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‘Many migrants at Pournara should have already been moved’ operations manager says

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

There are four times as many migrants at the Pournara camp than there were this time last year and some should have already been transferred to longer-term accommodation, the contractor operating the camp said on Thursday.

According to the daily operations manager of the reception centre in Kokkinotrimithia Stefanos Spaneas, the external contractor running the camp on behalf of Cyprus’ asylum service and the ministry of the interior, there are currently 744 people were housed at the camp, around four times the number during the same period last year.

“We have increased our capacity by setting up 146 tents and 20 briefing rooms that we use when we need to inform the camp’s population about new rules and daily operations,” he told the Cyprus Mail.

Spaneas said the plan was to increase the camp’s facilities even more, but, due the Covid-19 pandemic, everything had to be postponed to a later and yet unspecified date.

The Pournara camp has been in the spotlight recently, as migrants have repeatedly voiced their anger at being kept inside for longer than necessary. Protesters have also gathered outside the camp in the past weeks to show support to their cause.

“There is tension inside the camp, you can feel it,” Spaneas said. “People want to go out, they are tired of staying here, in a facility that is designed to hold people for days, not months as it has been the case.”

Spaneas said the high number of migrants currently housed at the camp was the result of a procedural legal mistake by the government

The centre acts as a first reception facility for a limited period, the time that it takes them to finish the first step of their application.

After that, according to the law, the migrants have to leave the centre. However, the state is required to arrange and provide them with accommodation afterwards.

If for administrative reasons they need to be held longer because they have a particular case, they should be taken to a different camp which is more suitable for long-term stays, he said.

“The law states that an asylum seeker who filled in his application and passed his or her medical tests, and the majority here at the camp fulfil those requirements, is allowed to leave the first reception centre.

“I understand that the Covid-19 pandemic things more complicated, but there are no legal grounds to keep those who tested negative here.

“The migrants are suffering for someone else’s mistake, it’s not fair and I do understand their frustration,” Spaneas said.

Due to Covid-19, staff at Pournara camp had to rapidly increase the centre’s capacity and improve infrastructure, as they were not ready to accommodate all the people who were brought to the camp.

More portaloos and additional water taps and showers were installed, while the centre is constantly being upgraded.

“In 2014 the centre was only housing people coming from Syria, then it opened to all people entering Cyprus illegally from the Green Line or from the checkpoints. Now we house all people who entered illegally,” said Spaneas.

“It makes everything so much more complicated because now we cannot distinguish the real asylum seekers, those who actually came here because it was absolutely necessary for them, from the fake ones,” he added.

He said that, starting from next week, some migrants would finally be allowed to leave the camp. The exact number will be released by the interior ministry in the coming days.

As far as the situation inside the camp, which become more tense every day, Spaneas said him and his staff are doing everything in their power to keep spirits up.

“It’s difficult, any human being would hate this situation. We try to remain calm, but we have a constant police presence outside the camp.

“A few days ago, police officers had to use pepper spray on some of the migrants after an argument. Fortunately, it does not happen often, but if the government will not act soon, it might become a daily occurrence.”

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