The sudden financial blow that Cyprus suffered two months ago is one story that successfully made international headlines; what has barely made it into the local news, however, is the toll the crisis has taken on asylum seekers and refugees, two of the most marginalised groups in Cypriot society, who are treated as scapegoats for our community’s ills.
When discussing the new austerity measures, politicians and the media choose their rhetoric with care, in an effort to secure social support for measures that will affect broad segments of the population. The newly elected president of the Republic eagerly stresses in his announcements that benefits provided to non-Cypriots, particularly refugees and asylum seekers, will be drastically reduced, despite the fact that the amount paid to this population constitutes a tiny percentage of the country’s overall budget.
As the full extent of the crisis is still unfolding, its full impact on the lives of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection remains to be seen; yet it is already evident that their situation is deteriorating daily.
As employment opportunities diminish in the sectors where asylum seekers are permitted to work (agriculture, livestock, fisheries), most have become dependent on the volatile welfare system. Similarly, recognised beneficiaries of international protection, who are legally permitted to work freely in all sectors, are trapped in the same dependency cycle because the Labour Office appoints them to seek employment in these limited fields, while Cypriots are prioritized more than ever, followed by EU nationals, in better-paid sectors.
The welfare system is struggling to respond to the needs of the population at large, especially those of asylum seekers who are not allowed to work in the first six months they are in Cyprus, and who are therefore supposed to be supported by Social Welfare Services. The individual conditions of beneficiaries (including victims of torture, people with disabilities, and unaccompanied minors) are not taken into consideration and, as a result, the benefits granted to each are the minimum possible. Moreover, since January 2010, a parliamentary committee must approve all benefits paid to non-EU residents on a monthly basis. This practice results in delays of many months, and removes the capacity of the social services to respond immediately to emergency situations. As a result, hundreds of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection are trapped in a cycle of destitution. Meanwhile, the government is moving towards the implementation of more restrictive policies.
In the aftermath of the country’s financial breakdown, the discriminatory practices that were already found among the governmental authorities dealing directly with asylum seekers and refugees have been aggravated by an increase in xenophobic attitudes. These attitudes reinforce the daily obstacles that people have to overcome in order to access basic social and economic rights.
Escalating aggressive xenophobic and racist attitudes are manifested both in attacks on non-Cypriots by the growing far-right and fascist groups, and in the increasing incidents of violence against immigration detainees by police officers. Even the growing Cypriot solidarity movement, worryingly, has a message of exclusion of non-Cypriots.
In the last months, two of the country’s three reception centers, mainly financed by the European Refugee Fund (ERF), have abruptly suspended their operations. Hundreds of residents were given just one week’s notice prior to their removal to arrange alternative accommodation and the Social Welfare Office did not give them access to emergency support. It is still unknown when these people will be given access to welfare benefits ensuring their right to adequate living conditions. But while the closure of reception centers has severely affected the lives of those who used to reside there, it has also affected all new asylum seekers arriving in the country, many of whom arrive from Syria.
The Cypriot government’s inability to meet its responsibilities has become evident in its delay in adopting an official stance towards the Syrians currently in the country, despite international pressure. Recently, government representatives have stated in the press that Cyprus will not be receiving any more refugees from Syria and will act only as a transit country, before people move on to other EU states.
As the weeks pass, many asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from Syria, attempt to leave Cyprus, hoping to find safe havens in other European countries. Over the past two months, the ones brave and lucky enough to manage have not been returned to the island.
With a very weak governmental infrastructure in place to respond to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees already, and particularly to the most vulnerable individuals amongst them, the fight these days rests on the shoulders of a few NGOs whose own capacity is curbed by a lack of funding.