The Republic of Cyprus’ handling of asylum seekers at Pournara camp remains on Brussels’ radar, with a host of different challenges raising questions over how the European Union and some member states can get on the same page without resorting to legal battles.
According to Kathimerini Cyprus, EU Commission spokesperson on migration Adalbert Jahnz says conditions at the Pournara migrant facility are “of great concern, especially after a decision by authorities [last year] to close the gates of the temporary-stay facility.”
The comments came following multiple reports of protests and violent incidents that took place at the Pournara reception centre in rural Nicosia, where over a thousand asylum seekers remain in closed quarters and unable to leave camp.
Jahnz, who responded to questions by Kathimerini’s Brussels correspondent Yiorgos Kakouris, said the Commission was in communication with Cypriot authorities, noting that an additional €9.3 million of EU funds had been allocated to the Republic to help with the issue.
The spokesperson said procedures had also been agreed back in July 2020, where officials from both sides codified together a set of procedures for new arrivals.
'Besides the current expansion in support staff and financial assistance from the EU, we stand ready to help Cypriot authorities further so that they can implement procedures'
But local authorities took several restrictive steps citing the pandemic, including adding more staff at migration facilities as well as reducing asylum application locations to be filed only on campgrounds at Pournara. Camp residents also argued recently that officials broke their promise by not allowing people to exit the fenced facility.
“Besides the current expansion in support staff and financial assistance from the EU, we stand ready to help Cypriot authorities further so that they can implement these procedures,” Jahnz said.
But Cyprus did not hold up its end of the bargain according to Hanne Beirens, Director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a migration think-tank in Brussels.
Beirens told Kathimerini that the issue of Cyprus was not coming up very often within Europe, even before the pandemic, citing very low numbers of asylum seekers compared to other countries.
But according to Interior Minister Nikos Nouris, the Republic of Cyprus receives a lot more refugees compared to other states, saying the island is hosting more asylum seekers in proportion to the local population.
Nouris, who has been criticized for taking a tough stance on migration, has repeatedly said the island could not host more “economic migrants” while at the same time he has been assuring critics that authorities would not be sending back those whose lives may be in danger.
But reports of pushbacks made headline news, with officials insisting the policy was based on concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
Last year the minister said he disapproved of practices whereby newly-arriving asylum seekers were requesting to go to specific parts of the Republic to join relatives already on the island, saying “Cyprus became an attractive destination for migrants.”
Beirens agreed that Cyprus had higher numbers in proportion to the population for a number of years now, speculating that this was why the government has been focusing its comments on those numbers according to Kathimerini.
But she also said some tools from the EU were not being effective “when some countries don’t want to be viewed as welcoming” to asylum seekers, adding that some governments have openly stated their goal that they did not want to be attractive destinations.
The interior ministry did not respond to Kathimerini for comment, while similar calls from Knews had been left unanswered in the past.
Pandemic an ideal excuse to close open camps
Beirens also pointed out that while immigration authorities in some member states were seeking ways to adapt to the pandemic, for other countries “the pandemic was an ideal excuse to turn open camps into closed facilities,” adding that this was in violation of European Law.
But the director said the EU Commission would hesitate to take any course of legal action against a member state, saying Brussels would prefer to find a political solution before moving forward with an infringement procedure.
She also added that some countries were not as capable of handling migration challenges as other members, but she also cautioned in some cases that inability was “partly due to lack of political will.”