Why migrants are going to great lengths to avoid this EU country

September 28, 2015
Refugees walk inside the Kokkinotrimithia refugee camp in Cyprus

Refugees walk inside the Kokkinotrimithia refugee camp in Cyprus, September 6, 2015. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

Nine months after Fadi, a refugee from Homs, Syria, landed in Cyprus on a boat carrying some 340 smuggled refugees, he still had not applied for asylum. He chose instead to attempt to reach mainland Europe by any means possible.

Fadi’s reluctance to plant roots in Cyprus, the European Union country closest to Syria, stems from Cyprus’ policy preventing most of those granted asylum from bringing their family members to join them.

For Fadi, who made the journey to Cyprus without his wife and 3-year-old son, the “right to family reunification” was important enough that he continued via “illegal ways,” he said, to Sweden, where he was granted refugee status in August.

Of the more than 487,000 refugees and migrants who have reached Europe by sea so far this year, just over half are Syrian. But fewer than 3,000 have come to Cyprus, an island nation of just 1 million people located 60 miles west of Syria.

The situation is worlds apart from that of the nearby Greek islands, which have seen 357,000 arrivals since January alone. And unlike Malta, located in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya, Cyprus is too far from the rest of Europe to be used as a transit country.

But according to a dozen refugees and migrants interviewed this summer, Cyprus’ asylum policies are the main reason they shun that country in favor of southern Europe. In Cyprus last year, only 3 percent of asylum-seekers were granted refugee status, which allows them to live and work legally. Fifty-six percent were granted subsidiary protection, a kind of second-tier international protection with fewer rights than refugee status. (The rest were rejected outright. But almost none of the rejections were Syrians; typically they get subsidiary protection.)

Most European countries make little distinction between the two. But in 2014, Cyprus amended its laws so that those who are granted subsidiary protection are not able to bring family members to Cyprus from their home countries or other nations to which they’d escaped — known as the right to family reunification — or to travel freely outside Cyprus. Subsidiary protection also comes with very limited work opportunities — which means those who get it can’t support themselves — and does not protect people from expulsion.

The distinction is just one example of discrepancies in how various European Union countries are treating the world’s biggest influx of migrants since the end of World War Two. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European network of NGOs, has warned that vastly different standards and quality of national asylum systems amounts to a “protection lottery” for those who reach Europe.

Reunification rights are particularly important for families like Fadi’s, which send fathers, husbands and underage children to Europe alone. If granted asylum, they become a kind of anchor drawing the rest of the family to safety.

“When you’re a refugee and you lost everything, your family is your support network to rebuild from scratch,” said Emilia Strovolidou, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cyprus.

Local lawyers and human rights advocates have accused the Cypriot government of changing the rules to deter migrants. “They want to give refugees the message: Don’t come to Cyprus because if you do, you won’t get refugee status,” said Doros Polykarpou, executive director of KISA, a Cypriot nonprofit. “And it works.”

Migrants also shun Cyprus because it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, the EU’s passport-free zone. Visitors to the country need a visa to get to the rest of Europe. But because most refugees do not have valid passports, they can’t get visas.

Many never register with authorities so that they can more easily apply for asylum elsewhere in Europe. This means they can’t live in Cypriot refugee camps — instead, they live on the streets or in unofficial, temporary shelters.

In an emailed statement, the Cypriot Asylum Service defended its policies, saying that “every case is examined on its own merits” and that it adhered to all of the EU directives concerning refugees.

On September 22, Cyprus voted in favor of an EU plan to relocate 120,000 refugees across Europe. But discussions leading up to the Brussels meeting highlighted a xenophobic sentiment seen in other Eastern European nations such as Hungary: Cypriot Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos said the country could take up to 300, but “we would seek for them to be Orthodox Christians.”

Meanwhile, the refugees’ widespread plots to leave Cyprus, as well as their choice to forego government-offered services, have drawn the ire of Cypriot authorities. One government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, likened it to “window shopping.”

“If you are running from persecution, should you get to choose?” the official said. “If someone is running behind you trying to kill you, do you say, ‘I don’t want Cyprus. I want Germany’?”





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This is “window shopping” for the country with the best freebies – the best weather (Finland is too cold) – the easiest country in which to promote the Islamic “religion”.

Heaven help the EU – you will have even worse problems with the invaders than we have in the US.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

This is “window shopping” for the country with the best freebies – the best weather (Finland is too cold) – the easiest country in which to promote the Islamic “religion”.

Heaven help the EU – you will have even worse problems with the invaders than we have in the US.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

This article is a bad attempt at humor. For anyone to be calling Cyprus a “racist” country is simply absurd. Cyprus has welcomed refugees, from Lebanon (Civil War), The former Yugoslavia (Civil War) Palestine (War with Israel) Kuwait (during Saddam’s invasion) and other smaller regional conflicts….Further Cyprus has been instrumental in the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens from war-torn areas throughout the Middle East and has served as a hub for the safe transfer of western nationals to Europe, the U.K. and The USA. Cyprus is a small, independent country member of the EU that sits on approx. 10,000 Sq. km, with a population of 750,000 Greek Cypriots and 300,000 Turkish Cypriots and Turkish nationals. It was itself invaded by Turkey in 1974 and approx. 38% of its territory remains illegally occupied by Turkish troops to date (41 years). Cyprus is also the smallest and now the weakest economy in the EU with its citizens forced to take a “Haircut” or “Bail-in” which was more like theft of their bank accounts by the EU in 2013/2014. The only reason more Syrian refugees and aother economic migrants do not land in Cyprus is because the distance from Syria by sea is too long and perilous to take on a dinghy. There are Syrians that have migrated to Cyprus over the years and have become Cypriot citizens (legally). This type of reporting is “racist” and irresponsible. Get your facts straight!

Posted by JeanLouis | Report as abusive

Cyprus is just a Criminal Safe Heaven of EU nothing else.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Asylum shoppers are well briefed by the human smugglers. BTW, up until the Syrian invasion, Germany’s biggest pool of asylum shoppers was from Kosovo, which has been at peace for decades.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Germany and Italy especially actually need the educated refuges to replace retiring workers and to continue to fund the retirement programs because they have such low birthrates. After a generation the same very low birth rates apply to the new refugees and immigrants as well as they adopt common economic goals. Raising children in a developed nation is expensive after all.

Posted by SeniorMoment | Report as abusive