By Evie Andreou
It is too soon to link the latest arrivals of groups of refugees from Syria in Cyprus with the closing down of the Balkan routes into northern Europe, officials say, but the country must be alert for the possibility of more arrivals.
Earlier this week, 55 Syrians arrived on foot on a beach in Kato Pyrgos through the Limnitis buffer zone, after sailing on a boat from the Turkish coast. This is the third similar arrival in the area in a month. In August, 30 Syrians, travelling from Mersin in Turkey arrived in the same area on two separate occasions, seeking asylum.
The difference between these recent arrivals and other refugees that arrived over the past two years, is that Cyprus was their actual destination because they had ties to the island. They had either worked here in the past, or have family already living here and their aim is re-unification.
In previous cases, Syrian refugees had arrived in Cyprus by mistake. In September 2014, more than 330 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. Some were so distraught at Cyprus not being Italy that they did not want to leave the ailing boat. Many of them had no interest in remaining in Cyprus, nor did they wish for their asylum applications even to be processed here.
Before the agreement in March between Turkey and the EU which closed down the route to northern Europe via the Balkans, Cyprus had remained immune to the thousands of Syrians and other migrants and refugees pouring through Turkey and then by boat into Greece, even though Cyprus was far closer to Syria.
Being an island, Cyprus offers no direct, easy access to mainland Europe and the wealth of the northern countries. Equally significant, Cyprus is not part of the Schengen area. Although the overwhelming numbers of migrants and refugees last year forced many Schengen countries to tighten border controls, in theory once migrants enter a Schengen area country – like Italy and Greece – they cannot be prevented from moving freely into other Schengen countries.
To leave Cyprus, however, a migrant needs travel documents. To an undocumented migrant or refugee fleeing a war-zone, being in Cyprus almost equalled staying in Cyprus.
Added to that was Cyprus’ tough asylum policies: asylum status was hard to come by as was financial help, and the authorities made integration into Cypriot society difficult.
But, according to Doros Polykarpou, the head of migrant rights group Kisa, the belief that once in Cyprus you are stuck here, is being debunked.
The EU-Turkey agreement has made Greece and Italy far less attractive, Polykarpou said, as they now face the possibility of being sent back to Turkey.
But in addition, refugees who were afraid to seek refuge to Cyprus as they feared it meant they would be pretty much stuck on the island, have realised that it is feasible to land here and actually reach their final destination. The island can be a transit stop to their final destination, he said.
“Of the last groups that arrived on the island last year – but whose final destination was somewhere else in the EU – 80 per cent of them went to other countries,” Polykarpou said.
“This may urge more refugees to arrive on the island but it would be an exaggeration to believe those who profess that there are thousands on the shores of Turkey waiting to arrive in Kato Pyrgos.”
Figures showing how many left the island legally and how many may have left illegally are not readily available.
“Some of the refugees might have left the island to reunite with their families that were already in other EU countries,” the spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Emilia Strovolidou told the Sunday Mail.
She added that some with refugee status might have travelled to other countries legally. Others could have left through the north, with the help of people smugglers so that they could go to Turkey and – before the EU-Turkey agreement – from there to Greece, from where they could try and reach northern Europe.
Strovolidou said that more than 2,100 people applied for asylum in Cyprus in 2015, and so far, more than 1,100 this year.
Eleven per cent of those who applied in 2015 have been given refugee status, which means that they are allowed to bring family over if they wish to. A further 59 per cent were granted subsidiary protection and under Cyprus legislation, they are not allowed to apply for family reunification.
But Strovolidou said, the UNHCR advises those with subsidiary protection to apply for family reunification anyway, citing humanitarian reasons. “Many do,” she said.
Although the capacity in the Kophinou reception centre for asylum seekers has been increased from 100 to 250 people, and although the state now grants refugee status to more people than it did in the past, it is still very difficult for refugees to be integrated in the Cypriot society, according to Polykarpou.
“There is lack of possibilities for the equal treatment of refugees for their integration and their children’s.”
The state does not provide access to the job market, he said, and there is no mechanism in place for the review of their qualifications and degrees so that they can find employment within their field.
“An architect from Iraq for example, is not given the opportunity to have his qualifications reviewed and is asked to work as a construction worker instead,” he said.
All three groups of refugees that have arrived in Cyprus since August – 85 in total – have either some family member or a friend here or have been on the island in the past.
“It is too soon to link these arrivals with the agreement between Turkey and the EU and the closing down of the routes to Northern Europe through the Balkans,” Strovolidou said.
The last group, that arrived on the island through Turkey, originated from Aleppo, Strovolidou said, which is an area that has been badly affected by the on-going warfare in Syria.
Authorities, she said, need to be ready to receive refugees should the influx continue as the warfare is ongoing and Syrians continue to flee their country.
“What’s important is for them to have legal ways to be able to leave their country instead of them having to pay people smugglers for their escape,” Strovolidou said.
The two earlier groups that arrived in Kato Pyrgos last month paid between US $1,800 and $2,500 each to smugglers.
“The refugees paid large sums to the people smugglers and it appears they were in contact with other people who had arrived earlier on the island,” the civil defence department spokeswoman Olivia Michaelidou told the Sunday Mail.
She said that travelling by boat from Turkey to the north-west coast is relatively safe as the route is short and the sea is calm at this time of the year.
“The authorities are providing them every possible assistance,” she said, adding that so far several of the group who arrived this week have expressed interest in filing for asylum.