The long and often unnecessary detention of migrants is a major issue that Cyprus must address, the Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks told the Cyprus Mail on Wednesday.
He was commenting on a wide ranging report on Cyprus by the CoE human rights commission due to be published on Thursday which shows that while there has recently been some improvement in Cyprus’ human rights record, a lot still needs to be done.
The report is the result of a visit by Muižnieks and his delegation from December 7 to 11, 2015. In the course of his visit the Commissioner held discussions with authorities, human rights structures, international organisations and representatives of civil society. This is the first report on Cyprus by a human rights commissioner since 2008.
“We compare different countries, and also a country over time,” he said. “My predecessors have studied Cyprus and we have also learned a lot.”
The best developments in Cyprus, he added, are the 14,000 free breakfasts handed out to school children and the introduction of the Guaranteed Minimum Income scheme (GMI).
However, he sees weaknesses in the legal system. “You have a very complicated legal framework,” he commented, “with a weak provision for people with a refugee status. Many people have a subsidiary status and very few people have a refugee status, almost by default and this should be the other way round.”
The new report focuses on two main areas, the human rights of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants and the impact of the economic crisis on children, women, older people and other vulnerable groups.
A major focus was the length of asylum procedures, access to legal assistance and the situation of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The commission was also concerned with the social integration of asylum seekers, such as access to housing and the right to family reunification.
Muižnieks observed a worrying trend of increasing child poverty in Cyprus. He was particularly concerned about the consequences of austerity measures on children’s right to education. In the report, Cyprus is urged to carry out an impact assessment of the budgetary restrictions in the field of education and equal opportunities, and the inclusion of pupils belonging to vulnerable social groups.
Regarding women, the Commissioner commented on the persistence of discrimination suffered by women in Cyprus, in particular in terms of wages and access to full-time employment. Inequalities, according to his observations, have been worsened by the economic situation.
Austerity measures have also seriously affected older persons’ right to an adequate standard of living and to health. Access to public services is of the utmost importance for older persons, he said. The Commission has urged authorities to ensure older persons’ access to public services, especially to healthcare services.
Concerned about the impact on particularly vulnerable groups Muižnieks said the authorities should adopt positive measures in their favour, such as the provision of adequate psychological support.
“Especially in countries with economic problems the mental health services are often not developed enough to cope with the problems,” he said.
Muižnieks said he would follow up the progress in Cyprus.
“My job is to keep the issues on the agenda and to provide legal and political ammunition to those who want to improve things,” he concluded. “So we will keep the dialogue (with the Cyprus government) open, either by meeting with them or from abroad.”
The rights of unaccompanied children
One aspect with which the commission is particularly concerned is the rights of unaccompanied children.
“According to UNHCR figures, the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children has increased since the end of 2013. In 2014, 54 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Cyprus,” the report said, “There were 46 in the first half of 2015.” Yet, according to the report, the refugee law does not provide for any specific identification procedure of vulnerable persons, including unaccompanied children.
As a result, most unaccompanied minors, vulnerable asylum seekers, are identified on the occasion of their first interview. The Commissioner is concerned about the fact that, due to delays in conducting the interviews, unaccompanied migrant minors can remain without appropriate care and protection for months, if not years.
The commissioner’s attention was further drawn to certain difficulties linked to unaccompanied migrant children’s legal representation.
“The social welfare officers, due to the nature of their responsibilities and/or due to the fact that they do not have legal training, cannot provide proper legal advice and thus cannot effectively safeguard the rights of unaccompanied migrant children,” he said. This leaves minors without proper legal representation.
Integration and nationality
Another related aspect which concerns the commissioner is the integration into Cypriot society, and particularly the absence of laws safeguarding stateless children.
“Cyprus has not yet acceded to the 1997 European Convention on Nationality or any other international treaty on statelessness, and the rights of stateless people are not adequately protected under domestic law,” Muižnieks said, noting that there are also no provisions to grant nationality to children of unknown parents.
According to the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, in most cases, children whose parents are stateless remain without nationality, even if they were born in Cyprus. The commissioner is deeply troubled about this situation which prevents migrant children from integrating into society.