UNHCR: Cyprus asylum seekers face hardship, overcrowding

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The UN High Commission for Refugees acknowledges Cyprus is one of Europe’s frontline states facing increasing migratory pressures, but it needs to implement fast and fair asylum procedures.

The UNHCR Representative in Cyprus, Katja Saha, spoke to the Cyprus News Agency about the situation at Pournara reception centre and the 280 unaccompanied children there.

According to Saha, UNHCR has employed a camp management expert since November 2021 to propose solutions for improving infrastructure and workflows to increase the efficiency and speed of the processing of asylum seekers in the in camp.

It also recommends that emergency preparedness plans are adopted for a possible sudden influx while longer-term improvements are pursued in Pournara.

“The living conditions of asylum-seekers at Pournara have deteriorated over the last years due to overcrowdedness.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp has received all newly arrived asylum-seekers and had been operating as a long-term reception facility.

“Today, it hosts some 2,300 people while its current maximum capacity is 1,000 persons.”

Around 500 asylum seekers reside in prefabricated shelters with access to electricity and heating.

In contrast, others are accommodated in tents or semi-hard plastic structures without electricity and proper hygiene facilities.

“The continued situation of some 280 unaccompanied children in Pournara remains of concern.

“The temporarily set up safe area for these children who are alone can’t accommodate all.

“Only three guardians are in charge of all the children, and significant delays occur in releasing children from the camp as authorities are looking into alternative accommodation.”

Saha said that while residing in the camp, children do not have access to education, adding that UNHCR supports the efforts of the Deputy Ministry of Social Welfare to identify interim solutions such as placing the children in hostels with access to services.

The women and families reside in separate sections within the camp to avert sexual and gender-based violence risks.

Yet, several complaints of sexual harassment are reported by residents each month.

“Asylum-seekers are allowed to exit the camp and live in the cities after quarantine and registration if they have a valid address in Cyprus.

“However, due to the recent COVID surge, all procedures at Pournara, including new admissions, were suspended until further notice, resulting in significant delays in the release of asylum-seekers from the centre.”

Saha noted that people fleeing conflict and persecution needing international protection are among those arriving.

“From January to November 2021, 11,939 new asylum applications were lodged.

“Overall, over 20,000 applications for international protection were pending at the end of 2021.

“A comprehensive management of the asylum system in line with the international laws and norms would call for the implementation of fast and fair asylum procedures.”

The Head of the UNHCR office in Cyprus also said that the lack of integration policy and programmes has already led to conflicts and unrest in Chlorakas.

She said it is crucial to invest in integration to avoid ghettoization and ensure social cohesion.

Saha argued that the right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right.

This also applies to persons arriving irregularly by sea or crossing the Green Line irregularly regardless of whether or not smugglers or traffickers facilitate them.

“Smuggling and human trafficking take place in every region of the world, and many persons fleeing conflict, violence or persecution are compelled to resort to smugglers in the absence of safe and legal pathways.

“Authorities cannot deny entry to or return people without undertaking an individual assessment of those in need of protection, as this would be a violation of international law.”

Saha said the use of asylum procedures by those not in need of international protection could be reduced by offering alternative migration solutions and visas for domestic workers and students.

She said that those not in need of protection should be quickly returned to their countries of origin, and those who clearly are refugees, should not wait for years to start their integration in Cyprus and become regular taxpayers.

“UNHCR supports the government’s efforts to receive further assistance from the European Commission and individual member states to speed up returns of failed asylum seekers.

“A swift return of those not in need of protection would discourage many more from attempting to travel to Cyprus.”

Limnes Centre

Saha said the Limnes Centre has not yet received EU funding as it does not meet the minimum EU standards.

Due to the overpopulation at Pournara, the authorities decided to register asylum applicants at the multipurpose centre in Limnes to ensure access to the asylum procedures of all COVID infected/or close contacts of infected persons.

Meanwhile, attempts have been underway to improve the infrastructure and bring the standards to the minimum required by EU legislation on reception camps.

“A recurring concern of the 650 asylum seekers currently in Limnes is the uncertainty they face over the reasons, length, and the basis for their continued presence at the closed sections of the Centre despite having exceeded the mandatory period of quarantine based on being infected with Covid and/or being close contacts.” (source CNA)