The UNHCR representative that raised the alarm regarding incidents of the sexual harassment of minors at the Pournara refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia was expected to provide police with a statement on Wednesday, the outgoing police chief Kypros Michaelides said.
“The case is considered serious due to its nature and the complaints that have been made,” Michaelides said, noting that instructions for the launching of an investigation were issued immediately.
Asked whether police plan on making arrests in connection with the case, Michaelides said “this will depend on the representative’s testimony.”
The issue of incidents of sexual harassment of underage unaccompanied minors living at the Pournara camp was raised by the UNHCR representative during Monday’s meeting of the House human rights committee, after which interior minister Nicos Nouris said an official probe into the matter will be launched.
The UNHCR rep said the incidents were discovered through interviews conducted during a visit at the camp on June 17.
Reports said the complaint involves the groping of a number of girls as they waited in line for a meal at the Pournara migrant reception center.
The children's rights commissioner of Cyprus, Despo Michaelidou-Livaniou, criticized the Interior Ministry for not housing the minors elsewhere while authorities worked to confirm the girls' ages, a process she said takes too long.
Though Nouris raised the matter of the belated reporting of the incidents by the UNHCR rep, a statement by the agency on Wednesday clarified that the asylum service and the social welfare services were notified immediately, and asked to take action by conducting an assessment of the situation of all unaccompanied children in Pournara.
“UNHCR is pleased to note that the Social Welfare Services assessed the situation of the children the day after UNHCR’s visit and has taken action regarding the allegations that had been communicated by UNHCR to the Asylum Service present at the camp, upon the completion of the monitoring visit. In particular, two of the children have already been moved out from the camp to more appropriate facilities,” the announcement said.
In an announcement earlier this week, the UNHCR office in Cyprus said “UNHCR has been calling the attention of the competent authorities to the situation of unaccompanied children accommodated in the Pournara camp since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic.
It said that the ministry didn't follow through with a plan to create a "safe zone" for children during work to expand and upgrade the center. Boys and girls shared facilities like showers with adults while separated only by curtain.
At the outbreak of the epidemic some 70 minors were hosted in the camp, the UN agency said. Currently the camp hosts 47 unaccompanied or separated children.
Nouris defended his ministry's actions, saying Cyprus is struggling with an influx of asylum-seekers. No sexual harassment allegations have surfaced at the center in the past, and minors staying there don't line up with adults at mealtime, he said.
Nouris said the age verification process needs to be thorough because nearly half of 206 migrants who last year claimed to be minors were shown to be adults.
A hasty decision to transfer these people to a dedicated facility for underage migrants would be "just shifting the problem somewhere else," he said.