Despite the fact that Cyprus was not greatly affected by the mass movement of refugees in 2016, conditions at the Kofinou reception centre for asylum seekers remain substandard, officials said.
In a joint open letter, Human Rights Commissioner Eliza Savvidou and the representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cyprus Damtew Dessalenge, said that living conditions at the reception centre had gradually deteriorated due to overcrowding while the number of staff remains the same.
Representatives of the commissioner’s office and of the UNHCR visited the Kofinou reception centre in December, the letter said, and verified that there were many operational problems, and called on the competent authorities to intervene promptly.
“Due to the tripling of the centre’s population, reception and living conditions gradually worsen, creating risks for serious health and safety problems for the residents,” the letter said.
“The centre is operating since 2004 under the supervision of the asylum service and after expansion in 2014, the capacity was increased from 120 to 400 people, but without the corresponding increase in staff. In the last year, the centre has been hosting over 300 people, a large number of whom are children”.
They said the centre was not suitable for single women with children as it is located in a remote area, while there is no staff trained to deal with people in such vulnerable groups. It added that there were very few programmes for residents, and especially the children for learning the language, orientation and creative entertainment.
“There is great need for activities that would be appropriate in relation to gender and age on a daily basis to alleviate boredom and frustration”. It also stressed the need for all children of school-age to attend schools and receive the necessary support.
The overflowing of the sewage system was another concern, the letter said, as there was a constant stench, and it posed contamination risks. This, it said, was a long-standing problem, and has not been fixed, “despite efforts of the asylum service”.
“There is also damage in bathrooms – and as a result no hot water, damage in kitchens to ovens, broken faucets, exposed wiring and generally poor cleanliness along with scattered garbage and a stench coming from bins”.
Despite the genuine efforts of the staff of the asylum service, it said, the government must take prompt and effective measures to alleviate operational problems at the centre, and to ensure decent living conditions and social inclusion.
Among the suggestions the commissioner’s office and the UNHCR made is for the state to address the overcrowding issue, and to provide for people in vulnerable groups, or for those who have been there over six months outside of the centre.
As regards social services, suggestions include their expansion to cover the needs of the entire population of the centre, as well as the presence of a group to provide psychological support to vulnerable groups such as minors, people with special needs, the elderly, pregnant women, single parents, trafficking victims, people with disorders or suffering from serious illnesses, and victims of rape and torture. “They should be recognised in time by the officials in charge and receive – as the law provides – more specific, prompt and effective support”.
The officials also suggest that the government provides free or subsidised bus tickets to the residents of the centre to facilitate their movement to urban areas. The fact that the reception centre is in an isolated area, “complicates their daily lives and makes access to jobs and basic public services difficult”.
They also called for mechanisms to ensure the smooth operation of the centre and alleviate tension between its residents which could be caused due to their different national, cultural and social backgrounds.
In response, the interior ministry said on Wednesday that state services were constantly taking all indicated measures to address all problems at the but that the minister has ordered an administrative probe into the matter.
The ministry said in an announcement that there was no overcrowding as the centre’s capacity was 400 people and it hosted on average 309 people in 2016.
As regards the damage and technical problems, as well as the sewage, all had been dealt with by the public works department, it said.
It added that people belonging in vulnerable groups, when they are identified as such, are being provided for in houses outside the centre. Efforts are underway for the creation of a separate reception centre for vulnerable groups and especially women. The ministry also said that it runs a number of activities including language lessons and sports in cooperation with volunteers, organised groups and the Red Cross.