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Xenophobia in Cyprus: ‘it’s complicated’

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Recently, we’ve been hearing that Cyprus is highly xenophobic. But the truth isn’t that cut and dried finds ALIX NORMAN


Apparently, Cyprus is xenophobic?

You’ll have seen the recent headlines: ‘Cyprus amongst most xenophobic countries!’ and ‘Cypriots in top 10 xenophobics in Europe’!

But is this actually true? Are we, as an island, wracked with xenophobia?

“It’s complicated,” says Dr Charis Psaltis. “It’s important that we don’t over-generalise. Actually, what we’re seeing is that Cyprus is less xenophobic than it used to be in 2012. But there was still worsening on some indicators compared to 2018…”

A Professor of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cyprus, and the Director of the University’s Centre for Field Studies, Charis was also National Coordinator of the European Social Survey (ESS) for Round 10 in 2020 – the study from which conclusions were drawn.

An incredibly rigorous effort, the ESS contains over 240 questions, and is widely considered the social sciences’ most robust methodological survey. And, in the latest round (Round 10), there was indeed a small section on how immigrants are perceived.

“But untangling the results,” Charis explains, “is a very complex process.

“There are three main effects we need to examine in relation to xenophobia: the Developmental Effect, which relates to age and life stage; the Cohort Effect, which deals with intergenerational change; and the Period Effect, which looks at how public figures influence prevailing views.”

While the Developmental and Cohort Effects have helped decrease xenophobia in Cyprus over the last 20 years, the Period Effect comes in waves, Charis clarifies. And, thanks to the previous administration, the latest data showed a surge.

“If, at the time the data was collected, public figures and those in authority made statements connecting crime or health issues to immigration for example, then you see a rise in the Period Effect. And a consequent rise in xenophobic feeling.”

This is the data the media picked up on. But what wasn’t widely disseminated was the moderating influence of both the Developmental and Cohort Effects…

Round 10 of the ESS suggests those aged 15 to 35 have a significantly more positive view of immigration than their elders. And that education and urbanisation also affect the findings.

“If it were not for the positive effects of the younger generations, the situation would be worse,” says Charis. “This generation is proof of the Contact Hypothesis: that merely meeting people of other backgrounds can deconstruct preconceived stereotypes.”

Born from 1990 onward, this age group has been directly influenced by EU programmes on tolerance and diversity. They’re people who have often met Turkish Cypriots in person. And they’ve usually worked or mingled with many nationalities.

The same goes for urban residents, who are much less xenophobic than their rural counterparts, and for those who are more highly educated – people who are likely to have studied or travelled abroad.

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“So while xenophobia certainly makes for a catchy headline, it’s still a complex issue,” Charis acknowledges. “And what we really need to address is remaining stereotypes…”

Charis and team are currently making policy recommendations based on the ESS, including suggestions on reducing xenophobia and racism. And they’re hoping that the National Integration Plan (launched and then discarded by the previous government) will once more be reinstated.

In the meantime, we thought it might be interesting to chat to a few immigrants ourselves. Just to get a general feeling for whether, as headlines implied, xenophobia really is wracking our nation…

“Maybe it was 15 years ago,” says Nadia Saliba, a 29-year-old marketing manager in Limassol. “I remember friends being afraid they’d catch something from their maids! Thankfully, that’s not something you hear in the city these days.”

Lebanese with Palestinian roots, Nadia has never herself felt xenophobia on the island, a fact she attributes largely to her Mediterranean looks and fluent Greek. “And I think social media has opened a lot of doors – and eyes; our screens normalise other nationalities.”

But she has noticed one exception. “Since the start of the Ukraine war, my Russian friends have remarked on increased xenophobic comments, such as ‘stop taking our jobs’, and ‘your women are wh*res’. That’s not right at all!”

Cyprus’ strongest man, Russian-born Ilya Khazov has lived on the island most of his life, and agrees he no longer hears slurs such as ‘megalos Rossos’ on the street.

But he still notes that kids occasionally parrot what parents said in a careless moment, and that certain local redditors hide behind anonymity to air their fear of foreigners.

“When people are a little rowdy, they may speak their emotions rather than their thoughts,” he suggests. “I do think we’re headed in the right direction though; I hope fewer people think of me as just ‘the big guy’, and more as their big local friend!”

In Nicosia, 52-year-old Sri Lankan domestic worker Deepika Rajapakse admits she’s seen plenty of racism in her 15 years on the island, but little xenophobia.

While the two are closely intertwined, the former constitutes discrimination based on race, while the latter is an actual fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers that often stems from a lack of contact.

“People are used to us,” she suggests. “It is not strange to see a person from my country, from the Philippines, from Nepal, from Pakistan. We are everywhere. Yes, maybe the bus driver will not always stop for us; maybe my madam is better to you than me. But nobody is afraid of us. We are part of Cyprus now.”

24-year-old Turkish Cypriot Turgay Ipekçioğlu agrees.

“I think what we’re looking at between the two main communities on this island is sectarianism: discrimination that arises from a feeling of otherness. But I’ve never, at any point in the Republic, felt xenophobia. There’s no fear anymore. The borders have been open for too long.

But in Peyia lives 50-year-old Tony Marchand. And he suspects that Cyprus CAN actually be xenophobic – just not in the way you think…

“Considering our history, I’ve found Cypriots to be hugely welcoming to Brits!” says Tony. “If anything, it’s we who are the xenophobes: bundling up in our Little Britain; fearful of meeting anyone different.

“I wonder if we sometimes forget that we CHOSE to live on this island?”


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