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Cyprus’ stateless children, a red-tape nightmare

feature theo main a 2002 proviso is why children of asylum seekers are being denied citizenship
A 2002 proviso is why children of asylum seekers are being denied citizenship
It could take years for new criteria to take effect… if it does at all

Alexandra is 30 years old and lives in Limassol. Her partner Philip (she calls him Philippos) is from Cameroon and came to Cyprus as an asylum seeker.

“I’ve been together with this man for four years,” she told the Cyprus Mail. “We love each other, we live together – and we had a child. We didn’t know it would create all these problems, having a child together.”

After giving birth, in November 2022, Alexandra went to the district officer to register her son. She assumed that her child (like herself) would be a Cypriot citizen, however “they rejected me, because the father was foreign”. The child still has no Cypriot nationality, or any nationality – being essentially stateless – 15 months later.

Alexandra believes not being married is a big part of the problem, and complains of the obstacles the couple have faced as they’ve tried to get hitched. The truth, alas, is that it probably wouldn’t make any difference.

Natalia is a 33-year-old from Nicosia. Like Alexandra, she’s Greek Cypriot. She’s been married to Claude, from the Congo, for the past four years.

In fact, when their son was born a year ago, she didn’t even show Claude’s asylum-seeker papers at the district office (he’s since cancelled his asylum application altogether). She showed his renewable visa as the husband of a Cypriot citizen, which allows him to live and work legally in Cyprus.

The result, however, was the same. The district officer asked to see Claude’s passport, then told Natalia that “‘your child cannot get [citizenship]’. He didn’t give me any other information, he just said ‘It takes time’…

“I think he did mention that ‘Maybe they’re not even going to give it’. And that’s when I panicked.”

Despite Alexandra’s earlier quote, the problem isn’t that the father is ‘foreign’ per se. Article 109 of the Population Register Law of 2002 states that any child born in Cyprus with at least one Cypriot parent is a Cypriot citizen – unless either parent entered the country, or is residing in the country, illegally.

That proviso is why children of asylum seekers are being denied citizenship, even though it leaves them stateless which is obviously unacceptable. “The right to a nationality is a fundamental human right,” says the website (ohchr.org) of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Some may counter that the kids could apply for Cameroonian or Congolese nationality – but it seems absurd to expect an asylum seeker who’s fled a country, and risks being killed if they return, to approach its authorities seeking citizenship for their child. In any case, why should parents be forced into this position?

“I wouldn’t want my kid to have the Congolese nationality,” admits Natalia. “I know the privilege of having a Cypriot passport. They’re giving them anyway, to all kinds of people.

“I am the mother. I don’t need to prove that he came out of me. I am the Cypriot.”

Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou has already had meetings with the Civil Registry and Migration Department to examine ways of resolving the matter
Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou has already had meetings with the Civil Registry and Migration Department to examine ways of resolving the matter

This is actually a well-known problem with mixed marriages, going far beyond these two women. The ministry is aware of the issue, a spokesperson at the interior ministry told the Cyprus Mail, “and it’s very much preoccupying the minister, Constantinos Ioannou, who has already had meetings with the Civil Registry and Migration Department to examine ways of resolving the matter”.

One may wonder if someone who enters a country specifically for the purpose of seeking asylum – which is totally legal – should even be classified as illegal, just because they didn’t enter through official ports. Surely the whole point of asylum is that any illegality is superseded by a higher force, viz. fear for one’s life.

Then again, seeking asylum confers only temporary legality – and in any case, it’s not citizenship. The problem here, as explained by the ministry, is that “granting citizenship to a child automatically means that the foreign parent, who entered or is residing illegally, can also become a Cypriot citizen”.

The real politics behind this issue have nothing to do with asylum seekers. The underlying fear has always been that changing the law would mean being forced to grant citizenship to Turkish settlers who marry Turkish Cypriots and have children with them.

In a sense, cases like Alexandra’s and Natalia’s are merely collateral damage – but that doesn’t make them any less unfortunate, or stressful.

“For the past year I can’t enjoy the birth of my baby, I can’t enjoy my relationship because of this situation,” says Alexandra.

The women find temporary solutions. Natalia’s son had to be hospitalised with jaundice as a newborn, so – after much frantic hunting around – she managed to place him on Gesy under her own name (“There is a category for people without citizenship”). She hasn’t tried to travel in the past year but assumes – or hopes – they can get some ad hoc travel document for the baby if the need arises.

Clearly, however, the situation is unsustainable – not to mention unfair. Claude is supposedly the illegal one yet, as a spouse, he can live and work normally, and still has his old nationality. The stigma of being stateless falls on his baby, who’s done absolutely nothing wrong.

There is actually quite an obvious solution. The law’s exclusion of kids with ‘illegal’ parents isn’t absolute. Article 109 gives the council of ministers discretion to make exceptions as it sees fit.

The snag is that they’ve largely stopped examining applications – which would also explain why neither woman can get a straight answer from government departments. ‘You have to wait,’ Natalia was told by Migration. “How long to wait? I kept asking questions like ‘What is the procedure?’.”

Until quite recently, the whole issue appeared to be in limbo. Then, on January 26, as part of a series of unilateral measures for Turkish Cypriots, the government announced it would start examining (previously blocked) applications for citizenship for children of mixed marriages between Turkish Cypriots and Turks.

It’s unclear what this will mean for the children of Cypriots and asylum seekers. The ministry spokesperson confirmed that criteria for citizenship will be revised “in the best interests of the children”, and that the new criteria “will apply to all the children of mixed marriages,” whatever the parent’s nationality.

On the one hand, this is hopeful news – since, after all, it’d be hard to deny an asylum seeker when even Turkish settlers (the ultimate ‘illegal’ entrants) are being granted citizenship for their offspring.

On the other, no timeframe has been mentioned. Developing the revised criteria could take years – with applications still in limbo unless the council decides to exercise its discretion more robustly.

Meanwhile, the children of Cypriots and asylum seekers remain stateless.

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