Cyprus Mail

The wrong debate on demographics

Poorly developed immigration strategy aimed at providing cheap labour

By David Officer

EARLIER THIS week the Cyprus Mail reported on research produced by the grand sounding, but little known, ‘Institute of Demographics and Migration Policies’. Under the heading “Greek Cypriots ‘a minority’ in Cyprus” the short report was accompanied by a photograph of an elderly Cypriot woman, herself representative of a section of our population who has the temerity to live to a ripe old age and, as the caption intones, take ‘its toll on the government budget for pensions’. Judging by the online response of Mail readers, as well as within the Greek Cypriot public more generally, a fractious debate was ignited.

There is a debate to be had about the demographic profile of the island as a whole and the place of non-nationals south of the buffer zone in particular. Unfortunately, we are not best served by the sensationalist and crudely propagandistic spin which the failed politician Yiannakis Matsis and his institute brought to the proceedings.

Generating statistical evidence is normally a dismal science. But when that evidence touches on issues related to the relative size of ethnic groups, the presence of the foreign and the alien within the boundaries of what should be pure and unsullied or is used to suggest the patriotic duty of Cypriot womanhood to bear the weight of more frequent child birth you know more smoke than light will be produced.

Of course, this not an exclusively Cypriot phenomenon, there are insecurities to be played on which political entrepreneurs will seek to exploit. Matsis joins the UK’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marie Le Pen in recognising the capital to be derived from lighting the blue touch paper of race politics and the numbers game, standing back and benefiting cynically from the confusion which inevitably results.

Matsis’ gripes are two-fold; he offers highly speculative and unverifiable evidence in relations to the presents of Anatolian settlers in the north, an issue directly tied to the emotive politics of the Cyprus Problem. Sorry, but I simply don’t trust an Institute whose self-reported mission is “to monitor, record and report the colonisation of Cyprus by Turkey whose occupation has altered the demographic character of our country and aimed at first stage partition and later in full occupation of Cyprus.” I will stick with serious research reports on this topic published by PRIO Cyprus and authored by Mete Hatay which are at least based on an openly disclosed research methodology.

Secondly, Matsis is exercised by the fact that one in four people south of the buffer zone are non-nationals. And what a complex mix this non-national population is. Some dance for our pleasure in our cabarets, others serve coffee and make up hotel beds, teach our sons and daughters, deliver pizzas to our doorstep, facilitate our company operations, patronise our property market and a lucky few buy our EU passports.

Let’s have a serious debate about all this and the unintended consequences which have resulted. Since the mid-1970s the development model of the Republic has been based on attracting passing trade, as well as financial and human capital originating elsewhere. Facilitating tourism and providing low corporate tax rates aimed at securing illicit capital flows have been the twin pillars of the post invasion economy. This was a conscious strategy which combined with a poorly developed immigration policy aimed at providing cheap labour and plug gaps in labour market which Cypriots have vacated. Then we could add that Cyprus is also a peaceful haven in a region marked by deep seated strife which drives many people here in order to secure life and limb.

Having a pool of cheap labour and a low tax regime also had the consequence of undermining the development of comprehensive and well-resourced public services. Instead, those who can afford it set up private trust funds for their children and educate them in private schools, employ poorly paid Sri Lankans to look after their elderly relatives and Filipina nurses to offer them care in private health clinics. The political pressure required to secure good quality public goods and services was relieved as a consequence.

What is notable about this diverse non-Cypriot population who service the local economy is that they make very little claim on state service. And, because they are of working age, pay a disproportionately large contribution in tax. The big losers in Cypriot society are those who are poor and vulnerable, whatever their national or ethnic background. They are the people who cannot opt to access privatised services and thus remain reliant on the poorly delivered and under resourced public services.

So when the Cyprus Mail chooses to accompany the original article with an image of a vulnerable citizen – exemplified by the elderly poor residing in rural areas – a half truth is being told. Her vulnerability is a direct consequence of the development model pursued by the Republic, and without the presence of foreign labour in the economy her place in society would be that much more precarious than it already is.

Dr David Officer teaches sociology at the University of Nicosia

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