NEWS

Cypriots seek passports

NICOSIA- Easing decades-old travel restrictions on divided Cyprus has prompted thousands of Turkish Cypriots to venture into the Greek-Cypriot south seeking a passport to a better life and the European Union. Tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots have swamped district offices in the south which are having to work round the clock to process the mountain of applications for Cyprus passports, identity cards and birth certificates. The number of applications for various documents has reached an unprecedented 20,000, on an island of less than 1 million inhabitants, Greek-Cypriot Interior Minister Andreas Christou said on Monday. Cyprus is destined to join an enlarged European family in May 2004. But Turkish Cypriots remain out in the cold because the failure to reach a UN-brokered reunification deal in March saw the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government sign last month’s EU accession treaty. So, not wanting to be left out, the first thing Turkish Cypriots have done with their newfound freedom is make a beeline for government offices to secure those all-important documents for themselves and their children. «Turkish Cypriots, as citizens of the Republic of Cyprus, have every right to obtain official documents, such as passports, and we’re obliged to issue them,» Interior Ministry Permanent Secretary Kyriacos Triandafyllides told AFP. The Cyprus government has pledged to make Turkish Cypriots feel part of the EU – despite the current deadlock in ending the island’s 29-year division – and has fast-tracked passport procedures as part of this effort. «What (Turkish Cypriots) do with the documents is up to them, but it appears they want to use them to travel abroad and enjoy all the benefits that come with being a EU citizen,» said Triandafyllides. As Cyprus knocks on the door of EU membership, long queues of Turkish-Cypriot passport-seekers have been gathering outside district administration buildings. Before the stampede, only 7,142 Cyprus passports were issued to Turkish Cypriots between 1989 and March 2003. This figure should easily be exceeded after just one month of free movement across the UN-manned Green Line. There have been some frayed nerves and complaints of obnoxious officials as people wait for hours in temperatures of over 35 degrees Celsius (95F) before they can even enter the buildings. Since Turkish-Cypriot authorities lifted travel restrictions on April 23, Greek-Cypriot officials have found it hard to cope with the demand for passports and other documents. Compounding the problem was a lack of forms in Turkish, and the fact that thousands more Greek Cypriots want new passports so they can cross into the Turkish-held north to visit abandoned homes and villages not seen for decades. Turkish troops seized the northern third of the island in 1974, responding to a coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. Extra Turkish speakers are being hired to overcome the language barrier. However, Turkish-Cypriot United Cyprus Party chief Izzet Izcan has criticized district office employees for bad-mouthing Turkish Cypriots. Izchan said Turkish Cypriots are made to stand in queues for hours on end to receive their documents only to be berated at times by officials as if they were doing «Turkish Cypriots a favour.» But the Nicosia district office – handling at least half of all applications – says its employees are «bending over backward» to serve Turkish Cypriots. They have been dropping all other work and foregoing holidays and weekends without asking for overtime pay. The number of staff has been nearly tripled to cope with the volume of people and paperwork. There have been more than 400,000 crossings by the two communities over the Green Line which divides this Mediterranean island since the Turkish-Cypriot authorities surprisingly lifted the decades-old travel curbs.