By Poly Pantelides
TWO top state officials are investigating several cases involving children whose parents have been illegally detained under threat of deportation by the migration department.
Ombudswoman, Eliza Savvidou, and the Child Commissioner, Leda Koursoumba, have highlighted a number of shocking cases in which the migration department have left teenagers to fend for themselves after detaining both parents, or have deprived children of at least one parent on charges of marriage of convenience based on false or flimsy evidence.
“We are observing a growing harshness of attitude by the migration department that is possibly related to the xenophobic climate that is being developed in Cyprus,” Savvidou told the Sunday Mail this week.
Complaints over alleged mistreatment by the migration department have been on the increase in the past year, she said. Just last year, her office received almost 300 complaints over the migration department alone.
One case involves a three-year-old girl who has been deprived of her Bulgarian mother and Pakistani father because the migration department claims the couple’s marriage is one of convenience. However a DNA test has proven paternity, while the migration department claimed the woman was pregnant when she got married, even though her daughter was born eleven months after their marriage.
Following an August news report in daily newspaper Simerini, the Child Commissioner wrote to the interior ministry and police over the seeming violations of child protection laws, while the Ombudswoman asked for the mother’s immediate release. Three months later, Zoya Mitova Margaritova remains in detention. Muhammad Zeshan Nadeem, her husband and proven father of their daughter Laiba, was arrested last week.
Savvidou said the migration department could not justify claims of a marriage of convenience when a DNA test proved fatherhood and has sent yet another letter this week asking for the parents’ immediate release. The Child Commissioner’s office has also written again to authorities.
Another case involves a 15-year-old living alone because her Chinese parents are held in the holding facility in Menoyia for immigrants awaiting deportation. Her story was one of the examples raised of alleged abuse of power during a discussion this week attended by Savvidou.
Those present were told the girl was unwilling to take up on the welfare department’s offer of a home and lives alone in her family’s apartment, according to founder of non-governmental organisation Cyprus Stop Trafficking, Androulla Christofidou-Henriques.
In an open letter to the head of migration Anny Shakallis, who did not take up the invitation to attend to the event, she wrote: “I find it very hard that a mother could make such a harsh choice, to deprive a child of its [own] mother,” Christofidou-Henriques said.
Savvidou said authorities could have chosen different arrangements to keep the family intact or at least to let the mother free after confiscating her travel documents and asking her to regularly report to police.
“It makes no sense to keep [the mother] in prison and leave the child alone to roam the streets. They must understand their responsibilities, if something happens it will be the Cypriot Republic that will be accountable,” she said.
In another case, a young couple have approached the Sunday Mail because the husband, a Lebanese married to a British woman, has been held in Menoyia since March, kept away from his young children as he also awaits deportation. Fadel and Carmella Hijazie have been living in Cyprus for six years and have two boys, three-year-old Alex and eight-month-old Luca. Carmella’s parents own property in Cyprus (Carmella has Greek Cypriot roots), and Fadel has been paying social insurance contributions. But Fadel has been away from his family for over seven months and was detained just a month after his youngest son was born. Their lawyer Andreas Pelecanos said the relevant authorities have not explained their decisions to detain and deport Fadel.
His Supreme Court appeal keeps getting postponed while he waits in detention. The latest court date is for December.
“Basically he is a foreigner and they want him out irrespective of the fact he has a European wife with two children,” Carmella said. “So has this country completely gone to the dogs that they are now looking to separate perfectly happy and healthy families?”
The law says depriving children of their parents, and detaining people for deportation should be a measure of last resort. But even the courts are sometimes too slow to act.
For example, in late October a Pakistani man and father of a half-Cypriot child was deported because the Supreme Court would not issue a same-day interim order to stop authorities from deporting him, his lawyer Michalis Paraskevas said. Instead, the judge set a November 5 case to hear the case, too late for the four-year-old child and his father.
“In this, the judge was complicit in depriving a child of his father,” Paraskevas said, adding that Supreme Court judges tended to be very tolerant of the “migration department’s arbitrary policies”.
The length of detention for purposes of deportation should be up to six months, although the Sunday Mail has previously reported on cases of lengthy detention, such as the 47-year-old Iranian scientist who was held for over nine months. According to human rights’ laws, the courts should process such cases as quick as possible.
Paraskevas, who is also the lawyer of the parents of three-year-old Laiba, is not the only one who has been issuing warnings.
Pelecanos, Fadel and Carmella’s lawyer, said arrest and deportation orders tend to be arbitrary. The orders take
a person’s freedom away, sever family ties, and take people’s jobs away, he said. Authorities also break the law by delaying processing the cases in the Supreme Court. And because the Supreme Court only looks at the administrative nature of the issue, i.e. the legality of a previous order, the migration department simply issues a new order, “so they don’t have to release successful applicants, who grow weary waiting for a new hearing, again while in detention,” Pelecanos said.
Despite repeated phonecalls Anny Shakallis did not respond to a request for comment.
How migration breaks the law
The migration department and the interior ministry that signs off its department’s decisions, tend to contravene a vast array of European directives, human rights directives, and case law, all meant to protect people and families.
One such contravention relates to “attributing an assumption of marriage of convenience to every mixed marriage” where one partner has not sorted their migration papers yet, an Ombudswoman report from February said.
The report said EU case law directly opposed a sweeping approach in such matters, such as the one the migration department adopts. The same report refers to a Supreme Court decision talking of the “legalistic way” in which migration department treated one third country national. He had been waiting for a year for a necessary document certifying he had not been married before, so he could marry his partner, a naturalised Cypriot.
Instead, when he got randomly arrested, he was immediately handed with a deportation order. The court said the department did not act in good faith, did not act within reasonable timeframes and took advantage of an irrelevant set of events. The court called migration to respect the rights of people, as enshrined in the country’s constitution and European laws. Meanwhile, the European Commission reminded its member states in 2011 they should not be conducting systematic checks on marriages of convenience, but could only investigate “isolated cases where there are well-founded suspicions of abuse [of the law]”.
Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou said they understand the need to deal with real cases of marriages of convenience. But she added that even when the data does not point to a marriage of convenience, there were instances of Cypriots married to a foreigner, whether EU citizens or otherwise, who were put under “huge inconveniences” of the like of knocking on people’s door to check if they live together, checking their personal items, and asking intimate questions about their sex life.
“There’s a sort of sweep operation going on, if I may use that term,” she said.
The migration department often delays responding to the Ombudswoman’s investigations, sometimes needing five reminders before getting back, and even then, responses are not always adequate, Savvidou said.
Other policies, such as forcing mixed race couples to prove paternity via DNA tests are not based on any laws, Savvidou has said in her annual report.
In her own annual reports Child Commissioner Leda Koursoumba has highlighted the absence by the state of a comprehensive policy on migration, and even a “refusal” by the relevant authorities to implement what is meant to be binding by law.
“There have been cases where both parents of children were detained for the purpose of deportation,” Koursoumba said in her annual report. In her 2011 report she also mentioned complaints by families whose main breadwinner was detained for deportation, leaving the family vulnerable without a financial income.
Koursoumba has called the state – from which the migration department’s policies are ultimately derived – for a comprehensive policy so that matters involving children are regulated with clarity and in accordance to children’s rights.