Immigration authorities in the Republic of Cyprus scrapped an online appointment platform on Monday after allegations were made public about agents selling available slots to foreigners for profit and causing months of waiting for those who did not shell out the cash.
New Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou announced on Sunday that appointments with the Civil Registry and Migration Department would from now on take place via email and walk in-hours based on specific categories to avoid abuse of the system.
A report by Cyprus Mail on Sunday gave a rundown of the alleged abuse with examples of how foreigners had to pay money to agents in order to book an appointment.
“When a person went to the department’s webpage they would see no slots available for about three months ahead. A slot would ‘magically’ appear for just a day or two ahead when they paid an ‘agent’ between €100 to €200 to book an appointment under the online system,” the report said.
An online platform had been in use since the pandemic to facilitate appointments but multiple reports in local media pointed to frustration and long waiting times.
It was not clear whether any immigration officials were involved in the scandal but the minister, who said he did not have knowledge about payments being made, pointed the finger at agents
Applicants seeking international protection status were mainly affected along with certain categories, incliuding EU nationals and visitors, as well as foreign spouses, while an official told state radio Monday morning that domestic applicants had also been affected.
Cyprus Police say they had alerted immigration authorities about possible abuse of the system but spokesperson Christos Andreou also told state radio that law enforcement had never received a formal complaint.
It was not clear whether any immigration department administrators were involved in the scandal but officials suggested those who traded appointment slots did so by booking under one name and then changing it to another after payment was made by a bona fide applicant.
It was still unclear how bona fide applicants who visited the website knew where to pay for an appointment slot.
Ioannou, who served as health minister during the pandemic, said he did not have knowledge about any payments being made but pointed the finger at agents.
“I don’t have information about money but there was certainly abuse on the part of agents, who pre-booked a large number of appointment slots, so members of the public or specific categories did not have the option to find availability,” the minister said.
Knews has also learned that in some categories, instructions during the booking process even directed families with IPS dependant applications to book two consecutive slots, while back-to-back appointments for dependants were not required for domestic or seasonal workers.
Ioannou said new arrangements have been made.
The Cypriot government has been deporting thousands of asylum seekers and also playing an active role in the European debate on immigration, as the old continent still struggles to find solutions agreeable to all 27 members with diferent problems.
Last week Ioannou told his EU counterparts that Cyprus’ capacity to manage migration had been depleted, calling on Brussels to view the problem as “an undeniable result of Turkey's instrumentalization” of refugees and economic migrants as well as focus on traffickers including air carriers.
But government efforts have suffered setbacks recently after workers started speaking out about abuse, including food delivery drivers who say they were forced to register on platforms through middlemen as well as farm workers who have no legal recourse to solve a dispute with their boss.
In one case, as reported by Knews last month, a farm worker from Albania felt he had no good options following a dispute with his employer, namely withholding passport and wages, saying many people who came to work on the island were forced to seek asylum because the system was not in their favor.
The worker said he had sought assistance through labor officials and law enforcement authorities but to no avail, adding workers at the farm in question lived in horrible conditions and he was left with no legal status and no job.
Police advised the man they could not do anything as he had signed a contract, but he told Knews he was tricked into signing a document in Greek with no translation offered.
After the publication of the story, which was picked up by local television and other media, the worker’s allegations were confirmed by officials, who offered him assistance and less restrictive work permit until he could sort out his case in court.