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Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016 (Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via Wikimedia Commons)

For Many Refugees, Cyprus is “Like a Prison”

A slate of hardline policies has made life for refugees in Cyprus more difficult.

Words: Hanna Davis
Pictures: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe

In her modest home on the outskirts of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, 21-year-old Ayah opened her phone to show a video of her recent recital. Her deep, melancholic voice rang out of the phone’s crackling speaker, and her six younger siblings gathered around her. 

Ayah was singing “Zahrat al-Mada’en,” or “Flower of the Cities,” a song by the Lebanese singer Fairuz. The song is a melancholic response to the 1967 Middle East war, known to Palestinians as the Naksa (The Setback), in which Israel displaced some 430,000 Palestinians when it occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. She expressively moved her left hand as she sang, the wide, intricately-embroidered sleeves of her traditional Palestinian dress swaying to the song’s slow beat. 

For Ayah, singing has long offered an escape, a distraction from the terror she endured in Palestine and the mounting challenges she is now facing in Cyprus. After fleeing their Jenin-area village in the occupied West Bank, Ayah and her family arrived on the Mediterranean island in 2019. 

“Not Accepted”

In Jenin, they suffered continuous and often violent harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Ayah recounted nights standing for hours outside — barefoot and wearing just pajamas — while Israeli soldiers searched their home. She described her 25-minute commute to school as “a horror movie”, where she feared the Israeli soldiers stationed at each checkpoint. “Even when we reached the school, we couldn’t feel safe. We could hear the fighting, the gunshots,” she said, “We were used to it, we were acting normal, but the fear was still there, inside.”

Although Cyprus offered safety for Ayah and her family, she said a series of recent policies targeting asylum seekers and refugees on the island has made life unbearable.

“On the streets, or at school, everyone looks at you like you’re unwanted,” Ayah said, “because you are different from them, you are not accepted”. 

Harsh Measures

With a population of around 1.2 million, Cyprus regularly receives the most asylum applications per capita of the European Union’s 27 member states. Through the end of May this year, 4,437 people submitted applications for protection on the island, the vast majority of whom were from Syria — just a day’s boat ride away. Cyprus has adopted a series of harsh measures to stymie the number of refugee arrivals, including halting the examination of Syrians’ asylum applications and forcefully pushing back migrants at sea and on its land border with the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island.

Meanwhile, as far-right parties have gained influence in Cyprus, they have pushed an anti-migrant discourse. The uptick in anti-refugee rhetoric has fueled racist violence and encouraged the implementation of restrictive policies that have made it nearly impossible for refugees to integrate. 

“You have a toxic narrative from public figures — which is very influential in society — then the society pressures them for more [anti-refugee] measures, then this brings new rhetoric and new policies,” said Doros Polykarpou, the founder of the refugee rights group KISA. “It’s a vicious cycle, which, at the end of the day, just makes people’s lives miserable.” 

KISA came under attack in January when an explosive device detonated outside the office. Polykarpou said he suspects far-right attackers who wanted to intimidate them had planted it. 

“Like a Prison”

In December 2023, a policy effectively banning refugees who reached the country irregularly from ever being able to get citizenship in Cyprus went into force, meaning many will never be able to step foot off the island. For Ayah, the news was a shock. “It’s like we are locked in Cyprus,” she said. “It’s like a prison.”

More than 80% of protection beneficiaries in Cyprus, including Ayah and her family, have “subsidiary protection status,” a form of protection displaced people can obtain if they cannot meet the requirements for refugee status, and typically handed to diaspora groups fleeing conflicts, such as Syrians and Palestinians. Those with subsidiary protection status are not able to travel abroad, meaning that without citizenship, most could end up stranded on the small island. 

“In Cyprus, in a country with high levels of institutional racism, with no integration policies, and with the weak status of subsidiary protection for the majority [of refugees], citizenship is essential to escape from this exclusion,” Polykarpou said. “But now they’ve closed this as well.”

“Significant Barrier”

Ayah fought for a spot to study interior design at a university in Nicosia. She is paying her way through school working a full-time job on top of a full course load to cover her tuition and help out with her family’s expenses. Many days, she said, she gets up at five in the morning and doesn’t end until midnight. 

“I was planning to finish university, get my citizenship, and then travel the world and see what other people are doing for art, architecture, and interior design, and then, maybe open my own business and have opportunities all over the world,” she said. “Then, suddenly, I heard that I could never get citizenship. They crushed my dreams, everything I was planning for.” 

Banning refugees from citizenship has also left gaping questions regarding the status of refugees’ children and grandchildren — as refugees are remaining as such for generations, explained UNHCR’s spokesperson in Cyprus, Emilia Strovolidou.

Also, subsidiary protection beneficiaries lack the right to family reunification, meaning their family members have no legal route to join them in Cyprus. This has been one of the main drivers of irregular and dangerous migration, and may continue to be, without more flexible family reunification policies, Strovolidou said. “Family reunification remains a significant barrier to integration,” Strovolidou said. 

Integration Failures

Cyprus ranks very low on its efforts to integrate refugees, compared to other EU countries, according to the Migration Integration Policy Index (MIPEX). It was the only EU country to receive MIPEX’s worst integration measure — “immigration without integration” — meaning Cyprus was enacting policies that do not support the “basic rights or equal opportunities” of immigrants and that “may encourage the public to see immigrants as subordinates and as strangers.”

“Refugees face a multitude of challenges as they try to adjust to and integrate into Cypriot society,” said Elizabeth Kassinis, the head of Caritas, a charity that helps refugees and asylum seekers in Cyprus. “Refugees face practical challenges like language barriers; structural problems like a lack of affordable housing; and wider issues such as discrimination in the labor market and schools.”  

Then, suddenly, I heard that I could never get citizenship. They crushed my dreams, everything I was planning for.

– Ayah

Also, just prior to citizenship law amendments, Cyprus extended the amount of time asylum seekers must wait to legally work from one month to nine months. This has left many asylum seekers out of work, or vulnerable to exploitation in informal sectors. And as a result of the work barriers and the inadequate social support, many more asylum seekers are ending up homeless.  

Kassinis added that “Cyprus is small and its asylum and welfare systems have been overwhelmed in the last few years,” leading to “gaps in the welfare system with few structures in place to help those facing challenges.” 

Migration Considered “Security Threat”

National identity in Cyprus has long been a contentious issue, considering the deep-rooted divisions between the divided country’s two major communities, one identifying as majority-Christian Greek Cypriots and another as majority-Muslim Turkish Cypriots. In 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, splitting the island. The invasion forced Greek Cypriots to flee south, while Turkish Cypriots had to flee north.

Today, most refugees are on the southern part of the island, an EU member state known as the Republic of Cyprus. There, many Greek Cypriots consider Turkey an enemy.

Politicians often pin migration to southern Cyprus as a national security threat, including as a weapon engineered by Turkey to alter the demographic balance or even as a tactic by Islamist extremist organizations to infiltrate the country. This rhetoric, often amplified around elections like the recent EU elections last month, has contributed to a rise in violence and discrimination against refugees.

Kassinis said that the portrayal of migrants as “pawns in a regional power game that involves Turkey” can “feed the xenophobic or racist sentiments and erode sympathy for and solidarity with those who come to Cyprus for safety or in search of a better life.” She added, “Cypriots see themselves as displaced.” 

Ayah constantly faces discrimination due to the fact she wears a hijab. She said potential employers claimed removing her headscarf was a condition for employment on multiple occasions. “I’ve faced racism from employers,” she explained. “They’d say, ‘We cannot accept you with your hijab.’” 

“Give Up and Disappear”

To reduce the number of refugees on the island, Cyprus is deporting failed asylum seekers at a record pace. In the first four months of 2024, it expelled 3,337 migrants, a 42%-increase when compared with the same period of 2023. These deportations included forced expulsions, relocations, and voluntary returns. 

Cyprus is among multiple EU member states seeking the recognition of “safe zones” in Syria to allow for refugee returns. By the end of May 2024, 114 Syrian asylum seekers had already voluntarily returned, compared to just around 30 in all of 2023. 

“They created a system, so that they [refugees] will give up and disappear,” Polykarpou, from KISA, said. 

For her part, Ayah said that if she had the chance, she would attempt to get to another country irregularly, despite the risks. “I don’t want to limit myself living in Cyprus, my dreams are beyond this,” she said. “If I leave, I can achieve my dreams. It’s not just about money, it’s about success and happiness. For that, I need to have my own passport, my own documents that allow me to leave this country.” 

Hanna Davis

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

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