By Annette Chrysostomou
Another 92 likely refugees arrived this week in Cyprus in an overcrowded boat, and with such arrivals on the increase, refugee support groups and individuals are finally coming together to offer more holistic support, both in the Kofinou reception centre and in the wider community.
Damtew Dessalegne, the Cyprus representative of the UN high commission on refugees (UNHCR), said on Thursday that the organisation was satisfied with Cyprus’ progress regarding its international legal obligations on refugees. But he warned that conditions at the Kofinou centre needed improvement and asylum seekers living outside, who were the overwhelming majority, were particularly struggling.
There are a sizeable number of non-government organisations (NGOs) eager to help them, but lack of coordination between these groups and also government agencies has lessened the impact they could have.
This is about to change.
“We had a meeting with 20 people talking about collaboration recently,” Adam Flude from Cyprus Refugee Solidarity explained. “We are going to work with the Red Cross, Kisa, Future World Centre, the Migrants Information Centre and others.”
One of the projects currently under way aims to give a better idea of just who is out there to help asylum seekers and refugees. The volunteers are in the process of preparing an interactive map on Facebook where all interested parties can find all known locations in Cyprus where the immigrants are given assistance, such as foodbanks, citizen service centres, clothing distribution centres, welfare services and the charity, Caritas.
“There are a lot of well-meaning people who have been working in silence. If they work together they can make a real difference,” Flude said. “We can’t change government legislation overnight but we can make a difference to the refugees’ lives.”
One of the places where the organisations help out, the Kofinou reception centre, is the only governmental reception centre for asylum seekers in Cyprus. It currently houses more than 300 and is filled to capacity.
According to the UNHCR at the end of 2016, 307 asylum seekers stayed at the camp, while 2,699 live independently in the community.
The centre is located four km away from the nearest residential area – the small village of Kofinou –and around 40 km away from Nicosia, where the vast majority of the state departments dealing with their asylum issues are located.
Until recently Kofinou served as a temporary accommodation and provision of reception facilities to asylum seekers for an initial period until they could gain access to housing and welfare benefits. As it is now full, new arrivals – like the mostly Syrians who arrived by boat from Turkey earlier this week – are first taken to a temporary centre at Kokkinotrimithia where they are processed. Those wanting to seek asylum and have no relatives to stay with are all too quickly placed into the community to join other asylum seekers and recognised refugees.
There are two main ways in which the volunteers have so far supported the asylum seekers at the centre. One is to add to what the government can give in the form of material aid. The NGOs supply items such as baby products and toiletries which they purchase or collect from charitable events.
A bigger problem is the isolation of the asylum seekers due to the location of the camp; and here more than money is needed.
“Integration is really important. They are physically isolated and also set apart from the community,” coordinator of the Cyprus Refugee Solidarity Ian King said, explaining that the volunteers talk to the asylum seekers but also take them out of the camp to put them in touch with the local community.
There is more to be done and the volunteers are attempting to deal with it. Christine Goldsmith, an Anglican priest with a background in business management, is working hard to ensure everybody’s talent and expertise is used “instead of everybody trying to do everything”.
While her job is mostly to coordinate the efforts, Kisa and the Futures World Networks are the experts on law. The Red Cross is able to chip in by improving the facilities as they have received some funding by the EU for this.
Bringing together people’s talents also means that individuals who want to help should go to existing groups first to find out where they can be best of service and not head to Kofinou on their own.
At the moment the group of helpers are busy setting up a distribution centre for donated items at the camp.
“Instead of having some plastic bags here and there and some people getting nothing we will set up a credit system where each person living in the centre will have a number of credits that they can spend,” the Anglican priest explained.
This is some of what goes on at the centre, but a very different approach is needed for the vast majority of asylum seekers who live outside Kofinou.
“The current policy of the government for newly arrived asylum seekers is to refer them to the coupons system, which includes renting accommodation in the community,” said Emilia Strovolidou from UNHCR. There is, she said, no specific official procedure regarding the accommodation when people first arrive.
Few even bother to apply for the meagre amount of money which the government offers as social assistance, the UN refugee office says. According to data from the Welfare Office, only about 20 per cent of asylum seekers living outside reception centres presently receive state social assistance.
One of the reasons for this is that people cannot make ends meet under the system and prefer to search for a job. A single person gets just €320 per month – €150 for food and clothes, €70 for small expenses and €100 for housing.
In comparison, Cypriots, other EU nationals and acknowledged refugees enrolled in the national Minimum Guaranteed Income scheme receive €760 per person per month.
“But first and foremost, the main reason for not applying is because people want to earn their own living; they do not want to depend on the state welfare. They are people who used to have normal lives back in their countries, with skills and talents they would like to offer in their new community,” Strovolidou explained.
Asylum seekers are also not entitled to work for the first nine months after their arrival and then are often forced to take menial jobs such as farm work which is at the bottom of the pay scale.
The constrictions of the system force many to rely on help from charities and individuals who have their work cut out and will need all their hands and combined skills to help this large group, which faces even more problems than those living at Kofinou, since they don’t even have the mutual support and the basic items and amenities the centre offers.
A report recently published by migrant centre Caritas is an attempt at summing up the plight of the asylum seekers and highlights how multifaceted their difficulties are. The report includes very concrete examples on what needs to be addressed, such as problems with public transport, food coupons, and payment of rent.
Struggling to survive
A recent report from Caritas highlighted the day-to-day difficulties faced by asylum seekers
In Nicosia the coupons given to the asylum seekers for their daily basic needs can only be realised in three shops, all in one area, making it extremely difficult for people living in other areas to transport heavy bags and gas bottles on foot and by bus.
Worse, they are expensive. 800 grammes of Basmati rice, a staple diet for many, cost €3 in food coupon shops but can be bought at discount shops for €1.90. Similar price differences exist for many other basic items.
Shops do not give receipts from purchases and a lot of items are not priced on the shelves which makes it very difficult to make comparisons.
In the shops with coupons, the asylum seekers cannot take advantage of special offers and have a limited choice of products.
It is difficult for people to carry heavy items such as gas cylinders by bus and on foot.
Though there is a bus station just outside the Kofinou centre, buses cost money and don’t go everywhere.
They also don’t take prams so mothers with small children often can’t go anywhere.
Landlords fear overcrowding which results from people sharing since one individual cannot afford the rent.
Beneficiaries need to pay the deposit and first rent upfront before signing a contract. A further €350 electricity deposit is often required, and sometimes a further €125 for a water deposit while the allowance for accommodation is €100 per household.
The cheques are paid by the welfare offices to the owner which means asylum seekers need to find accommodation for exactly this amount, not more or less.
The cheques are often late which makes the landlords reluctant to accept the welfare recipients as tenants.
Cheques for basic benefits
Banks refuse to open accounts for refugees. Sometimes, they compromise if there is a passport. Refugees without a passport cannot open accounts at all.
Banks refuse government cheques and without an account the refugees cannot cash the government’s cheques.