When Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, it received the largest number of applications from asylum seekers, while the years that followed EU accession, with the exemption of 2007, numbers dropped significantly, according to the Head of the Asylum Service at the Ministry of Interior Makis Polydorou.
In an interview with CNA, Polydorou said that according to available data, in 2004 the Service received 9.872 applications, whereas today, (February 2014 data) there were only 200 applications. The pending applications before the Asylum Service right now stand at 1.127.
The data show that in 2012 and 2013 the majority of the applications were from asylum seekers from Syria, apparently because of the ongoing crisis in the country.
The Asylum Service began examining applications in 2002, a job that was carried out before by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for the Refugees). Asylum seekers can be given the status of a refugee, subsidiary status or humanitarian status and according to the law, the Service examines applications on first instance.
Polydorou explained that the examination of applications on first instance is a very detailed procedure as the Asylum Service is responsible for opening a file for each applicant which includes taking fingerprints in cooperation with the Police. The applicants are then interviewed by Asylum Services officers who will provide the Head of the Service with an assessment and he will then take the final decision.
The Asylum Service acts as the coordinator between all competent authorities involved, such as the Police, the Civil Registry and Migration Department, the Social Welfare Services, the Labor Department, the Health Ministry etc.
They are also responsible for the execution of the Dublin Regulation and the Eurodac regulation which basically establishes a hierarchy of criteria to identify the Member State responsible for the examination of an asylum claim in Europe.
The Asylum Service is also responsible for the operation of the reception centers and the detention centers as well as other centers that might need to open in case Cyprus is faced with huge numbers of refugees as a result of war or a crisis in the region.
Moreover, the Service participates in all EU bodies responsible for drafting policies and regulations as regards asylum seekers and attends conferences, training and seminars on a European level.
The Head of the Service explained to CNA that Cyprus has the obligation to follow the acquis communautaire when examining applications from asylum seekers, which means receiving them at special reception centers where they are provided with accommodation, food, transportation and schooling for their children, and psychological support if needed.
They also get an amount of money for personal expenses. If there is no room available in the reception centers, the Republic rents accommodation for them and the Welfare Services provide them with coupons for food.
Asked whether asylum seekers are allowed to work while the Services examine their applications, Polydorou explained that an EU member state has the right, according to the law, to forbid these people from entering the job market for a year. In Cyprus, asylum seekers are not permitted to work for a period of six months after they file for asylum. Polydorou clarified that if an applicant is working and he can meet his needs with his salary, then he is not allowed to have access to other benefits.
According to Polydorou, it is not easy to determine how long it takes for an application to be examined as there are quite `easy` cases that can be examined in one-two weeks but there are also cases that are quite difficult and take longer to process. He said that sometimes the Services cannot find an interpreter for a specific dialect asylum seekers speak, or the applicants do not accept the interpreter. He also referred to the workload that undoubtedly slows down the examination process.
The Service currently employs only 7 persons who process the applications, while the total number of employees is 27.
Asked how long the applicants can remain in Cyprus while their applications are being examined, Polydorou explained that each case is different and many factors are taken into consideration. He said that one applicant might be rejected on first instance by the Asylum Service and he/she can apply to the Reviewing Authority and later to the Supreme Court.
Polydorou pointed out that the majority of cases are examined within two years and the Service makes every effort to speed up the procedures.
Invited to outline the most common reason for an application to be rejected, Polydoru said that there are workers from third countries whose working and residence permit expires and they file an application for asylum mostly for economic reasons. He stressed however that according to the international conventions, this cannot be considered a reason which obliges a country to give asylum. He also said that there are applicants whose claims are inconsistent, their stories are proven false and thus their cases are rejected.
When the applications are rejected, the applicants have the right to apply to the Reviewing Authority, but if they fail to do so, the Service decision must be enforced.
Invited to comment on allegations about the conditions of detention of asylum seekers, the detainment of minors etc, Polydorou said that according to the law, a minor cannot be detained and in these cases the Welfare Services of the Republic take over. He referred to those cases when people are arrested for illegal entry to the Republic and they file for asylum after they are arrested. Polydorou explained that one person can be in the Republic illegally for a period of five years and then when he is arrested and wishes to apply for asylum, the Service will examine the asylum application as a priority and if he/she is eligible for asylum, then he/she is freed.
He also explained that many illegal immigrants file for asylum and their cases have to be examined although they do not have the necessary documents (passports, IDs etc), because they fled their countries due to war, crisis etc and thus it was not possible to ask for visas and passports.
On the public debate that Cyprus could have followed a national policy on asylum issues, Polydorou said that a country had the right to follow the so called ‘opt outs’ (exemptions) and indeed countries such as the UK, Ireland and Denmark adopted their own policies. He explained however that following the Treaty of Nice, things have changed and new member states, such as Cyprus, did not have this right.
Polydorou said that the member states have the right to adopt a national policy on issues such as the access of asylum seekers to the job market. But under no circumstances Cyprus can close the door to asylum seekers.
He said that the situation in Cyprus right now is quite manageable and that the number of applications compared to previous years (especially 2004, 2005, and 2006) has dropped significantly. He said however that given the economic situation in Cyprus, although the numbers are reduced, the country cannot and should not receive more people, adding that one should take into account the size of Cyprus, its economic situation etc.
He also stressed the fact that Cyprus is prevented from exercising its jurisdiction in the Turkish occupied northern part of the country and there is a huge number of migrants who enter the Republic from the occupied areas and Turkey. Polydorou pointed out that if Turkey, which aspires to join the EU, assumes its responsibilities and meets its EU obligations, the problem could lessen.
Polydorou said that the burden sharing in the EU is very limited. He explained that the EU is giving additional assistance to Cyprus because of the problems it is faced with (the geographical location etc), however he raised the question whether EU is a unified area as regards asylum seekers. He added that following the Dublin Regulation, the burden is on the shoulders of countries that have external frontiers such as Cyprus.
Polydorou expressed the position that EU should take into consideration the size of each member state, the social conditions, unemployment rate and other such issues.
On the discussion about the creation of an administrative court to examine asylum seekers` applications, Polydorou clarified that the establishment of such a court is an EU obligation and according to the new EU directive, the processing of an application ends when a court examines on second instance the substance of the case and is in a position to replace the decision taken by the Head of the Asylum Service.
On the cooperation with UNHCR , Polydorou described it as close, adding that the Asylum Service has undergone training by the Representation in Cyprus.
He said however that there are different views on a number of issues mainly regarding the minimum obligations each member states has to follow. He also said that there needs to be cooperation with non governmental organizations as they have a role to play, adding however that sometimes their criticism is unjust.
Polydorou invited the press to address their questions to the Service, seeking comment and clarification before publishing a story that includes allegations. He explained that stories of asylum seekers that include photographs and other personal data should be avoided for a number of reasons.
Get all the latest news and videos in your inbox. Register FREE