The importance of integrating refugees into local communities, in particular in the early stages of their transition to Cyprus was the focus of Wednesday’s conference organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) entitled ‘Refugees in Cyprus – Opportunities and Challenges’.
At the conference, participants had the opportunity to hear about the experiences of six young refugees who arrived in Cyprus as minors (some unaccompanied) and who now study at universities, have completed secondary education in Cyprus and volunteer at organisations.
All of them referred to the language problems they faced at the beginning and the long delay in processing asylum applications but stressed that they were keen to integrate into society and this helped them cope with the difficulties.
“I came here on my own and suddenly when I was an adult I was alone again, I had to leave the centre and run around on my own to find a home, a job. Nobody prepares you for that,” said Babucar from Gambia who came to Cyprus as an unaccompanied minor and spent time at a reception centre.
“When I came I was eight and I didn’t speak Greek. I had to make friends, I used to go to the village to make friends and learn the language, I joined the football team, Omonia Aradippou, ” Ibrahim from Palestine, who is in his second year of law studies added.
Cases of racism due to colour, religion and gender were also mentioned, with refugees stressing that diversity should not be viewed as something negative. Reference was also made to the way in which the media present the problem of refugees and their integration.
UNHCR’s Olga Komiti referred to concerns of the local community regarding security due to the large presence / flow of refugees, saying that these concerns should be addressed.
George Aeliotis, also from the UNHCR, commented that the dialogue on refugee issues and their integration should be ongoing and welcomed the government’s intention to co-organise a second conference on integration with the UN.
They both mentioned the government’s integrated refugee plan which will is likely to be ready by 2020.
Officials from the Nicosia and Limassol municipalities said many programmes and actions are already being implemented by local authorities, such as a programme for social workers in schools, but they depend on funding from the government and the European Union.
According to UNHCR data, in 2019 asylum applications amounted to 9,449 compared to 7,713 in 2018. The majority of applicants are from Syria. From 2002 to September 2019, 11,500 people were granted refugee status or international protection status.