By Stefanos Evripidou
CYPRUS has come a long way since its national asylum system was first put in place 12 years ago, but there is still a way to go regarding refugee integration, and the protection of vulnerable groups and unaccompanied minors, a migration conference in Nicosia heard yesterday.
The Cypriot authorities were urged by European speakers to make use of EU funds earmarked for the integration of refugees, noting that the total sum allocated Cyprus for the next budgetary period has more than tripled.
The offices of the European Commission, European Parliament and UNHCR in Cyprus yesterday held a public discussion in the capital on the theme: ‘Refugee Integration in Cyprus: Managing Diversity’.
Addressing the event, head of the European Commission`s Asylum Unit Matthias Oel said the integration of foreigners in society is the cornerstone of a successful Common European Asylum System (CEAS).
The effort will be left half-finished if the CEAS is not implemented by all member states, he added.
After visiting the Kofinou Reception Centre for asylum seekers on Wednesday, as part of a committee that monitors asylum reforms in Cyprus, Oel congratulated the Cypriot authorities for the progress achieved to date.
He noted the centre’s capacity has been extended from 60-70 last year to 400 people now.
Oel argued, however, that a series of significant challenges remain for Cyprus concerning the reception conditions of individuals requesting international protection, also noting shortcomings with regards to the protection of vulnerable groups and unaccompanied minors, as well as the length of asylum procedures.
Member states have the final word on legal instruments promoting integration into local societies, but there are also instruments at an EU level which secure, among other things, access to social welfare, health services and integration programmes, said Oel.
The Commission official urged Cyprus to make full use of EU integration funds for refugee integration allocated to Cyprus in the EU’s new seven-year budget (2014-2020).
Head of the European Commission Representation in Cyprus Giorgos Markopouliotis said that €3.1 billion will be allocated to national programmes for the relief of refugees and asylum seekers, through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.
The sum available for Cyprus is estimated at around €32 million for the seven-year period, he added.
In the previous 2008-2013 period, the European Refugee Fund made €610m available to member states from which €10m was allocated to Cyprus.
Markopouliotis said: “Every four seconds, someone in the world is forced to leave his home due to conflicts or natural disasters,” while refugees worldwide count for almost 17 million people.
Acting head of the European Parliament Office in Cyprus Alexandra Attalides said member states need to improve measures targeting asylum seekers, adding that more EU funds have been made available for this purpose.
Cyprus’ policy-making and policy targeting should be governed by EU principles, she said, adding: “Cyprus, having gone through the horrors of war, is historically obliged to embrace refugees and help them integrate into society, showing them the necessary compassion and solidarity.”
Damtew Dessalegne, the UNHCR head in Cyprus said the responsibility for integration into society falls mainly on refugees themselves, though in order to meet their responsibilities, the host society needs to be supportive towards refugees, and give them the opportunity to make use of their skills.
According to UNHCR statistics, 454 people were granted refugee status in the Republic of Cyprus and another 1,792 subsidiary protection at the end of 2013.
By law, recognised refugees are entitled to the same socio-economic rights as nationals, though in practice they face a number of impediments to their integration into society.
A UNHCR discussion paper reports that these problems range from access to subsidised housing, practical barriers to working, challenges relating to the recognition of their academic and professional qualifications, restrictions on family reunification and stringent criteria for naturalisation.