A teleconference on Tuesday raised the multifaceted problems faced by refugees and asylum seekers on the island, such as racism and xenophobia, hardships during the coronavirus pandemic, and difficulties with integrating into Cyprus society.
The teleconference, that featured the participation of a group of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the representative of the Cyprus office of the UNHCR UN Katja Saha, marked the completion of the Aware campaign.
The refugees and asylum seekers highlighted the need to meet their basic survival needs, including housing, but also to participate in integration programs so that they can secure jobs, benefit from their skills, and learn the language of the host country.
Participating migrants pointed to a growing trend of xenophobia, while the pandemic worked to further aggravate their living conditions and increase obstacles to their integration.
The UNHCR representative highlighted the problems created at the First Reception Center for people in need of international protection due to overpopulation and isolation, as well as the need to make the most of EU funding and good practices provided by UNHCR.
In her speech, the UNHCR representative said COVID-19 is a situation unlike anything faced before. “While in the face of the public health crisis, we are all vulnerable but it is clear that people fleeing war, conflict and persecution have been the hardest hit. As countries battle to protect their populations and economies, fundamental norms of refugee protection and human rights have been put at risk”, Saha said.
In Cyprus, and elsewhere in the world, UNHCR has been closely monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on refugees and asylum seekers and has been addressing issues of concern to the competent authorities from the very beginning, making recommendations to address the challenges.
At the same time, said Saha, the UNHCR prioritized access to accurate information on the virus and the related measures taken by national authorities.
“We assisted the Government of Cyprus by translating the official health advice and other information related to the emergency into a number of languages of asylum-seekers and refugees. These flyers were then disseminated to camps as well as to NGOs and the Refugee Volunteers to reach out the refugee community in cities”.
Major issues of concern that have been raised in Cyprus relate to access to territory and asylum procedures, the decision to relocate vulnerable asylum-seekers from hotels or other structures to overcrowded reception centers, the particular hardships faced by asylum-seekers by staying in closed and overcrowded centers for an indefinite period of time without sufficient information about their cases and their future, and the increase of homelessness and destitution, as well as obstacles in access to healthcare, she added.
While fully supporting measures aimed at controlling the epidemic, UNHCR has been advocating for solutions that meet both the public health and refugee protection requirements.
While Cyprus and other parts of the world navigate in the new normal, we strongly believe that the Republic of Cyprus has an opportunity to put in place adequate systems for both reception and integration of refugees. And Cyprus, she noted, is not alone in this task - EU provides important financial support and UNHCR is here to assist with good practices and recommendations for effective integration.
She stressed the need both to emphasise in public and political discourse, that behind the numbers there are individuals – fathers, mothers and children – who have lost everything but hope, adding there’s still a long way to go in terms of dispelling myths and enhancing awareness and understanding for refugees; and fostering in general acceptance and inclusion.
Asylum seekers, Klara, Alie, Rana, Reema and Ekram told the press conference that there is a xenophobic and racist attitude by some Cypriots who as soon as they hear they are from countries such as Syria, exclude them from work or treat them badly.
Some said that this attitude has also been nurtured by the behaviour of some Syrians who are in Cyprus and are causing problems. However, not all should be victimised, they said.
The AWARE campaign is co-funded by the European Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Republic of Cyprus.