By Evie Andreou
WORLD Refugee Day is being celebrated as a mark of the courage and resilience of ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances, Damtew Dessalenge, representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cyprus said on Friday.
To mark World Refugee Day, which was on June 20, the UNHCR representation hosted a press conference to raise awareness on the human stories behind each war and conflict.
Dessalenge paid homage to the world’s refugees and criticised the treatment of refugees in Cyprus, mentioning the recent hunger strike of four political refugees demanding to be granted Cypriot citizenship, who after a 15 year-stay on the island their status is still in limbo.
He said that “refugees are the great survivors of our time and they deserve our encouragement, support and respect and that if given the chance each can make a positive contribution to the whole society, economically, socially, and culturally.”
“Unfortunately, refugees are not always given this chance in their country of asylum and they are not actively encouraged and supported to reach their full potential but they are left instead to drift through day to day existence.”
He added that the severe economic crisis in Cyprus has had a disproportionate impact on many refugees and asylum seekers as they have lost their jobs and seen their social protection reduced, appealing for respect, understanding and support so that they can nurture and realise their hope.
George Markopouliotis, head of the European Commission’s representation in Cyprus said that the EU is determined to keep providing protection to the world’s displaced and keep receiving anyone seeking asylum due to conflict and persecution.
He said that the EU has created various programmes aimed to support member states that receive refugees such as the European Refugee Fund which has given more than €610m between 2008-2013, €10m of which to Cyprus. The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund is another programme, which has a 2014-2020 budget of €3.1bn of which Cyprus will receive €32m.
Markopouliotis elaborated on the new Common European Asylum System (CEAS) which will end the huge differences in regards to asylum applications. The system will provide easier access to asylum granting procedures, it will contribute to fair, faster and better asylum granting decisions and it will ensure that anyone in danger of facing persecution in their country will not be forced to return.
Makis Polydorou, head of the Interior ministry’s Asylum Services, said that Cyprus is actively participating in the EU’s programmes such as the CEAS and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and that the expansion of the Kofinou asylum reception centre will be ready by the end of August. The centre’s capacity will be increased from hosting 70 people to 400. Furthermore, it is in the process of creating a reception centre that will be able to accommodate a large number of people in cases of mass evacuations, as in the 2006 Lebanon crisis.
Despite all these though, Cyprus is currently not in a position to receive more refugees, said Polydorou. He added that since 2002 Cyprus had to deal with a disproportionately large burden compared to other EU member-states. He said that since 2002, Cyprus has examined asylum applications concerning 50,000 people.
He stressed the importance of burden sharing and said that there should be an equal distribution and re-distribution of refugees and asylum seekers in the EU member-states according to their size and economic power.
The campaign for World Refugee Day 2014 in Cyprus is hosted on the website www.unhcr.org.cy/refugeestories . It presents stories of refugees in Cyprus, in English and Greek. It also includes a video message by humanitarian ambassador and musician Alkinoos Ioannidis for World Refugee Day.