From file: At a protest in the capital Nicosia, asylum seekers hold up banners asking for work and protesting about their exploitation. Some claim to be offered money and help in exchange for sex. April 16, 2019 | Photo: Caritas Cyprus
From file: At a protest in the capital Nicosia, asylum seekers hold up banners asking for work and protesting about their exploitation. Some claim to be offered money and help in exchange for sex. April 16, 2019 | Photo: Caritas Cyprus

Leprince* fled Cameroon for Cyprus, where he landed by plane in 2019. Since then, he has started a family but the living conditions of asylum seekers on the island make their daily life very difficult. The young Cameroonian admits to sometimes "being on the verge of suicide".

Leprince*, 28, lives in Nicosia with his wife and three children -- two girls and a boy. The former aid worker from Cameroon thought he could build a peaceful life in Cyprus, far from the threats and persecution he suffered in his country of origin. However, his life on the island is "a daily fight", he says, despite the fact that Cyprus is a member of the European Union (EU).

"I arrived alone in Cyprus on April 12, 2019, by the northern part of the island. I spent some time with a friend in Nicosia and that is when I met Farah*. She left Somalia eight years ago to come and live here with her small daughter and authorities granted her refugee status. We immediately fell in love.

Afterwards, like all migrants, I went to the Pournara migrants' shelter to file my asylum application. Farah would come visit me. It was very difficult there and during her visits, a lot of migrants begged her to help them. When I left, I went to live with her and her little one. They were my new family and I thought I was going to be able to take care of them. Yet earning a living here is almost impossible. They make you false contracts, they abuse you and they pay you little.

I speak French and English, and I am educated, so I submitted my candidacy to a communication company. I thought it would work because I had the right profile. They had French-speaking customers so I thought I would be useful to them. Finally, they did not want to hire me because I was an asylum seeker. I was extremely disappointed.

Cypriot law allows asylum seekers to work while they wait for their file to be processed, one month after they submit it. However, the sectors of work available to them are delimited by the law. Asylum seekers can work in agriculture, waste management, the automobile industry (as an employee in a garage or car wash), the service sector (cleaning and food delivery, in particular), as well as in tourism-related infrastructure.

I really needed this job because at the time, we were living on the street. I only received the allowances reserved for asylum seekers [€261 per month] three times in three years. We were always trying to find a home for my wife and her daughter with people and acquaintances. I was spending the night outside. We lived like that for two and a half months.

During all that time, I had no news on my file. I had my first interview in October 2021, and then there was no response from the authorities.

While the Cypriot government is trying to reduce the time for the asylum procedure to a maximum of two months, it actually takes between three to five years.

'I'm stuck on this island'

Farah and I got married on July 22, 2021. We had another child on November 11 of the same year. I am happy to have my family but it is also very stressful because you have to support everyone. Since last year, I have been a cook's assistant in a restaurant in Nicosia and I earn between €750 and €800 per month. This is our only income. My wife should receive aid because she is a refugee, but like the allowances for asylum seekers, we have not received the money.

Often the Catholic Church in town gives us food and clothes. They also distribute coupons of €50. We try to survive with that. Then, Farah gave birth to our third child on December 8. I am happy, but it was not what we wanted. I am extremely worried. How are we going to make it? I am even ready for her and the children to go and live somewhere else, in a country where they can have a good education and flourish. I can reamin here; it doesn't matter.

Also read: Cyprus reports a rise in migrant arrivals

I am very disappointed with my life here; when I left Cameroon, I thought my situation would improve. I left because I was threatened. I worked for an NGO that helped people in the English-speaking area. When I was 14, my father was shot in the back and killed. This experience scarred me for life. As an adult, I was arrested and beaten with a gun. Since then, I have had a scar on my forehead. The last assault was one too many. I went to Douala airport and took the plane.

Since October 2017, a deadly conflict has been playing out in the two regions of the English-speaking area of Cameroon, in the North-West and South-West, opposing the army and the separatist forces. According to Human Rights Watch, the conflict has already caused the death of more than 4,000 civilians and the displacement of more than 712,000 people inside the English-speaking regions.

Cyprus was the fastest way out of the country. Like an emergency exit. However, now I am stuck on this island.

'I cry often'

I organized a march on October 27 to protest against the living conditions of migrants on the island. I wrote a letter in English to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to tell them that we have rights and that they should be respected. They did not respond.

All of this is exhausting. Sometimes I feel like it is harder here than in Cameroon. It is as if all our efforts are always reduced to nothing. I give myself body and soul and it is useless. I am courageous by nature but I cry a lot. My wife supports me. If she were not there... There are days when I am on the verge of suicide.

If I had refugee status, everything would be better. I could take care of our children. That last hope disappeared on December 21. I received a response from the immigration services: I was rejected. I am completely overwhelmed and my wife is at her wits' end. Today, she is even ready to leave me. I have failed, I can't even provide a normal life for my family.

Leprince appealed the decision by the Cypriot authorities and he is waiting for their response, set for January 27, 2023.

*Name has been changed

Also read: How universities on Cyprus have joined the human trafficking game


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