The UNHCR office in Cyprus said on Monday that it was pleased with the steps being taken to improve the living conditions of asylum seekers on the island, but expressed hope that additional measures will follow to tackle the multifaceted issues that emerged amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking to the Cyprus News Agency, UNHCR Representative in Cyprus, Katja Saha, said that while several coronavirus tests conducted on refugees at the Kofinou and Kokkinotrimithia camps who showed concerning symptoms emerged negative, “no mass testings have taken place and our information suggests that there are currently no plans for mass testings at the centers.”
Saha, who had visited the Pournara emergency camp in Kokkinotrimithia earlier in April, said that though refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries living outside the centres are supposed to follow guidelines issued by the Health Ministry in the event that they develop symptoms, they are unable to as asylum seekers have not been made eligible to register under the General Health System, and as such are without a GP who is the public’s first point of contact in case of symptoms.
Rather, asylum seekers are left to seek help through the often-congested coronavirus helpline, which refer them to A&E departments.
Steps being taken to improve living conditions at camps
During her visit to the Kokkinotrimithia emergency reception centre on April 14, Saha noted a number of improvements to living conditions, such as the installation of additional sanitation facilities, including more mobile showers and sinks with running water, and enhanced lighting.
“UNHCR was also informed that food distribution points will increase in an effort to ease long queues and improve social distancing in common areas at the camp.”
Also good news, Saha said, is that the Interior Ministry halted plans to transfer an additional 800 asylum seekers from hostels to the overcrowded camps.
But the situation being faced by residents of camps remains concerning, Saha said, particularly in view of the decision to turn the Kokkinotrimithia camp into a closed centre, which has left over 600 people locking into the tent camp for over two months.
Cyprus Ombudswoman Maria Stylianou-Lottides also visited the center recently and published a report on April 23 on measures that need to be taken by the authorities in order to tackle the spread of the disease.
Stylianou-Lottides stressed that asylum seekers should not under any circumstances be barred from exiting the campground, adding that an April 8 decree for restrictions on movement amid the pandemic provided for the right of individuals to request permission to go outside for humanitarian or medical reasons.
Saha said that UNHCR increasingly observes a disproportionate use of immigration detention in many countries and has been calling on states to manage restrictions in ways that respect international human rights and refugee protection standards, including through quarantines and health checks.
“However, health concerns do not justify the systematic or arbitrary use of immigration detention. Quarantine measures may, for example, be a legitimate restriction on the right to freedom of movement provided they’re in the form of a preventive and time-bound 14-day separation from the rest of the population and they’re implemented in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner, as a measure to monitor potential symptoms and ensure early detection of the virus.”
“Persons deprived of their liberty should receive comprehensive information, in a language they understand, about any such measures,” Saha said.