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Cyprus

‘Boat people’ marooned on British bases

The aircraft hangar where the women and young children are kept

By Evie Andreou

Layali Ibrahim was born on the open deck of a boat crammed with 74 migrants that washed up by chance on the shores of the British base at Akrotiri nearly 17 years ago.

Her parents were among the group of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds who had given their life savings to people smugglers to ferry them from Lebanon to Italy, but the crew fled in a dinghy when the engine of the ramshackle boat sputtered out.

As a “temporary” measure, the migrants were housed on a remote corner of Dhekelia military base, quaintly called Richmond Village, while Britain tried to find another country to take them.

Twenty-one of the original “boat people” are still marooned on Dhekelia, unwanted and without work or hope. With children born there – Layali now has four younger siblings – and family members who later joined them, they make up a group of 67. Just over half are children, all of whom are stateless.

Now, after living for years in limbo, the Richmond Villagers are taking action to draw attention to their plight in the hope of persuading – or embarrassing – the British authorities to let them settle in Britain. So far, it has resulted only in them being detained and having their vital welfare benefits cut. But desperation has made them seemingly determined to carry on.

A bases policeman carries a baby from one of the protesting families to a police car
A bases policeman carries a baby from one of the protesting families to a police car

Every day, four of the migrant families gather peacefully outside the main entrance to the fenced-off part of Dhekelia garrison by the Key Cinema.

Bases police, most of them Cypriots, arrive in buses but take no action until the protesters attempt to block the road, when they are promptly arrested. The bases say they respect the migrants’ right to protest, but will not allow them to stop traffic.

“They endanger themselves and their children when they put them in the middle of the street,” a spokesman for the British bases told the Sunday Mail.

The police know the 25 or so protestors by their first names and the arrests are conducted politely: this has been a daily ritual since 16 March. The Richmond villagers say that some of the British service families driving by are generally less sympathetic than the police: “They sometimes give us the middle finger,” one said.

The arrested men are ferried by bus to a police cell in Dhekelia while the women are detained in an aircraft hangar, accompanied by their younger offspring who have no-one else to look after them. The bases spokesman said the children “are put in safe accommodation”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cyprus is unimpressed. Damtew Dessalenge told the Sunday Mail that the detentions are not justified because the protestors are not taken to court or convicted of anything. They cannot be arrested every day and be released at night, he said.

Layali and her sister Helwa, 15, are both fluent Greek-speaking, straight A students at the Cypriot state schools they attend and dream of studying medicine in Britain. They join their mother and brothers at the hangar every day after they finish school. The families are released in the evening and return to Richmond Village.

The protests began after the British bases authorities told the families in Richmond Village that they must move to new, prefabricated homes nearby. The authorities deem the current houses unsuitable because asbestos, which can be harmful to health, was used in their construction. They are former married quarters for service families that were due to be demolished when the migrants arrived in Cyprus in October 1998. [Some houses were knocked down in recent years.]

One of the protestors, Sayid Ibrahim, 45, said: “There is no future for us in Cyprus, we want to go to England, not to a new house.”

Layali’s family, among others, is refusing to move. Richmond Village, although isolated, is at least relatively green and she has known no other home. And the houses, while tatty, are big enough and have scrubby gardens for the children to play in.

The migrants insist that the handful of new, trailer park-style houses – which they disparaging call “containers” or “caravans” – are far too small for their large families. The homes stand on desolate square of tarmac surrounded by high fences topped by barbed wire. There are no amenities and no shops nearby.

feature evie - The new accommodation the British bases have provided for the families
The new accommodation the British bases have provided for the families

The compound, inappropriately called Victoria Park, resembles a detention centre: there is no greenery and no shade. The two families that have moved there can’t be looking forward to summer.

“We will only leave Richmond Village to go to Britain and nowhere else,” says Layali’s father, Farhad.

But the protest is more than about accommodation. The migrants believe the order to move is really a further step designed to push them out of the British bases entirely. Their weekly welfare allowances – €70 per adult and €30 for each child – have been slashed since they began protesting.

“Our children now eat only dinner,” says Farhad, who is 42. “When they come home from school there is nothing to eat. In the morning they don’t eat any breakfast, we cannot give them money to buy something to eat at school, and when they return home there is no lunch.” The adults save the food they get in prison for their children, he adds.

The welfare payments will resume when the protests stop, the bases spokesman told the Sunday Mail.

“They were informed that for every day they were arrested, their allowance would be reduced… They have been told should they stop protesting, their allowance would start rising again – it’s in their hands.”
The protestors hope they can attract the attention of international media to highlight their plight on the colonial holdover some 2,000 miles from Britain.
A psychological evaluation of the Richmond villagers conducted for the UNHCR found that most feel “depressed, hopeless and helpless”. Many of the adults suffer sleeping and eating disorders brought on by anxiety over their unresolved status and their inability to “satisfy the basic needs of their children” who “feel they belong nowhere”.
Layali’s birth certificate, for instance, issued just three years ago by the SBA administration, states that she was born “off the coast of Akrotiri”.

When they washed ashore at RAF Akrotiri nearly 17 years ago, the British bases promptly tried to pass the burden on to the Cypriot authorities but were told the migrants were Britain’s responsibility. At the time, a Cyprus Mail editorial quipped: “Britannia waives the rules. All of a sudden the Brits are full of respect for the Cyprus government and its sovereignty over all of Cyprus, including the bases.”

Other countries also refused to take them, saying that because the migrants had landed on what is legally British soil, they were Britain’s responsibility. Among these was Germany, where Farhad had originally planned to move on to from Italy. The migrants decided their only hope was to settle in Britain.

Layali’s family is among 38 people in Richmond Village regarded as “failed asylum seekers” by the bases administration, which granted the remaining 29 refugee status over a decade ago. But Britain refuses to take in even the recognised refugees. It feared setting a precedent that could encourage other asylum seekers to regard the British Bases as a fast track to the UK from the Middle East and north Africa.

Yet the Richmond villagers are an exceptional case that is unlikely to be repeated. Before Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Britain to take responsibility for any asylum seekers who might enter the British bases through Cypriot territory. The boat people preceded the memorandum.

So, activists ask, if the Richmond villagers cannot set a precedent, why not just let them resettle in Britain?
“After all, we’re talking about a small group of people, many of them children who were born and grew up on the bases,” says DorosPolycarpou, the director of a Cypriot human rights organisation, Kisa, told The Guardian newspaper in October. “Britain is acting as if its Cyprus bases have nothing to do with them, as if they exist in outer space.”

The bases administration rejected Farhad’s application for refugee status in 1999, saying he had failed to show he had a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” in Iraq. Yet he can hardly return there now: ISIS is occupying his village, he says.

The UNHCR’s Dessalenge says: “Our position is that authorities should reconsider their status according to current circumstances in the refugees’ country of origin and there should be no deportations.”

Last August the SBA administration wrote to the failed asylum-seekers, saying they should make plans to leave Richmond Village by the end of January, “failing which consideration will be given to deport” them.

The administration was willing to pay their travel costs to their “country of origin/nationality or to any other country outside Cyprus that agrees” to accept them on a permanent basis.

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