The overcrowding situation with refugees and asylum seekers at Pournara camp was back in the news, following an unannounced visit by the state’s Ombudswoman who said she saw some improvements but also some problems still not being addressed such as the right to move freely out of the camp.
Following a recent Cabinet decision, the interior ministry said it would rent a location, where the state could house homeless refugees, after reports emerged that dozens of asylum seekers were roughing it out in Engomi, a western borough of Nicosia, outside a migration office.
Reports said some 60 refugees were not allowed to file for asylum at the Migration office and had nowhere to go, while one of them appeared on video showing a ticket he had received from a police officer who cited him for violating health laws.
According to a report this week by Maria Stylianou-Lottides, Commissioner for Administration and Human Rights in the Republic of Cyprus, there were 968 persons at Pournara camp, a reception facility with 350 original maximum capacity located in rural Nicosia district west of the capital.
Stylianou-Lottides visited the camp on December 4, reporting that 365 people were found inside the camp proper and another 603 individuals were housed in areas specifically designed as quarantine areas. In a previous visit earlier this year, the Ombudswoman pointed out a number of concerns regarding capacity, health and hygiene, access to asylum services, as well as the right of residents to come and go freely.
In last week’s report, she said she determined a number of improvements had taken place, such as better food and light in every tent, but criticized the lack in progress in installing more prefab houses. All 213 women at the camp were living in prefabs, the ombudswoman wrote, while 103 persons described as minors were also staying in a safe zone monitored by a security guard 24 hours a day.
But she also remarked there was no uninterrupted electricity service in some areas, leaving shower installations without hot water at times. In one instance, 23 individuals in one of the quarantine areas had to share a single toilet while they had no access to a shower.
People after quarantine still isolated
Stylianou-Lottides noted that individuals who had tested positive for the coronavirus were supposed to be transferred to an off-camp facility, with officials saying they made arrangements to take such individuals to a nearby hotel but the option was not feasible before the end of the year. But some individuals who completed a mandatory 14-day quarantine were not back into the general population, with the ombudswoman noting lack of space in the camp proper.
She also reported that previous problem areas on the ground where mud rain tends to accumulate had not been fixed, noting that camp officials said they have been waiting for the Migration Department to allocate the funds for construction.
Authorities were criticized earlier this year for carrying out policies under which processed and unprocessed asylum applicants were being picked up from their places of residence and transferred into the migrant camp, which was originally designed to host newly-arrived refugees and asylum seekers for a maximum of 72 hours after initial administrative processing.
Minister says refugees have access to services off camp
In response to earlier criticism of detaining refugees and not allowing them to leave the camp, Interior Minister Nikos Nouris assured the Ombudswoman that individuals were being transported in and out of the camp. It was understood that residents were being transported to and from locations where they could seek medical treatment or attend a court hearing.
Nouris, who has been criticized for taking a tough stance on migration, also told Stylianou-Lottides that interviews had resumed on-site after officials halted the asylum filing process earlier this year, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
But critics pointed out that asylum seekers in urban areas ought to have the right to file a petition outside the camp, with reports saying this was no longer possible as persons wanting to file for refugee status could only do so at Pournara.
The ombudswoman said she understood that conditions due to the pandemic called for additional measures such as quarantine.
But she suggested that some 200 individuals, who were eligible to exit Pournara according to camp officials, be given permits immediately to leave the facility. In her report, Stylianou-Lottides said camp officials said nobody could leave the camp as a decree banning exits and allowing only entries superseded other factors.