Cyprus a dead end for migrants

NICOSIA – David, a Congolese who has been an «illegal» in Cyprus since 2005, paces each morning up and down in front of Nicosia’s historic Venetian walls waiting to be picked up as a day laborer. «This is not the Europe that I imagined,» he sighed after several hours of waiting in vain, ready to do any job for a day’s wages. «For me, Cyprus was a stepping stone to France or Belgium, but I’m stuck here without work, without any future. This is a real prison,» said the young French speaker. His fate is shared by most of the illegal immigrants who have made their way to the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which became a member of the European Union in May 2004. Due to sign up to the EU’s border-free Schengen zone possibly as early as 2008, Cyprus has turned into a waiting room for would-be EU migrants, most of whom sneak in on the side of the Turkish-occupied north. Over the past three years, the UN-patrolled Green Line dividing the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities has turned into one of the least secure land borders of the EU. Only a few hundred people made the journey to Cyprus in 2002, before it was part of the EU, compared to more than 3,200 illegals who have arrived so far this year alone. The new arrivals are mostly from Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Africa, according to the immigration office. Many of them say they landed at the southern port of Limassol. But, in reality, «most of us arrived through the north,» said Adnan, a 26-year-old man from Ivory Coast. Emilio Lambrou, from the border control department, said most migrants reach Cyprus through the island’s Turkish-held north and Turkey, which had eased visa requirements for certain nationals, such as those from Syria and Iran, in 2003. In 2006, out of a total of 3,778 migrants who landed in Cyprus illegally, only 16 arrived on the island through the Cypriot government-controlled south, according to the immigration office. But once on dry land, immigrants seek to head south. In the north, «it’s worse. You can’t ask for political asylum, or else you are jailed straight away and then expelled,» Adnan said. He paid 2,000 dollars (1,400 euros) to cross from Egypt on a cargo ship, hidden in a container with 20 compatriots. They were dropped off «at night, somewhere in the north» and crossed the Green Line to the south. But although Adnan has filed an application for asylum in the south, «I haven’t seen anyone (official) for 18 months and I’m not allowed to work.» Under Cypriot law, asylum seekers who have been on the island for six months are entitled to work in the agriculture and farming sectors, while they are banned from other activities. A group of Iraqi demonstrators spent more than six months sleeping rough on the pavement on the edge of Nicosia before they were granted the right to work in an expanded number of sectors and granted housing allowances in September. In May 2007, out of 12,000 registered asylum seekers, only 300 had work permits, according to figures from Amnesty International. Some of those with permits have taken on jobs in the countryside, like Michel, an Iranian who is employed 30 kilometers (20 miles) outside the southern coast resort of Limassol. «I am ashamed. I am paid 10 euros (14 dollars) a day to look after a flock of 284 goats from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. My employer refuses to sign a contract with me and I don’t have any access to healthcare,» he said. Most prefer to roam the streets of Nicosia and make do with odd jobs and the monthly government help of about 200 pounds (480 dollars), which is often difficult to obtain. Others keep a low profile rather than approach the authorities for asylum. «People know they have no chance to be regularized and stay clandestine,» said Doros Polykarpou, head of Kisa, an NGO which assists immigrants. «If the request of the asylum seeker is rejected, he is put in jail for months or sometimes years, before being deported,» said Polykarpou. Meanwhile, the immigration office says around 200 police are patrolling the Greek-Cypriot side of the 180-kilometer (110-mile) buffer zone with the north to prevent further entries, a figure experts say is insufficient. Despite barbed wire and sandbag barriers in places, the division is often easy to cross. «We thought about installing a video surveillance system in the most sensitive places but it would cost a lot of money. We can’t go so far as to build a wall,» said Emilio Lambrou of the border control department. Building a wall would also amount to implicit recognition of the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. As for the UN peacekeeping force on Cyprus, their job is «to ensure the ceasefire between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots is respected. They are not here to fight illegal immigration,» said UN spokesman Brian Kelly. Cypriot Interior Minister Christos Patsalides recently said that the issue of illegal immigration, especially from the occupied areas, was one of the «most serious problems we are facing as a state today.» «The problem must concern all EU states,» he said. The porous Green Line is a worry for Brussels, especially with the Schengen free movement agreement in the offing for Cyprus. «Signing the agreement risks being delayed. First a committee has to study security at our airports and on the Green Line. We are waiting for its advice before being able to integrate Schengen, possibly in 2009,» said Lambrou. A government source, declining to be named, was even more cautious. «Cyprus will never integrate the Schengen space, at least not before the reunification of the island, which seems unlikely to happen soon. While waiting, Brussels will never accept such a weak border as the Green Line,» he said. The source said the only solution would be a political deal involving Ankara.