How Cyprus has become a trap for asylum seekers

Cyprus asylum seekers
7 min read
25 April, 2024

It’s still dawn in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, on January 5, 2024, when suddenly an explosion shatters the silence.

The bomb targets the small office of KISA, an organisation that defends asylum seekers, shattering its glass windows.

"This attack didn’t come out of nowhere. For months, we have been the victims of a smear campaign"

This attack is the first of its kind against an NGO in the small Mediterranean Island. No one was hurt, but the structure is still not fully repaired and the organisation is still unable to operate normally.

“This attack didn’t come out of nowhere. For months, we have been the victims of a smear campaign and administrative barriers that prevent us from operating,” explains Doros Polykarpou, KISA’s director.

In February, 41 organisations signed a letter condemning the harassment and attack against KISA. They condemned the escalating violence against foreigners and asylum seekers, and the worrying silence of the Cypriot government and the European Union.

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“There hasn’t even been an investigation. What kind of signal are we giving, by saying nothing?” asked Kondylia Gogou researcher for Amnesty International, one of the letter’s signatories.

Since September 2023, a climate of xenophobic violence has been reigning in Cyprus, targeting foreigners and asylum seekers as fears of demographic replacement grow.

In March 2023 in Paphos, a man attacked a group of Syrians with a weapon. A few months later, in August 2023, 300 members of the far-right ELAM party violently attacked foreigners’ homes and stores.

The same happened in Limassol in September 2023, where shops owned by foreigners were destroyed with Molotov cocktails by a group of 200 Cypriots.

“These incidents are a wake-up call,” continues Gogou.

Violence and discrimination

In recent years, Cyprus has become the nodal point for a new migration route for Nigerians, Syrians, and Cameroonians among others. Thousands arrive every year in search of a better life in Europe.

However, once there, they find themselves trapped: it’s impossible to reach another country — Cyprus doesn’t belong to the Schengen zone — and daily life is full of pitfalls.

"I came here because I thought it was a welcoming country... I wanted to stay, but here I have no rights. I’m forbidden to work"

Most of all, asylum seekers complain about how they suffer from many forms of discrimination in employment and housing.

Ferit is a Kurdish asylum seeker who arrived from Turkey in December 2022. He has been homeless since his arrival, without money or work.

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For now, he spends his days on a bridge overlooking the Venetian fortifications of Nicosia.

“I came here because I thought it was a welcoming country for Kurds. I wanted to stay, but here I have no rights. I’m forbidden to work,” he told The New Arab.

Since December 2023, asylum-seekers have had to wait nine months after registering their application to work legally.

While some prefer to wait before working, so as not to jeopardise their status, many have no choice but to pay for their accommodation and make a decent living in a country with high inflation.

“We are trapped on the open sea. We need to work, it’s not a life!” says Junior, sitting at a kiosk in downtown Nicosia. He arrived from the DRC five years ago.

Currently in limbo in the system, he intends to submit resumes to work in tourism, a sector in short supply.

In Nicosia, asylum seekers keep hotels and restaurants running, especially in high season. The rest of the time, they crisscross the city on bicycles, delivering meals to Cypriots.

But even when they manage to work, their conditions are lower than the Cypriots and they can only work in certain sectors.

After waiting nine months to work, they have to face discrimination but also day-to-day problems such as the pricey and inefficient public transportation system or the poor access to health, social care, or schools for children.

Scared of an 'invasion'

In Cyprus, immigration is constantly increasing such as asylum applications. They reached a peak in 2022 with 21,565 arrivals, compared with 10,585 in 2023.

As a result and because of the government’s delay in processing applications, 5% of the Cypriot population are asylum-seekers, making Cyprus the European country with the highest rate per capita — a rather small number fueling right-wing rhetoric.

"96% of asylum applications are rejected on the island, making Cyprus the European country expelling the most asylum seekers"

The far-right ELAM party is likely to become the country’s third-largest force, according to a recent poll.

“A member of the Conservative party has been included on Elam’s party list for the next European elections,” says Polykarpou.

The government pursues a policy focused on welcoming the asylum seekers before rejecting them, which has been called “xenophobic”, by civil society and academics — 96% of asylum applications are rejected on the island, making Cyprus the European country expelling the most asylum seekers.

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With the financial help of the European Union, a campaign to encourage “voluntary return” is organised, and the ones who were rejected are offered money and a plane ticket back home or to a safe country.

“This is linked to the European Union’s new Immigration and Asylum Pact. There’s a desire to speed things up, facilitate returns, and process applications more quickly,” says Olivier Clochard, a research fellow at CNRS in France.

Over the past few months, President Nikos Christodoulides has been asking the EU to consider certain parts of Syria as safe zones for the expulsion of Syrians, who are arriving in ever-increasing numbers from Lebanon or Syria by boat.

With 2,000 people arriving in the first three months of 2024, the Cypriot President said the country is facing “a serious crisis with these almost daily arrivals.”

Improving the camp life 

To improve procedures and speed up the treatment of applications, 22 million were invested by the EU to reconstruct the First Reception Center, known as Pournara camp, on the outskirts of Nicosia.

Being overcrowded in the last years, the living conditions in the camp were widely denounced by the asylum seekers.

“Before, it was horrible. There were 300 children for two showers,” reports Orestis Papamiltiades of Generation for Change, an NGO in Nicosia offering Greek courses. In 2022, the capacity has been doubled.

"I was often given just one piece of bread as a meal. And when you try to talk to the people in charge, they get angry and don’t listen"

For Ferit, who lived there when he first arrived in early 2023, the experience was dehumanising: “I stayed for three months and there are a lot of problems in the houses.

"Everyone is unhappy, the food is not good and smells bad. I was often given just one piece of bread as a meal. And when you try to talk to the people in charge, they get angry and don’t listen.”

Today, although conditions are better, the place still feels like a prison. Hard to reach by public transportation, the camp is isolated and surrounded by fields and an industrial zone.

When inside, one must pass through a barbed-wire gate to reach the houses, which are cold in winter and suffocating in summer. There are no trees to provide shade for the thousand or so people wandering around waiting to get out.

In the camp, NGO and government social workers report that they are doing their best to provide “decent” living conditions for everyone.

“We have a lot of different services, such as a clinic. We’re available all the time if they have any questions, and we’re working to improve the camp’s accommodation,” explains Stefani Violari coordinator in Pournara.

That day, very vulnerable women from one of these areas experienced a dance therapy session for the first time.

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A gap in integration

While this welcome is intended to be decent, civil society regrets that it is temporary and that very little is being done to promote integration.

“We don’t think these people should be integrated into society. We’re obliged to welcome them, but it has to be temporary. So how can we talk about integration?” explains Doros Polykarpou.

Faced with this gap, the government is preparing a plan that is currently being discussed in public consultations.

“We’re working on 53 actions for integration, based on the best practices of other countries, with five pillars: employment, housing, education, health, and skills enhancement,” explains Andreas Georgiades, head of Asylum service, Ministry of the Interior.

A long-awaited plan that could improve the living conditions of asylum seekers — if it’s not just a publicity stunt, as Doros Polykarpou fears.

Marine Caleb is a French freelance journalist living in Tripoli. She runs the media professionals' magazine Le Trente, writes for various Canadian media and specialises in migration and gender issues

Follow her on Twitter: @MarineCaleb