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Unaccompanied minors at Pournara camp moved to safe area after reports of sexual harassment (updated)

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A group of unaccompanied minors at the Pournara reception camp for refugees have been moved to a safer area following complaints over sexual harassment, while the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cyprus (UNHCR) criticised each other over the way the issue was handled.

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris, who visited the camp on Tuesday with Akel chief Andros Kyprianou, to see first-hand the living conditions there, reiterated he would launch an investigation into the sexual harassment claims first made by the UNHCR on Monday.

“We will not ignore or bypass such complaints. No matter the difficulties, people and especially children are very high up in our priorities, and we will act accordingly,” he said.

At the same time, the minister expressed concerns that while the UNHCR representative who conveyed these complaints to MPs on Monday knew of the situation since last Thursday, waited to report it four days later.

“Nor the Commissioner, or the social welfare services, or the reception centre’s officials, or the interior ministry people, or the centre’s doctor were aware of this complaint,” Nouris said, adding that this would too be investigated.

He said that people must be aware that according to the law, it is also a criminal offence for a person to know of such a complaint and not to immediately file a report.

“If what has been said is true, it means that these children were left exposed for at least four days,” Nouris said.

He said that of the 40 young people hosted at the Pournara centre claiming to be minors, 16 are girls, who have been from the beginning placed in a separate area, while the remaining 24 who are males, were moved on Monday, after the harassment report, to the quarantine area within the camp.

The reason the young males were initially placed with the adults was because they came from two countries and were among their compatriots, he said.

Nouris said he has asked the social welfare service to expedite procedures for their removal from the centre. He also said that since some young people lie about being minors, it was necessary to further investigate before placing these individuals in shelters for minors.

The issue came up on Monday during a House human rights committee meeting at which Nouris praised the smooth operation of the Pournara centre during the pandemic.

But the UNHCR criticised the interior ministry for leaving unaccompanied minors at the Pournara reception camp for refugees.

“At the outbreak of the pandemic some 70 minors were hosted in the camp. Currently the camp hosts 47 unaccompanied or separated children,” the UNHCR statement said although it did acknowledge the ministry’s intention to create a safe zone for them.

“Later on, during the epidemic, girls were accommodated with adult women in prefabricated houses, while boys stayed in tents. Both girls and boys are located in the main camp and thus share the same sanitation facilitates with adults,” it added.

The UNHCR said this causes an increased risk for the children, a position it has outlined to the ministry in writing and called for the adequate segregation of unaccompanied minors.

“Sexual and gender-based harassment and violence unfortunately often takes place in crowded camps, and therefore the Unhcr always recommends strict separation of unaccompanied minors from adults and provides guidance on how to minimise the risks,” it said.

The UNHCR confirmed that children interviewed by last week brought up situations that included inappropriate behaviour on behalf of adults towards them, which could amount to sexual harassment.

During the same meeting a Unhcr representative slammed the government for not paying enough attention to children in the camp, saying their rights are not respected.

The representative said the Social Welfare Services do not know the number of unaccompanied minors currently housed at the Pournara camp.

Moreover, some of the children have relatives in Cyprus and it has not been clarified why they were not allowed to go live with them.

MPs at the meeting were also critical of the interior ministry.

“We are witnessing a chilling reality,” said Commissioner for Children’s Rights Despo Michaelidou, while MP Irene Charalambidou even walking out of the meeting.

“You allowed for the circumstances to be created as you knew that there were minors and that there are international conventions for them,” MP Skevi Koukouma told Nouris, who reacted to the accusation and urged her to retract the statement.

He added that the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, the Social Welfare Services and the refugee centre’s officers were also ignoring the repeated complaints.

Finally, when asked to comment on remarks that some of the minors said they had relatives in Cyprus and whether they should have been allowed to live with them, Nouris said that the people in charge of running the camp cannot go only on what the refugees say.

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