Last week’s meeting of the House interior affairs committee was dispiriting, with the permanent secretary of the interior ministry admitting that “We’re out of options” when it comes to stemming the flow of irregular migrants.
Even more dispiriting was Akel MP Aristos Damianou using the crisis to score political points – as if Akel, or any other party, had a solution.
This is not a party-political problem. Some might claim it’s not a problem at all, arguing for asylum seekers to be accepted both on humanitarian grounds and to create a more diverse society.
It may indeed be wiser to accept that the long-term problem is insoluble and provide migrants with a better life so they can assimilate, even if it means encouraging more migrants, instead of becoming alienated from society – as they are now – and potentially turning to crime.
Then again, it’s also about the numbers. This kind of argument often turns ideological – but in fact, even with the best will (and all the EU money) in the world, there’s a limit to how many new arrivals we can absorb.
There are around 70,000 asylum seekers who’ve crossed into the Republic and are living here now (17,000 arrived just this year), but in fact it could be twice as many and we’d still have no way of stopping the influx. A mechanism has to be in place, otherwise we’re entirely at the mercy of outside forces – and at risk of potential disasters, like the fire at overcrowded Pournara camp on Friday.
Even assuming that something must be done, though, it’s clear that ‘something’ has to be more creative than the solutions currently being offered.
Interior minister Nicos Nouris’ plan of placing barbed wire across 11 kilometres of the Green Line has a kind of superficial appeal, like a homeowner fortifying their home to guard against burglars. But in fact, once irregular migrants arrive on the island, crossing the Green Line is the least of their difficulties.
Clamping down on people traffickers would help, of course. But the best solution is to focus on processing applicants (after they’ve crossed) as quickly as possible, ideally in a matter of weeks instead of the several years it takes now.
It’s important to note that the current situation is different from the boat people trying to flee the war in Syria, or the influx of Lebanese in the 1980s. The truth is that a large number of today’s cases are economic migrants, applying for asylum under a thin veneer of being political refugees.
A public discussion might be useful here, if only to lay out the legal requirements. It’s often claimed, for instance, that asylum applications from India – almost all from former ‘students’ looking to prolong their stay – could be rejected en masse, since there’s no war in India from which to be seeking asylum.
But most irregular migrants currently come from Africa. Is any African country in a full-blown war, such that a national couldn’t just seek safety in a different part of the country? Could our courts declare applicants from Cameroon, say, automatically ineligible, unless they can produce compelling evidence of being in personal danger?
One also hears of asylum applications based on being part of an oppressed group (often LGBT), or being threatened by gangsters, or fleeing an abusive husband. How is a Cypriot court even supposed to adduce evidence on such claims?
The delays in processing are often put down to understaffing. But it seems like the legal framework around migrants could also be revised and improved, to allow for speedier processing.
The usual objection is that our hands are tied by the EU – and indeed this goes back to the ideological argument, since the EU is explicitly based on freedom of movement and the abolition of national borders. It stands to reason that its laws would define refugees’ rights as broadly as possible.
Still, if the situation is so desperate that we’re reduced to encasing our country in barbed wire, couldn’t we seek some exemption from EU law, or circumvent it altogether? The government seems happy to keep polluting, and paying EU fines, at the power plant in Vasiliko, for instance.
These are ultimately political decisions – and of course the biggest hot potato is that the issue of irregular migrants could surely be resolved through co-operation with the Turkish side, which is enabling the influx.
The challenge of mass migration isn’t limited to Cyprus, but our own problem is unique because it’s also tied in to the Cyprus problem.
If a mechanism could be found to send irregular migrants back across the Green Line – on the basis that they’ve already reached a ‘first safe country’, say – the problem would be solved. But of course that would imply recognising the occupied north as a separate country, undermining five decades of political rhetoric.
That, alas, is probably a deadlock which no amount of creativity can break.