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Racism, bureaucracy, uncertainty: Refugee crisis brews in Cyprus

Monday April 1, 2019
By Linah Alsaafin

Cyprus has more asylum claims per capita than any other EU member state. This is the story of two West African refugees.

In 2018, there were almost 6,000 applications for asylum in Cyprus, with a population around one million [File: Reuters]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect interviewees' identities.

Nicosia, Cyprus - Zainab* was the only person from the group of migrants on board the ship that was dumped on a rocky, foreign beach.

It was a hot day in August 2016, and the then-17-year-old's only possessions were the worn clothes on her back.

For three days, she slept on the beach, unaware she had arrived in Cyprus, far from the West African country she had fled.

Eventually, strangers took her to a youth shelter in Larnaca, where she met a group of Somali girls who told her where she was. 

"I never imagined that a country called Cyprus existed," she said, sitting in a cafe in downtown Nicosia two and a half years later. "Whenever I think back to where I was in 2016 I am grateful for what I have today."

Zainab had fled her country, which Al Jazeera will not name in order to protect her identity, where she feared persecution. She crossed into Senegal on foot, searching for a better life. 

Alone, lost and afraid, she wandered for days before a driver who almost hit her with his car decided to help her.

"I told him my story and he said he wanted me to be safe," she said. "He took care of my expenses and dropped me off where the ship was."

Life on board the smugglers' ship was tough. Zainab was the only girl there, and the ship's crew did not specify the destination they were heading to, only to "Europe".

"There were many people on the ship, I can't say how much or from where exactly," she said. "It was not easy because the crew bullied and insulted us on a daily basis. My mind was also preoccupied with how my future would look like."

It was at Larnaca's youth shelter where she met John*, now a close friend.

They are the same age and fled from the same country.

"I left because of political reasons," John said. "I was scared for my life. I had no choice but to leave in order to survive, which I believe is the case for all asylum seekers."

The two friends have applied for asylum but their case is still pending, almost three years on.

Cyprus, due to its geographical location, is one of the most accessible points of entry for migrants trying to make it to Europe. 

With almost 6,000 applications for a population around one million, the island in 2018 had more claims for asylum per capita than any other EU member state, according to government data.

"According to European law, if you are a minor you get accepted [as a permanent resident] and [are] not subjected to the asylum-seeking process," Zainab said. "But Cyprus is not following that law."

There is no system to process asylum seekers, she continued. "Some get recognition in three months, but others have been waiting for three years."

Doros Polykarpou, head of anti-racism NGO KISA, told Al Jazeera that discrimination is at play.

"[Asylum seekers that don't] belong to ethnic groups considered by Cypriot society as genuine refugees - such as Syrians or Palestinians" often face difficulty in getting applications processed, he said.

"Historically, we had good relations with Syria and Palestine," he said. "The people have similar features to the Cypriots. They have very good skills that are needed."

The government, he continued, sent a message to the public that these groups, especially Syrians, need to be looked after, but did not include African or Asian asylum-seekers.

The rhetoric towards migrants and asylum-seekers, spurred by officials, has been marred with hostility and mistrust. 

The interior minister has said that refugees pose as a security threat to Cypriots while, in his Christmas message, the archbishop preached that the refugees will side with Turkey against Greek Cypriots in an inevitable war.

Polykarpou blames the media and politicians for this attitude, which gained momentum in the wake of the 2007 economic crisis, as it was easier to blame refugees for the country's dire economic situation.

"When politicians think they can occasionally use racism to gain votes in parliament, it is very difficult to reverse the situation," he said. "The moment you manage to put certain messages in people's minds, you need years of work to backtrack on this."

Zainab says that ordinary Cypriots treat her better than officials and bureaucrats.

"For me, I can say that Cyprus is a home," she said. "It is the place where I have been nurtured from being unaccompanied to an adult. Also, I am back in school, which would have been impossible in my own country."

Yet Zainab and John, like other refugees, often feel pushed close to a breaking point by their pending legal status.

"You think about your future every day," Zainab said. "These thoughts kill you slowly."

A migrant child is helped off the MV Lifeline, a vessel for the German charity Mission Lifeline, as it arrives in the harbour of Valletta, Malta, on June 27, 2018. Lifeline had been waiting to be allocated a port for six days after rescuing 234 migrants off the coast of Libya last June 21 [AFP]

Some refugees are not aware of their rights, such as receiving legal aid for the asylum application process. 

"The entire system is set up to not to have a job, not to have a house, to face daily rejection from society," says Polykarpou, "and not to have a chance to become a refugee unless you belong to the ethnic groups the government decided to give protection to."

Al Jazeera contacted Cyprus' Asylum Service several times for comment but did not receive a response.

According to Cypriot law, refugees are expected to look for work and/or register with the labour office one month after they submit their asylum application.

Available jobs such as working in agriculture or waste management are low-paid and, in a Catch-22 situation, asylum seekers can only register with the government if they have a fixed address and a rental contract.

When they turned 18, Zainab and John had to leave the migrant youth shelter and find alternative accommodation.

"The shelter says they will help you with that but I didn't receive that help," John said. "You have to do your research and contact people who left the shelter before you to see if they know of a spare room available."

The average rent in Nicosia for a two-bedroom home is 700 euros ($786).

The government's Social Welfare office gives subsidies of 100 euros a month for individual accommodation and 230 euros for a family, irrespective of its size. However, refugees told Al Jazeera that their payments arrive late or are not made.

"The landlords don't want to rent houses to asylum-seekers," said John. "[It is one] of the biggest challenges we face because they know the government will not pay them on time."

"You face a lot of frustration and they treat you in a humiliating way," Zainab said.

She lives with three other young women. 

"I know some girls who up until now haven't received rent for three months, and the only way they can survive is through prostitution."

They both agree that the welfare office "is the worst."

"They will see you beg and cry and they don't care," John said. "One time I went to the office to collect the rent money but they told me it was not available. I could have lost my accommodation. How am I supposed to live or survive then?"

The money was later paid out, after the UN's refugee agency intervened.

"Sometimes, at the welfare office, they look at you up and down, the way you dress and tell you to change your hairstyle," Zainab said. 

"The worst thing I could ever wish upon someone is for them to be an asylum seeker, especially in Cyprus," John said.

But the two friends are determined to keep their heads up and are grateful for each other's presence.

"When we are at school, we have each other's backs," Zainab said, referring to the high school scholarship they received at Casa College, in collaboration with UNHCR. 

"I want to study international relations to help refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants - the people that I have met here.

"People should recognise that we are here not because we want to be here but because of circumstances. A lot of asylum-seekers would prefer to work rather than be dependent on welfare but the government see us as being here only to take."

Zainab and John hope to be recognised as asylum-seekers before the summer. They want to travel the world and are working on a play about seeking asylum to raise awareness.

 "We are dreamers," John said. "Tomorrow will be a better day."


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