Helping asylum seekers in northern Cyprus – Democracy and Society

On May 24, 2021, three Cameroonian asylum seekers left northern Cyprus to try to reach the south. They were denied protection, sparking widespread international condemnation, and were stuck in no man’s land for nearly seven months after Cypriot authorities refused to recognize their asylum claim.

Their predicament stemmed in part from the de facto division of the island since 1974. Crossing the United Nations-controlled Green Line separating the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus (RC) and Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey) is considered illegal if not authorized. , even for asylum seekers.

Authorities in the Republic of Congo argued that granting asylum to the three Cameroonians would encourage others to cross the Green Line and accused Turkey of encouraging an influx of refugees from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. But the reality is more complex.

University Island

Since 2018, Cyprus has become a major destination for refugees. As routes to the European Union via Greece close and living conditions for refugees in countries like Turkey and Lebanon deteriorate, traffickers are instead offering Syrian refugees a risky crossing to Cyprus. Many newcomers to the island are living in dire conditions in overcrowded reception centres, while government ministers stoke anti-refugee sentiment. Some land in northern Cyprus and confuse it with the Republic of Congo.

Responsibility for providing protection should rest with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The increase in the number of asylum seekers in northern Cyprus reflects both new arrivals by boat and the “university island” model. A recent study by the VOIS Cyprus student group shows a correlation between the growing number of university students in the north and the increase in the number of asylum seekers, 4.5% of the 763 respondents (mainly third-country nationals ) citing war or conflict in their home country as a reason for studying there. There are currently 21 universities in Northern Cyprus, with students from around 100 countries. For the 2021-22 academic year, there were 14,000 Turkish Cypriot students, 43,000 from Turkey and 51,000 from third countries.

Unfortunately for most refugees from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Northern Cyprus has not taken responsibility for granting asylum to those in need of protection. This is despite the fact that international human rights instruments such as the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture form part of the country’s national legal framework. North.

In fact, there is no specific national legislation concerning the protection of refugees, and no differentiation between persons in need of protection and other groups of migrants. Refugees arriving in northern Cyprus by boat are often detained and deported. It is a similar story for students who cannot regularize their stay due to financial difficulties and who, fearing persecution and/or war in their home country, seek asylum.

Who is responsible ?

Responsibility for providing protection should rest with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But UNHCR’s mandate in northern Cyprus has diminished since 2014, as a lack of rules established with local authorities has prevented the agency from offering refugees meaningful protection. UNHCR’s mandate previously allowed refugee status determination in the north to be part of the process of determining whether a person was in need of protection. Its current mandate, however, allows it to provide asylum seekers only with letters of protection recognizing them as “persons of concern” (PoC). In theory, this document prevents PoCs from being deported and gives them access to the labor market, health care and (in the case of children) education. But the lack of a comprehensive mechanism to provide even basic protection to refugees in northern Cyprus is worrying.

Desperate people should not suffer more than they already have for the prospect of a better future.

In fact, there is no formal agreement between the Refugee Rights Association (RRA, which acts as an implementing partner on behalf of UNHCR) and the Turkish Cypriot authorities, and therefore no legal basis for the letters of protection from UNHCR. It is simply an informal agreement that authorities can revoke at any time, which is why they have made no concerted effort to offer meaningful protection to PoCs.

Some therefore see crossing the Green Line into the Republic of Congo as their only option, despite the Republic of Congo’s poor record with refugees. Being internationally recognized as refugees would be at least preferable to the limbo they live in in the North.

The failure of the EU and the UNHCR

It is difficult to know exactly who is responsible for the fate of asylum seekers in northern Cyprus. But desperate people will continue to head for northern Cyprus, whether or not they are aware of its unrecognized status. International actors, in particular UNHCR and the EU, must therefore take concrete steps to provide them with meaningful protection.

Far too often, the UNHCR claimed that it was unable to establish relations with northern Cyprus because it was occupied territory. But for many asylum seekers languishing in appalling conditions, the issue of effective screening is irrelevant. To offer them meaningful protection, UNHCR must seek innovative ways of communicating with the authorities in the north. Giving the RRA more money and manpower to do this would be a good start.

The EU, meanwhile, should push the RC government to restore and recognize the protection claims of those crossing the Green Line and to work with the authorities in the north. In addition, he should investigate the Republic of Congo’s increased and seemingly inhumane border policing, increase his support for the RRA, and encourage the Turkish authorities to pressure their Turkish Cypriot counterparts to honor their peace commitments. human rights.

More importantly, other EU member states must recognize their role in this debacle. The fact that asylum seekers are now opting for Cypriot shores is a direct result of the violent pushbacks against refugees at the borders of these countries. The EU can – and should – provide asylum seekers with safer humanitarian corridors, visas and resettlement programmes. Desperate people should not suffer more than they already have for the prospect of a better future.

© Syndicate Project

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