Cyprus Mail

Coronavirus: ‘Refugees and asylum seekers need accurate information’, many in dire straits

File photo: The refugee camp at Kokkinotrimithia (Christos Theodorides)

Refugees and immigrants must have access to accurate information and it is imperative that their health is protected during the coronavirus outbreak, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.

The head UNHCR in Cyprus, Katja Saha, talked about the situation in the reception and refugee centres to the Cyprus News Agency.

“The main concerns we have are access to asylum procedures, the decision to relocate vulnerable asylum seekers from hotels or other structures to overcrowded reception centres, the increase in homelessness cases and poverty, and the obstacles to accessing health care,” she said.

“It is vital to ensure equal access to health services for all people, including all immigrants and refugees.”

She added the office has received many reports from asylum seekers who have not been able to apply for asylum due to measures restricting movement and forbidding meetings between people.

“We remind you that the right to seek asylum is guaranteed by international, European and national law and there is an obligation on the part of each state to allow access to asylum procedures,” she warned.

Governments need to ensure the restrictions do not limit the access to the territory of persons in need of international protection or lead to deportations, and also to make sure they have access to asylum proceedings.

“Those who have not been able to apply for asylum in recent weeks have not had access to other rights as asylum seekers and have been left without any state assistance, including food and shelter. Access to medical care is not possible for all asylum seekers, as they do not have the right to enroll in the general health system,” she said.

Saha said restrictive measures, including patient isolation and quarantine, were particularly difficult to organise at reception centres such as the one in Kokkinotrimithia, which currently accommodates nearly 600 people, far exceeding its capacity and which, as she said, has insufficient access to water, electricity and health facilities.

The UNHCR is particularly concerned that more people will be moved from hotels to Kokkinotrimithia and Kofinou, as overcrowded centres are places which favour the spread of the virus.

Recommended measures are moving the refugees to private accommodation, regular disinfection of the centres and providing improved sanitation facilities.

Another concern of the office is that homeless asylum seekers living in cities have been hard hit, with charities having stopped activities to support them with food and other necessary supplies.

The Cyprus Mail was told that 12 men were living in a mosque inside the old town, and another 40 were crammed into an office near Solomou Square.

The UNHCR in Cyprus is offering help as well as advice.

“At the request of the authorities, the High Commission will soon supply the Republic with 200 tents, 2,500 blankets and personal hygiene items for use at the first reception centre in Kokkinotrimithia and at the reception centre in Kofinou to improve conditions in the two centres.”

In order to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees have access to accurate information about the virus and the measures which are taken by the government the UNHCR is working with the Press and Information Office to translate relevant documents.

The information has been posted and updated on the website of the High Commission as well as on the NGOs, in English, Arabic, French, Somali as well as in ten other languages, in order to cover the groups of the refugee community.

“Information leaflets have been distributed to reception centres, as well as to NGOs and volunteers to reach out to the refugee community in the cities. We are working with these agencies to strengthen communication with the community and provide telephone counseling, Skype and WhatsApp,” she concluded.

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