Cyprus Mail

Refugees on the move shun Cyprus

Rescued Syrians being brought onshore last year

By Angelos Anastasiou

Last month more than 100,000 migrants and refugees from the Middle East, north Africa and Asia risked their lives trying to reach Europe. Fifty thousand of them, many of them rescued from dinghies and leaky boats, landed on Greek islands near the Turkish coast, and most of those were Syrians fleeing their never-ending civil war.

Syria’s main port, Latakia, is around 110 miles from Ayia Napa, yet the Syrian refugees prefer to travel overland through Turkey followed by a short but harrowing – and sometimes deadly – boat ride to Kos. It’s more than four times the distance.

Kos has been overwhelmed with Syrian refugees. Not one is coming to Cyprus, by far the closest EU country..

The only time Cyprus played host to the biggest wave of European migration since World War II was almost a year ago.

Last September, 339 Syrian refugees had to be rescued when they were abandoned off the coast of Cyprus in the boat that was supposed to smuggle them into Italy – a privilege for which they paid $8,000 apiece. Some were so distraught at Cyprus not being Italy that they did not want to leave the ailing boat.

They had no interest in remaining in Cyprus, nor did they wish for their asylum applications even to be processed here. Of the 339 rescued, only 23 now remain in Cyprus, unhappy and unwilling, taken in by the New Life International Church until they too get a chance to flee.

With these people trying to flee their home countries in search of safety, what possible reason could Syrians have to ignore Cyprus, embarking instead on a much longer – and more dangerous – journey to countries farther off?

It’s mostly economics, the Cyprus’ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative Emilia Strovolidou argues.

“Recent refugee trends reveal a persistent flow towards northern Europe, from countries like Greece and Italy,” Strovolidou said.

That much is clear. Recent figures suggest an overwhelming 800,000 asylum-seekers and refugees will enter Germany this year. Many of them will have travelled first through Greece or Italy.

Italy and Greece serve as little more than a means of getting a foot in the door to the borderless world of Schengen – a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of making it to Northern Europe, the economic engine of the European Union.

“The prospects of integration for migrants are far better in the northern countries,” Strovolidou added.

Although an EU country too, Cyprus has even less to offer than Greece and Italy. Being an island, it offers no direct, easy access to mainland Europe and the wealth of the northern countries. Equally significant, Cyprus is not yet part of the Schengen area. Once migrants have entered a Schengen area country – like Italy and Greece – not only can they not be prevented from moving freely between Schengen countries, there is not even a mechanism in place to identify whether any of them, and how many, do.

To leave Cyprus, however, a migrant would need travel documents. Save for further excursions into illegality, to an undocumented migrant or refugee fleeing a war-zone, being in Cyprus almost equals staying in Cyprus.

This, apparently, would be little more than a nightmare – a kind of worst-case scenario. Time and again, refugees have risked their freedom, and waived their chance at legitimate recognition of refugee status by a European Union member state – Cyprus – in order to avoid dealing with the Cyprus authorities.

“In the absence of legally prescribed migration channels for refugees, all these people have to resort to smugglers and traffickers, who may or may not deliver on the promises they make, as in the case of the Syrian refugees who found themselves in Cyprus instead of Italy last year,” Strovolidou pointed out.

“In 2014 alone, it is estimated that over 3,000 people perished in the Mediterranean, trying to make it to Europe’s southern coasts. This is precisely why legal routes for refugees need to be created.”

Refugees fleeing a war-torn country in search of safety should surely place a lower premium on job-finding prospects than on – literally – surviving, but reality suggests otherwise, indicating other factors may be at play.

Indeed, it’s not just about plentier and more lucrative employment opportunities, according to the New Life International Church’s Georgia Riddle.

“We have 23 remaining refugees from the boat last year, 12 of whom have applied for, and been granted, full refugee status and asylum – but they are still here with us,” Riddle said.

“The reasons lie in both the treatment they get from the state of Cyprus, and general attitudes towards foreigners. Once they are granted asylum, refugees will no longer be housed by the state, and they need to rent a place to stay. But they will only be reimbursed for the rent months later, meaning they have to come up with something like €3,000 or have nowhere to stay. Northern Europe countries don’t do that.”

Many of the refugees are trained, skilled professionals such as doctors, technicians and other specialised experts.

“But it’s ridiculous – the society here is just terrible at assimilating these people. A woman from here – a psychiatrist – paid a visit to the state’s job-finding agency, and took her psychiatry credentials with her. She was told she could only be offered a job as a cleaner. And have you ever seen a woman in a head-cover employed anywhere in Cyprus?”

But there’s another factor exacerbating the phenomenon. Many of the thousands of migrants entering Europe have family in various European countries, with whom they plan to reunite. Hence they resist having their asylum applications processed by other countries until they can get to their own.

“We are grateful to the Cypriot authorities that saved us but we need to live with our families,” a 59-year-old woman, one of those rescued last year, said at the time.

People who fled war and persecution have found themselves all but stranded in a place that won’t give them a chance to integrate.

“We have been told many times things like regulations and bureaucracy, which make life impossible for these people, will change,” Riddle complained.

“Nothing’s happened.”

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