NICOSIE, Cyprus (AFP) — Roni Amude hoped for a new life when he arrived in Cyprus, fleeing the conflict in his homeland Syria, but more than two years later he is desperate to leave.
“As Cyprus is in Europe, I thought I’d get something here,” complained Amude, who, like many immigrants on the eastern Mediterranean island, is disillusioned after two and a half years in its immigration system.
Cyprus lies on the eastern limits of the European Union and is the member state closest to Syria, where a bloody civil war that erupted three years ago has forced millions to flee.
It also shares a porous border with the Turkish-occupied north. But Cyprus has not seen a wave of illegal immigration in recent years, unlike other Mediterranean islands.
“It comes from the fact that we have no policy of integration in Cyprus — it is trying to remain a dead end,” said Nicoletta Charalambidou, a lawyer specializing in immigration.
With no prospect of settling in Cyprus in the long term, Amude is hoping to travel to Britain where his wife has just started applying for asylum.
“It is impossible to get refugee status or nationality,” said Sami Bilad, a Syrian Kurd who has spent the past six months in the island’s main immigration detention center, Menoyia.
He lost his job and his residency permit after spending 12 years in Cyprus and now faces deportation.
Hostile public opinion
The integration of immigrants is a dim prospect because of the country’s dire economic situation and hostile public opinion.
Less than 10 percent of asylum seekers in Cyprus have obtained international protection, according to Eurostat, considerably less than the European average, and the authorities rarely grant nationality to immigrants.
Cyprus is also home to a large number of migrant workers, many employed as maids or in domestic jobs, who can stay for no more than four years unless they are given special dispensation.
If they lose their job, they also risk losing their residency permit unless they can find work within a month.
International lenders agreed to bail out Cyprus’s troubled economy in 2013 to the tune of 10 billion euros ($14 billion).
The economic crisis has created many undocumented migrants, and authorities have stepped up deportations and the number of foreigners held in detention.
But the heavy-handed treatment of immigrants has sparked complaints: in March, Amnesty International rapped Cyprus for its “shameful” treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers, saying they were being detained in prison-like conditions for extended periods even when there was no chance they can be deported, as in the case of Syrians.
The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, has also voiced concerns over the separation of migrant women held in detention from their children, after the Cypriot media reported several such cases.
Around 15 Syrians are currently being held in the brand new Menoyia facility in the south of the island, where the average length of detention is officially five months.
Menoyia also holds a dozen citizens from European countries who have been judged a risk to Cypriot security.
Makis Polydorou, head of the immigration service, was bullish about Cyprus’s management of migrants.
“We are one of the European countries with the highest proportion of asylum seekers, but we have managed to handle this problem, as the numbers show,” he said.
“They blame us, the authorities, (saying) that we are inhuman,” but “we are implementing properly” European rules “while taking into consideration the human rights.”
“The notion of burden sharing (between EU member states) is at its primary stages and we are facing a huge pressure.”
Some say the treatment of asylum seekers is intended to send a signal to anyone else thinking of seeking shelter in Cyprus.
“The message given to would-be migrants, especially Syrians, is clear: if you come, you might get arrested,” said Doros Polykarpou, head of Kisa, a support organisation for immigrants.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in March 2011, 1,380 Syrians have sought asylum in Cyprus, only a handful of whom have been given refugee status.
Nicosia may come under even greater pressure to change its policies, activists say, as Brussels investigates whether to initiate an infringement procedure if EU asylum directives are violated.