There are currently around 2,500 applications from asylum seekers in Cyprus, a situation which is manageable, the UNHCR office on the island says.
According to UNHCR data, in 2013, some 847 new applications were submitted to the asylum service, and there were 386 appeals to the reviewing authority. So far applications pending examination are 1,320 for the asylum service and 1,104 for the reviewing authority. Around 34 people were given refugee status last year and 98 subsidiary status while 37 were classed under humanitarian statues. closed.
In an interview with the Cyprus News Agency (CNA), United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Cyprus Damtew Dessalegne said the current situation was manageable and overall there were no major problems, although there were a few gaps and weaknesses, he said.
Dessalegne said that despite popular perceptions, very few refugees live on welfare. Those who do live on welfare do so because they cannot work either because they are physically incapable or they do not have the experience needed. Public debate on the issues was sadly lacking, he said but not because he believes Cypriots are intolerant but because most, but not all, are indifferent. “This has worsened since the financial crisis,” he said.
Dessalegne said the UNHCR was trying to reach out to other stakeholders from civil society, the media, and academia so that they could cooperate with the agency in legal research activities. According to Dessalegne, the High Commission also works with parliamentarians to ensure that the law complies not only with EU, but also international law.
“The discussion is good. We have access to senior government officials. I can see whoever I want to see, they welcome me very warmly, but in international law, what matters is what happens. I am interested in seeing results,” he said.
There were some major achievements but weaknesses in others, for example delays in providing people the essential support for their survival. Dessalegne said that there were people who have to wait three and four months for help.
Asked about the conditions at Kofinou reception area and the Menoyia detention center, Dessalegne said Kofinou had a capacity for only 80 people. It is an open centre where asylum seekers are provided with accommodation while they wait for decision in their application. With 2,500 applications pending, this means the rest “have to struggle to find accommodation”.
“They cannot work because asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first six months,” said Dessalegne. Referring to Menoyia, where some 250 people are being detained for deportation, Dessalegne described it as the “cruel stage”.
He said that most of the times the refugees flee their country because of conflict and arrive here without any documents, without a visa and then arrested and prosecuted for illegal entry, and then sent to Menoyia to be deported to places like Syria.
“And then there is the ban on returning to Syria because of the crisis, so these people are kept there, in detention and the Cypriot authorities spend all this money. There are areas of my concern,” Dessalegne said.
He said according to international refugee law, the refugees should not be expected to provide proper documents and visas because they flee their countries under very anomalous conditions.
“They should not be prosecuted and penalised. Legislation is recognised here but not practiced,” he said.
Dessalegne also said he was not satisfied with the pace at which applications were examined but acknowledged the services were understaffed. “We have some exceptional cases, individuals waiting for a decision for up to four and five years. They are allowed to work only in the farm and are getting coupons where before they were applying for benefits. These people cannot travel, they have no documents and keeping them here only worsens the situation. There are different ways to accelerate the process and I will continue to discuss it with the authorities,” he added. (CNA)