By Jean Christou
CYPRIOT immigration authorities routinely detain hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers in prison-like conditions for extended periods while awaiting deportation, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
Evidence gathered by researchers during a recent visit to Cyprus indicated that the authorities were exploiting EU laws – imposing automatic detention of migrants and asylum-seekers without implementing the required safeguards, which make detention a last resort. The practice is also a breach of international law.
“By detaining scores of people for months at a time, Cyprus is displaying a chilling lack of compassion and a complete disregard for its international obligations,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty.
“It is shameful to think that within the EU, people who have committed no crime are being held in harsh prison-like conditions for prolonged periods, in some cases for up to 18 months or longer. Amnesty International is concerned that Cyprus is using the systematic detention of migrants to intimidate and deter potential immigrants and asylum-seekers,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
In at least two cases, women detained were forcibly separated from their young children. One was a baby just 19 months old, the other aged three. The children were handed over to social services.
Both women said the separation had had devastating effects on their children. One described how her son would not stop crying, had dark circles below his eyes and how she had difficulties feeding him. The other described how her son would not speak or smile during the little time she could spend with him, when he was brought for visits. The women had been resident in Cyprus for many years and were married to EU citizens; their children were also EU citizens.
“There can be no excuse for separating a woman who has committed no crime from her children. The treatment of migrants in Cyprus at the moment is degrading and unnecessary,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
At least one person at the Menoyia detention centre, had been held for 22 consecutive months while awaiting deportation. Under EU law, the maximum detention on immigration grounds is 18 months.
“The Menoyia centre is a prison in all but name,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
Detention as a means of immigration control should only be used as a last resort, Amnesty said. “The Cypriot authorities, seemingly eager to portray themselves as taking a tough stance on immigration, have displayed a ruthless and arbitrary attitude to locking up migrants,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
“The fact that EU laws allow people who have not committed a criminal offence to be effectively imprisoned for up to 18 months is appalling. The EU has – rightly – criticised prolonged detention without charge in other countries, but has legalised it in the EU.”
Although Cyprus’ immigration authorities told Amnesty that alternatives to detention were available, these are seldom offered. Instead, deportation orders are issued at the same time as detention orders without considering alternatives.
Since Amnesty International last assessed conditions in Cyprus in 2011, the only positive development has been that they are no longer held in Nicosia’s central prison, it said.
Referring to Syrian refugees, Amnesty said it was “incomprehensible” that Cyprus was detaining Syrian nationals when official policy is not to return Syrians to Syria due to the civil war there.
“We can only conclude that the detention of Syrian nationals is intended to send a message to other Syrians that they are not welcome in Cyprus.”