EUROPE/CYPRUS - The betrayed hopes of the "open-air prisoners" of Pournara

Monday, 15 January 2024

Multimedia Centre- European Parliament

by Roberto Morozzo della Rocca*
Nicosia (Agenzia Fides) - Of the 27 countries of the European Union, the Republic of Cyprus is the most eccentric and marginal. Both in geographical terms (it exists on the Asian continental shelf), in political terms (it is the product of a civilizational break between the Turkish and Greek worlds, which ultimately led to the division of the island), and in demographic terms (the current Inhabitants are Greek, but also Arabs, English, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians... a perpetual melting pot created by Hittites, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans); and strategic (between Turkish expansionism, the failure and destruction of the Syrian state, the crisis and fragmentation of Lebanon, the brutal Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the various interests of the major powers in the Eastern Mediterranean); as well as economically (despite everything, the island has a thriving economy, especially in the field of financial services and tourism, with a remarkable per capita income of $34,163 in 2023, no less than the European average). In this unique geopolitical balance, the migration issue has become increasingly important in recent years, confirming once again the exceptional nature of this state with an area of 9,251 square kilometers, of which 3,355 are occupied by Turkey and another 604 due to the demilitarized buffer zone between the south and the north are not accessible under the auspices of the United Nations or British military bases. In 2022, of the total 912,703 residents counted in the census, 22,190 people arrived in Cyprus seeking asylum, equal to 2.4% of the resident population. For comparison, in the same year, 84,290 asylum applications were filed in Italy, representing 0.14% of the population, and in Sweden, a historic country of immigration, there were 18,605, or 0.17% of the population. The Republic of Cyprus has the highest rate of asylum seekers in the entire EU. Over the past decade, the number of applicants for this form of international protection has reached almost 100,000, representing more than a tenth of the population. As if 6 million asylum seekers had arrived in Italy, or 5 million in Spain. Which wasn't the case. Other Mediterranean countries affected by the Dublin rules, which require the detention of migrants in the country of first arrival, chronically complain to the European Union about the lack of active solidarity and the relocation to other member states. This relatively large number of migrants arrive in two ways. By sea, setting off from the not so distant coasts of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey by any means possible (even jet skis), and this route is mainly used by Syrians, Afghans, Lebanese, Somalis, Eritreans and Palestinians (including now families from the Gaza Strip). By land, they cross the island's buffer zone from north to south, after entering Turkey by plane to enroll in one of the many private universities that have been set up ad hoc in the Ankara-controlled part of Cyprus, and that is the path that until recently was followed by many Africans and which has now been interrupted by the Turkish authorities themselves who had previously allowed it. What fate awaits migrants in Cyprus? A minority receive refugee status, which entails an obligation to stay in the country for at least five years before they can move to another country in accordance with EU rules. The majority of migrants, on the other hand, are detained after their asylum application has been rejected, or after their downgrade from potential refugees to economic migrants without rights, to irregular persons. Needless to say, most scholars cannot clearly distinguish between economic migrants seeking work, refugees from contexts of violence and persecution, and asylum seekers, or potential refugees. Migrants are fundamentally refugees, and refugees are migrants. It is the governments that make the difference when it comes to rejecting refugees. There are few returns in the Cypriot system, whether forced at state expense or voluntary, perhaps for a compensation of a few thousand euros. So they remain in limbo, stranded on the island, prisoners in the open, living and sleeping on the streets, toiling in the shadow economy, subject to deprivation and disease, and in the luckiest cases supported by remittances from distant relatives. In any case, these are unfortunate fates. In summer, apart from tourists, the squares and gardens of Cypriot cities are full of failed migrants. Coming to Cyprus as an illegal immigrant is very easy, but leaving for other EU countries is difficult without legalization: geography is inexorable. The Cypriot population is by no means happy about the many undocumented migrants left on the island, but on the whole they are tolerant and integration is often possible, the economy is flourishing, there is more or less work, and also the habit of a pluralistic society is there. The emergence of a neo-Nazi, xenophobic group is countered by the emergence of associations committed to protecting migrants. It should not be forgotten that many Cypriots themselves have a refugee history, albeit a unique one.
After the Turkish invasion in 1974, almost half of the population was affected by cross-border exodus between the north and south of the island, abandoning houses and properties: hundreds of thousands of people of Greek culture fled the north, while many people of Turkish culture fled the south. For a quarter of a century, until 1999, the UNHCR had its hands full helping these refugees recognized by the international community, which on the spot only the determination of the Nicosia government not recognizing the self-proclaimed independence of Northern Cyprus made them define themselves as internally displaced persons. At the beginning of January, as part of a humanitarian mission from the Community of Sant'Egidio, I visited some camps where dozens, if not hundreds, of migrants (also known as refugees) arrive every day. The largest camp, the hotspot from which they all come, with a basic capacity of a thousand people, is the camp in Pournara, 10 km from Nicosia. It is located in a landscape that is pleasant in winter and dry in summer, on the plain between the island's two mountain ranges, the Pentadaktylos and the Trodos, the first of which is in the Turkish area and the second in the Greek area. The sky is bright and impressive, as it often is in the East, but it is the only consolation for the residents of the detention center. It serves as an initial reception and can mean a stay of up to a year under the most primitive conditions. According to the latest guidelines of the "EU migration package", it is intended to act as a deterrent. Outside there is a triple wall of metal barriers and barbed wire. Until six months ago there was only one, but the new European security guidelines on migration are turning the detention centers into prisons, although many of those housed there are families, minors, single women. The security personnel themselves do not deal harshly with the detention, but allow some freedom which helps the easing of tensions. Pournara is a promiscuous collection of human beings with nothing or almost nothing. Containers, cardboard shacks, makeshift tents donated once by some European institution, now delipidated and ruined, house surplus people who often sleep on the floor, lack winter clothing, walk around in slippers or flip-flops without socks and who barely get enough food to sustain themselves. There are no trees, and in summer inmates huddle under the few available canopies to escape the scorching sun. Internal disputes are common, especially between Arabs and Africans, although the latter are now rarely seen due to their dwindling numbers and their isolation in remote corners of the camp. The guests have nothing to do all day, they can only indulge in indolence, get bored, get depressed, or dream if their state of mind allows it. It is a judgment of endless time. This explains why every volunteer or visitor who enters the camp, no matter how discreet he wants to be, is immediately surrounded by an interested and curious crowd. Strong men, mostly young, if not very young, who came with high hopes feel betrayed. Many suspect that their asylum application will not be approved. The majority in Pournara until recently were Congolese, Nigerians, Cameroonians and other Africans who came overland from northern Cyprus, but at the moment they are Asians. They are Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and above all Syrians. The latter are refugees from a war that has been going on for thirteen years: they would have full right to asylum, but now various members of the European Union, and the Republic of Cyprus is no exception, would like to declare Syria a safe country, in order to be able to reject the refugees. The Syrians of Pournara are mostly teenagers who have never been able to go to school. Before the war there was a high level of school education in Syria, but since 2011 everything has collapsed. The absolute lack of education is a very serious burden for the future of these children and young people who, unlike their fathers, speak neither English nor French, but only Arabic. “English problem”, they tell you straight away. What's more: they don't know how to write and sometimes they can’t even sign. Likewise, given the family difficulties and the closure of the registry offices, they often don't even know their date of birth. School means discipline, culture, communication, sociability, moral feeling. Who will ever take responsibility for this generation? When the lengthy asylum procedures are finally completed, these young Syrians will find themselves in the settlements of Cyprus, and it will be the compassionate institutions of civil society, both secular and religious, that will strive for their humane recovery human. The small but lively Catholic Church on the island (predominantly Christian-Orthodox) does a lot, supporting migrants and refugees and even opening shelters where families can find protection and education. It is a dual Catholicism, because there is the community of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the equally ancient Maronite community, and both are given new life with the immigrants who are very present in the Sunday masses of the parishes. At the beginning of December 2021, Pope Francis made an apostolic trip to Cyprus. It is worth reading his speeches, which were imbued with sympathy for this island, which he described as truly original, because of its ancient apostolic memories, a very varied and rich history and a present that he described as "multicolored" because it is "a true place of encounter between different ethnic groups and cultures", characterized above all by migrants and refugees who challenge the charity of Christians by demanding "welcome, integration, accompaniment". Regarding the government, Pope Francis did not criticize the migration problem, but rather exhorted it, repeating clearly the same concept that he had expressed to religious leaders: "Governors know how capable they are of receiving [migrants]: That's their right, that's true. But migrants must be welcomed, accompanied, supported and integrated. If a government is unable to do this, it must enter into dialogue with others and leave it to others to take care of them, each one of them. And that's why the European Union is so important, because the European Union is able to create harmony between all governments in the distribution of migrants." More than two years have passed since then and the EU's response is, if possible, even more closed and disappointing than the rejection of solidarity, resettlement and integration to which the Pope alluded in his farewell to Cyprus: police measures, detention camps, refoulement and forced returns, externalization and border blockades through agreements with countries where human rights are not respected. The upheavals of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the neighboring region as well as the dramatic conditions in Syrian society and the unexpectedly rapid decline in Lebanon give rise to fears that larger waves of migration to Cyprus are imminent. Whatever the future, the Pope's words of benevolence and encouragement to the Cypriot authorities remain before the "refugee who comes to ask for freedom, bread, help, brotherhood, joy, who flees from hatred": "May this island, marked by a painful division, become, with the grace of God, a laboratory of brotherhood. This island is generous, but it cannot do everything, because the number of people arriving is greater than it can accommodate... Its geographical proximity facilitates [arrivals], but it is not easy... But always on this island, and I have seen it in the leaders I have visited, there is [the obligation], with God's grace, to be a laboratory of brotherhood to become". Realism and hope. Realism on the part of the authorities of the Republic of Cyprus, who are currently pushing Brussels to obtain, if not that solidarity that has so far been denied by the resistance and vetoes of various member States, then at least more resources. Hope of the Cypriots of good will who trust in human and Christian values, and perhaps in a less fearful and introverted Europe. (Agenzia Fides, 15/1/2024)
*Professor of Contemporary History at “Roma Tre” University