By Achilleas Demetriades

The increase in the flow of irregular migrants across the Green Line and via the sea is a matter of serious concern to public opinion. Many of these people apply for political asylum. Cyprus, a contracting member of the Geneva Convention on the Refugees (1951) and a member of the European Union since 2004, is obliged, on the basis of specific procedures, to examine their applications, in a fair and speedy manner.

According to official statistics, there has been an increase in the number of irregular migrants since 2016 and this relates mainly to two factors: first the EU-Turkey agreement which closed the Balkan route and secondly the continuing conflict in neighbouring Syria as well as the serious problems caused by other migratory flows from African countries. In 2016 about 2,000 migrants arrived in Cyprus. In 2019 this number reached approximately 10,000 annually. There followed a lull in arrivals due to Covid-19 but today these numbers are rising again.

I would like to present some of my thoughts on the issue of migration:

  1. Public opinion needs to be informed. The government is being judged by its policies and the measures it is taking, not by declarations or meetings it convenes. The first question it has to answer is: “What have they been doing all this time?”
  2. The migration issue does not concern asylum seekers only. It also has a direct impact on the residents, and it calls for serious planning.
  3. The government has a responsibility to determine its policy on migration and adjust it accordingly so as to make the best possible use of the presence of migrants in the country. It has to ensure that they do not rely on state allowances, do not become part of ghettos and are not exploited. In other words, the government has to work towards integrating these people into society and thereby help them contribute towards economic and social progress. This is what all European directives stipulate.
  4. Problems, no matter how complex they may be, must be resolved, and not allowed to deteriorate. In my opinion, migration is an issue which can be regulated and be managed effectively. If state services do not respond because of an increasing number of asylum applications, it means that the government had not anticipated developments in good time to provide these services with the necessary manpower and tools to deal with the problems. Moreover, it seems that the government did not ask the EU early enough for technical and financial support.
  5. Two ministers, Nikos Nouris at interior and Zeta Emilianidou at labour, are currently handling issues which are inter-connected. Nouris deals with the demographics and migration while Emilianidou is responsible for the needs of the labour market. Emilianidou, quite rightly, responds to the demand put forward by business associations to employ workers from the migrant community and asylum applicants, since employers cannot find Cypriot workers to fill vacant posts. On the other hand, the interior minister claims at every given opportunity that “we have been inundated with foreigners.”
  6. We need the EU with us to address the difficulties arising from the uncontrolled flow of irregular migrants. We have to apply funds worth more than 100 million euros in an appropriate manner to offer jobs and build infrastructure. In addition to that, we have to insist on the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016, in the case of Cyprus as well. We have to substantiate fully our positions before the European institutions.
  7. According to the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations, the policy of “push-backs”, is tantamount to violation of our obligations emanating from the Convention on the Protection of the Refugees as well as other EU directives. This policy, applied by the government of President Anastasiades, began during the pandemic and is now becoming the norm.
  8. The EU is following closely these practices. The UN secretary-general deemed it necessary to include in his Good Offices Mission report on Cyprus extensive references to this issue; to the push-backs, the barbed wire and the situation along the Green Line, as if it is a “hard border” (par. 40-44, report on UNFICYP, 9/7/2021).
  9. The words the government is using, referring to children “with a migratory biography” are also a cause for concern. Such wording is an unprecedented regression towards xenophobic practices which target children. I congratulate the children’s rights commissioner Despo Michaelidou who intervened immediately, pointing out that children in a classroom are just that, children and nothing else. Any attempt to classify them or discriminate against them is a violation of the most fundamental rights and is contrary to our culture, she stressed in her remarks.

Migration and the effective management of the influx of uncontrolled flows of irregular migrants (provided that the rules of fair and speedy examination of asylum applications are observed) is one of the top policies for Cyprus. The protection of the country’s external borders can be effective only through a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue and this is one more reason why a political settlement is in our interest.

Concerns over the uncontrolled influx of irregular migrants is justified. The leadership should cultivate a sense of tolerance and acceptance of diversity in society. It must also foster a rational and reasoned approach towards the real migration problem and behave like an Honest State, where social justice prevails.

A government must have the ability to address difficult issues, to anticipate, to manage and adapt its policy. On these it will be judged.

Achilleas Demetriades is a partner at the Lellos P Demetriades law office LLC