The UNHCR office in Cyprus has stressed that refugees must be included in the government’s planning and response to the Covid-19 pandemic, offering hands-on solutions to the myriad problems in the government’s handling of refugee and asylum procedures that have only been exacerbated by the current crisis.
UNHCR Representative in Cyprus, Katja Saha told the Cyprus News Agency that steps should be taken to resolve the issue of overcrowding currently being observed in the two refugee centers at Kofinou and Kokkinotrimithia.
She explained that while UNHCR in Cyprus does not have an operational role, it has nevertheless offered its support to the Cyprus government in view of increasing its capacity to provide adequate shelter and basic hygiene items to asylum seekers, ensuring at the very minimum temporary access to shelter.
'All, including migrants and refugees, should have equal access to healthcare and be included in the national response to the pandemic'
“Further to a relevant request by the authorities, UNHCR has procured and will soon supply the Republic with 200 tents, 2,500 blankets, and hygiene items for use at the first reception facility in Kokkinotrimithia and the reception center in Kofinou to improve the conditions of those currently accommodated in the two centers, while we maintain that no further transfers of asylum seekers from hostels should take place to avoid further overcrowding the two reception centers,” Saha told the Agency.
She said that in the face of the current crisis, everyone is vulnerable, as “the virus does not discriminate, but many refugees, those forcibly displaced, the stateless and migrants are at heightened risk.”
Saha stressed that all, including migrants and refugees, should have equal access to healthcare and should be included in the national response to the pandemic, which includes testing and treatment.
The Representative of UNHCR in Cyprus said that her office has received numerous reports from asylum seekers who tried to submit their asylum applications at the District Immigration authorities, but were not allowed to submit them due to measures taken against Covid-19.
On Tuesday, Knews spoke to Cyprus Refugee Council Coordinator and Senior Legal Advisor, Corina Drousiotou, who said that since early March, the government gave orders to halt the acceptance of asylum applications, leaving refugees in precarious situations.
Saha stressed that the right to seek asylum is enshrined in international, EU and national law and there’s an obligation on the part of each contracting State to allow access to the asylum procedures.
She explained that while States have the sovereign power to regulate the entry of non-nationals under international law, international law also provides that measures to this effect may not prevent them from seeking asylum from persecution under any circumstances.
Those who were barred from submitting asylum applications have also effectively been denied access to reception assistance, including food and shelter.
The establishment of the universal healthcare system, known as Gesy, has also barred access to asylum seekers who are unable to register under the new system.
“This is a public health emergency and in order to effectively combat it, everyone, including refugees and asylum seekers, must be able to access health facilities and services in a non-discriminatory manner,” Saha said.
She added that containment measures, including isolation and quarantine, are particularly difficult to organize in reception centers, such as the emergency reception center in Kokkinotrimithia which currently hosts over 600 persons, way beyond its capacity, with insufficient access to water, electricity and sanitation.
“Given the confined and congested space, implementing and upholding the required preventative measures, including social distancing and hygiene measures, becomes very challenging. This is a concern not only for the inhabitants of such centers, but also for the authorities’ efforts to protect the wider population from human-to-human transmission”, she added.
UNHCR Cyprus Representative also said that her office is concerned about the authorities’ decision to relocate some 860 asylum seekers from individual accommodation in hostels, to the overcrowded emergency reception center and then possibly to the Kofinou closed center, which is already operating at full capacity.
“Dozens of persons have already been moved to the Kokkinotrimithia tent camp, including vulnerable persons in high risk groups. The area where they were placed has no electricity nor access to running water for the necessary sanitation. Chemical toilets have been installed instead and a water hose with cold water has been extended instead of showers,” she said.
She recalled that the International organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned, that the overcrowded camps provide the perfect storm for a covid-19 outbreak, and it may prove impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings. Such an outbreak, she said, may affect the residents, the government and other workers at the centers and the general population alike.
Against this context, UNHCR recommends the consideration of a number of measures in reception centers hosting asylum-seekers.
These include the shifting refugees to independent private accommodation, particularly older persons or persons with pre-existing medical conditions, for whom Covid-19 presents an especially high risk; the decongestion of existing centers to reduce the risk of transmission; regular cleaning and disinfection; and enhanced water, sanitation and hygiene measures, including hand-washing facilities and disinfectant gel in all rooms.
Efforts will also be made to ensure that crowding or gatherings are avoided, and to ensure that waiting lines and waiting rooms are supervised so as to enforce the minimum two meters distancing rule, and avoid unnecessary contact.
According to Saha, homelessness has reportedly increased amongst asylum seekers, including amongst persons reporting being sick. She said that many asylum-seekers and refugees living in the cities have been among the hardest hit since the outbreak in Cyprus.
“Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, many have been living under the poverty line, often in substandard and overcrowding conditions, due to lack of meaningful employment opportunities and meagre welfare assistance. Such living conditions render them particularly vulnerable to infection. Their situation has further exacerbated due to the fact that many refugees assisting organisations and charities across the country had to cease their operations due to the measures taken to contain the spread of coronavirus and protect the health of all concerned. In fact, a number of asylum-seekers and refugees who had been reliant on charities assistance for their subsistence, have now been left without food and other essential supplies since the outbreak of the pandemic in Cyprus, ” she told CNA.
Saha also told the CNA that UNHCR is prioritizing access to accurate information on the virus and the related measures taken by national authorities. “We’re therefore supporting the Government of Cyprus by translating the official health advisory and other information related to the emergency into a number of languages of asylum-seekers and refugees,” she said.
All information is made visible both on UNHCR’s Help Platform in English, Arabic, French and Somali as well as in ten other languages in order to reach all of the language groups among the community of refugees and asylum-seekers.