Be Evie Andreou
THERE were emotional scenes on Saturday as the around 80 Syrians remaining in the reception centre in Kokkinotrimithia were given a few more hours, until Sunday morning, to decide whether to apply for asylum or leave the camp and rely on their own means.
They were among the 337 people rescued off the coast of Cyprus en route to Italy in late September when their ship was caught in rough sea.
The government had given them a three-month residence permit to decide what they wanted to do, apply for asylum or temporary residence permit with access to the job market.
Two weeks ago, all government services pulled out of the camp – police, civil defence, social welfare – leaving refugees to fend for themselves and on Saturday afternoon the tents hosting the refugees were to be packed up, and already those that have been vacated were being taken down.
On Saturday morning state services, including representatives of the interior ministry, returned to the camp with the intention to pack up the tents, and until the eleventh hour, the refugees were been urged to apply for asylum so they would be then transferred immediately to the Kofinou reception centre.
“Since Friday, 18 more people had applied for asylum and were transferred to Kofinou, while a family rented an apartment in Nicosia and left the camp on Saturday,” said Civil Defence deputy Ioannis Avlonitis, who is also in charge of the camp.
Tensions rose at around 3.30pm when a woman in her late 40s burst into tears and started wailing, saying that if she was not able to reunite with her son who is still in Syria then she might as well die.
Despair was heavy in the air as many said they did not want to be transferred to Kofinou, since if they went there, they’d have to apply for asylum, but they did not know where else to go. Instead of the refugees status, the majority of asylum seekers receive subsidiary protection, which is granted to people threatened by a general situation of danger but are not personally persecuted. People with subsidiary protection cannot bring family over from Syria.
Two young women said that if they go to Kofinou they were told they’d have only three days to apply for asylum, and they did not want to do that.
“I’d rather stay here in the tent without any water and electricity than to go to Kofinou,” said another woman with a three-year-old son. She said she and her husband tried to find an apartment to stay in but had not succeeded so far.
Four men took their suitcases and left the camp on foot.
Red Cross volunteers and members of the immigrant support group KISA were also on site.
At around 4.30pm a representative of the interior ministry addressed the remaining Syrians saying that the government understands their situation but that they had to decide what they wanted to do.
“You were given upon your arrival a three-month residence permit that was extended until January 18, and then again until today,” the official said.
He added that since their rescue the government had treated them with respect and that they had been told their options and rights on day one.
Answering a Syrian, he said he could not guarantee they would receive refugee status but they would not know unless they actually applied.
“On Sunday morning we will be here to answer to your questions and assist you with what you want to do,” he said.
Since the government services pulled out, several Syrians people have been approached by people smugglers.
According to reports, a group of 20 have made it to Turkey but a second group of 15 people are currently stuck in the occupied areas as the smugglers have asked for more money to transfer them to Turkey.
Interior ministry spokesman Michalakis Christodoulides told the Sunday Mail the government is offering options to the Syrians to legalise their stay on the island according to the EU legislation.
So far, 71 people have applied for asylum, only eight of which received refugee status, while 144 have applied for temporary residence permit. Some have acquired visas to other countries and some have left the island one way or another.