircled former military camp near the industrial western fringes of the capital Nicosia feels like prison and that the conditions are "hellish." At night he can’t get to sleep in his heavy canvas tent because of the cold.
"We're not prisoners. We're asylum seekers. Let them finish our process and then (free) us," Conteh told AP. "That's all we're asking."
The Pournara facility was designed to accommodate at most 1,000 people and is a "first instance'' camp where asylum seekers are initially processed and are meant to leave after three days. But it now houses 1,500 people, some of whom have been there for months.
Cyprus still has a large backlog of asylum applications despite the government's efforts to speed up the process and fewer migrant arrivals during the pandemic.
In January, 600 of the camp residents were placed in quarantine to contain the spread of the virus. Camp residents were prevented from leaving due to a nationwide lockdown. As a result tensions between asylum seekers increased, and even erupted into violent brawls in which 25 people were injured on January 12.
Last week, asylum seekers in the camp again staged protests. According to the migrant support organization KISA, the government subsequently said it would allow 20 people to leave the camp each day, but it has since broken its promise.
Tension leads to complaints of favoritism
According to some reports, friction has developed between African and Syrian migrants in Pournara. Hansoa Anyan, who comes from Cameroon, says that authorities are favoring Syrians, letting them out of the camp sooner and more frequently than Africans. He told AP that during last week’s protests, African migrants had tried to block Syrians from exiting.
Cypriot government officials deny that there has been any discrimination in the timing of migrants' release. Interior Ministry spokesman Loizos Michael said releases had to be done gradually and in order of priority, starting with women, children and minors.
Camp authorities are making "herculean efforts" to improve the situation, Michael added, according to AP.
However, the head of the Cyprus Refugee Council, Corina Droushiotou, said the migrants are being held in "de facto detention" at Pournara, AP reports. She said this is "completely unnecessary" and is causing anger among the migrants, some of whom have been living there for as long as five months.
Droushiotou also told AP that despite continued, island-wide COVID-19 restrictions including a night-time curfew, authorities could have allowed people who found a place to stay outside the camp to leave. Others could have been permitted to leave for limited periods of time, on condition that they return before the start of curfew.
The most asylum claims relative to population
The Cyprus interior minister, Nicos Nouris, said last week that Cyprus remains first among all other European Union member states in asylum applications relative to its population (around 1.1 million).
In 2020, the country received about 7,000 asylum applications – most of them from Syrians. Nouris said the government is doing its best to speed up the application process to let in those who "qualify" and to send back migrants whose application is refused.
Text based on a report by AP