The tension and fear caused by the racist mob beating up foreigners on the streets of Limassol, 10 days ago, appear to have eased. Some isolated incidents of attacks on delivery men were reported at the start of last week, but these have also stopped. People from the Middle East might still be wary of walking the Limassol streets at night even though law and order appear to have been fully restored and the situation calmed down.
Our society’s strong reaction to the racist violence and public expressions of revulsion for the actions of the thugs played a big part in stopping a situation from escalating. Strong condemnations of the violence by the political parties – especially the two biggest parties – scathing opinion pieces in the mainstream media against the racist violence and severe criticism of the police ineptitude in the press and social media made it clear that the thugs’ behaviour was considered unacceptable.
It was this social uproar that set the agenda and not the president, who showed a lack of moral leadership when the country most needed him to take a clear and firm stand. His condemnations of the violence, both in Chlorakas and in Limassol were half-hearted and general, avoiding direct censure of the racist thugs, but choosing instead to defend his government’s migration policy. It was as if he was saying the racist violence was unjustified, not because it was morally wrong and a violation of the law, but because the government had been doing a good job in tackling the migration issue.
As for the police, in Chlorakas officers allowed the mob to go on the rampage without intervening and a similar tactic was evident during the earlier part of the riot in Limassol. Did the police command order officers to avoid engaging with the rioters in case they were accused of using ‘excessive force’ as is often the case when police deal with football hooligans? Were these the orders of the government? Whatever the reason for the inept policing it was lambasted by different sections of society which accused the police of failing to ensure public safety and protect people that were being physically attacked.
The police command publicly admitted that its operational plan had been inadequate and there were calls for the chief’s and justice minister’s sacking, again showing the public’s disapproval of the inept way the violence had been dealt with. That the police chief was subjected to hostile questioning at the House committee meeting on Wednesday was a reflection of the public mood, which deputies are usually in tune with. That people organised a money raising campaign on the internet for the victims of the violence and the public support shown to the Vietnamese woman who had her shop vandalised by the thugs was indicative of the public mood.
Even Elam, which is chiefly responsible for the anti-migrant rhetoric, was influenced by the public mood in expelling a Limassol municipal councillor of the party, who was caught on camera, during the riot, shouting “whenever I see a food delivery driver, I will kill him.” The decision was taken because the party felt it would suffer a political cost from tolerating such behaviour. Meanwhile, police received orders from the attorney-general to investigate the case; they also arrested the organiser of the Limassol protest turned violent riot. A similar gathering scheduled to be held outside the presidential palace last Wednesday by the supporters (hooligans) of some football clubs was cancelled.
In the end, the authorities were pushed to take a tougher stance because of the public reaction and the demands for public order. This does not mean support for an open-door policy to migrants. Everyone recognises there is a migration problem in Cyprus, but it will not be solved by incitement to racial hatred or by thugs beating up migrants, wrecking their shops and intimidating foreigners on the streets. None of this is acceptable in a civilised country with rule of law, and people made this clear in the last week.
The irony is that this government has been dealing with migration more effectively than its predecessor. Arrivals were down in the last four months during which there have been more departures. The number of asylum applications examined per month has almost doubled while the supreme court is looking at more appeals. Last week the interior minister also announced plans for a campaign in African countries to discourage people from travelling here and other Mediterranean countries – a proposal had been made to the EU.
In short there is a comprehensive government policy, withing the boundaries set by the EU, for controlling the migration flow. There will always be a need for migrant workers, but the ultimate objective is for these people to come through legal channels and not end up in reception centres, waiting to return to the country of origin.