Thursday, 29 June 2006

Cyprus refugees' rights, Cyprus government's responsibilities, Cypriot refugees' memory

In an article by Alexia Saoulli in the Cyprus Mail on the 12th of May 2006, a teenage asylum seeker appealed against the fact that "if you're an asylum seeker they look at you in disgust and talk to you like you're dirt. You can't imagine what it's like."

On the 14th of May, the Cyprus Mail argued that, "that asylum seekers are now throwing caution to the wind and taking to the streets in desperation is an indication of just how short our collective memories can be".

It is this loss of Cypriots' collective memory, this process of forgetting, this act of amnesia, that I wish to reveal through the protest and to document in the accompanying examples: of people subjected to "abusive policies, and inhuman treatment", to "systematic abuse" and "institutionalised racism"; of people who "just can't survive", so "desperate" that they are considering selling their organs to support themselves.

This post was inspired by asylum seekers' and refugees' human rights protests in the old town of Nicosia and is one I've been working on and had been meaning to put up for a while, but had never quite got round to.

It seemed a little too much like a late, token effort, until I saw the article (to be dealt with soon) splashed in yesterday's Cyprus Mail, "asylum seeker dragged from his own wedding"; nonetheless, this, now, is more a stitching together of background and references than it is a discussion proper.

Asylum seekers started camping out in Freedom Square (Plateia Eleftherias) on the 8th of May. According to Alexia Saoulli in the Cyprus Mail on the 12th of May, the day before, President of the House of Representatives and General Secretary of AKEL, Demetris Christofias, had "pledged to find a solution to asylum seekers' woes", though "the refugees... decided to stay in place until they had something more concrete".

"They are demanding the right to work, better access to housing, medical and pharmaceutical care, examination of each case by a government commission independent from the police, and access to lawyers and independent translators that are unrelated to the embassies of their own countries."

Asylum seekers from places around the world told Saoulli and her readers of their plight:
  • one person explained that they were protesting "because our lives do depend on it... We are desperate. We don't have any money or food";
  • another said, "next month I've been told they're closing my file. I don't know why. If I ask why, they'll call the police. I can't go back home though"; and
  • yet another said that he was "treated like an animal" by civil servants.
This last one observed, perhaps tellingly, that, "they look at you with this look. You can see it in their eyes. I think it could be because I'm Muslim and they associate us with the Turks."

Acutely, he queried, "don't they know that we have problems with the Turks too? We like Cyprus. We are safe here, why are we being treated worse than in the countries we had to run away from?"

Complementing this analysis, the teenage asylum seeker mentioned above commented that, "they don't see a person with feelings. They just see a headscarf or colour [of skin]. They see a Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan."

A leaflet that I was given on the 12th of May noted that "no human being is illegal", before explaining that "immigrant refugees that come to Cyprus face brutal exploitation, class, racial and sexist oppression and constitute a constant target of racist and repressive attacks".

The leaflet went on to say that, "journalists who blame the immigrants for the increase of criminal activities come to worsen the existing climate by creating the necessary social consensus for the continuation of the current regime of terror, the exclusion of those made redundant from production and the disciplining and subordination of the rest".

I received this leaflet from one of the protesting asylum seekers as I pushed through a packed crowd of AKEL (Anorthotiko Komma Ergozomenou Laou (Progressive Party of the Working People of Cyprus)) supporters at a pre-election Party rally in Eleftheria Square.

The Progressive Party of the Working People of Cyprus presents itself as just that - "progressive" and "of the working people" - but despite its General Secretary Demetris Christofias's fine words just the day before, the asylum seekers he had promised to help did not appear welcome at his Party's rally.

Indeed, the asylum seekers had been not only socially and politically sidelined, but physically sidelined, their demonstration driven back and marginalised by the masses at the rally. As my friends and I pushed through the seething mass, we tried to escape out of the back of the crowd, but were met by asylum seekers forming a human fence, struggling to keep the rally in the road and the demonstration on the street.

The demonstrators gave me the leaflet, but refused to let us onto the uncrowded footpath behind them, shouting in explanation and justification, "this is a protest! This is a protest!" At the time, I appreciated the sentiment, but certainly did not appreciate being trapped in such stifling conditions.

A few local Greek Cypriots, however, suggested that the asylum seekers protesting for the fulfilment of their human rights had somehow got the impression that their demonstration would not complement the AKEL rally and had been convinced that it might be in their interests to blend into the background, shall we say, to learn how to disappear completely.

The demonstrators who gave me the leaflet, then, would appear to be have been those asylum seekers, those resolute few, who had not been convinced by whichever idea it was, however it came into their heads, that going quietly into the night on the night of the AKEL rally was in their best interests.

Shouldn't the Progressive Party and/or its supporters welcome refugees and asylum seekers as its/their friends and allies? Shouldn't the Party of the Working People of Cyprus and/or its supporters welcome the asylum seekers forced to be agricultural workers and other recent immigrant labourers, who are the working people of Cyprus?

The sidelining of the asylum seekers and their demonstration seems like someone, somewhere has forgotten their cultural community's history of forced migration, like someone, somewhere has forgotten their political community's history of exploitation and subjugation.

On the 14th of May, the Cyprus Mail declared that it was "time to rethink asylum policy". Noting one of the demonstrating asylum seekers' placards, which read, "you were refugees once", the newspaper commented that,
the slogan is a stark reminder of how fast Cyprus has changed in the past couple of decades. It's barely a generation or two since Cypriots were abandoning the grinding poverty and ethnic strife of their homeland in search of work across the developed world.

.... Indeed for a society that has defined its political struggle for the past 30 years on the defence of its human rights, one might have expected an inkling more solidarity for those now claiming to flee persecution and coming to our shores.

That asylum seekers are now throwing caution to the wind and taking to the streets in desperation is an indication of just how short our collective memories can be, how hard the human psyche finds it to place itself in someone else's shoes and feel the empathy that is the prerequisite for compassion....

Remember, we too were once refugees and economic migrants. We worked, worked, worked in the farthest flung places of the earth to ensure our children had a better future. Is it so wrong for others to seek to do the same?
Apparently, some of the asylum seekers' demands have been met; however, judging by the fact that, on the 21st of May, after two weeks of demonstrations, Kurdish asylum seekers felt it necessary to initiate a hunger strike and that, on the 20th of June, after their own two-week campaign outside the US Embassy in Nicosia, Iraqi asylum seekers were arrested and detained indefinitely, it would appear that the Republic of Cyprus continues to fail to fulfil its human rights obligations.

Evidently, (as some liberal Greek Cypriots have themselves bemoaned to me), for many Greek Cypriots, refugees are Greek Cypriot refugees, asylum seekers Greek Cypriot asylum seekers, who fled Turkish military violence, so tightly defined as to deny empathy and solidarity even with those Kurdish asylum seekers now fleeing Turkish military violence.

This is the power of collective memory, or, rather, collective amnesia that non-nationalist, anti-nationalist histories, human rights histories, will have to overcome if they are to work towards overcoming the partition of Cyprus and towards founding the reconstruction of community in Cyprus.

As Papadakis (1995) and Broome (1996) observed, currently, it is common for Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to forget the pain of the other: if Cypriots cannot yet recognise and empathise with the pain of "other others" from outside the conflict, they will not be able to see the pain of their "primary other" and stand in solidarity with them either.

As a first appendix, I think it's helpful to include Cyprus Tales' critique of the Republic of Cyprus Department of Labour's defence of limiting asylum seekers' job opportunities to manual labour, from the 2nd of September 2005; Cyprus Tales talked about the "Catch 22 for asylum seekers".

It noted that,
Cyprus, in requiring asylum seekers to take up jobs in agriculture, provides a means to avoid providing minimum welfare benefits required by law. If an asylum seeker turns down a job or leaves because the farmer does not live up to his legal obligations or fails to provide even the most basic amenities, they lose their welfare benefits.
If asylum seekers complain about the violation of their human rights,
this, of course, leads to the farmer throwing them out and their benefits are once again stopped. Therefore in reality the asylum seeker has no valid recourse if his rights are violated.
Cyprus Tales rightly observed that,
restricting employment opportunities for asylum seekers to agriculture jobs may be legal, but then denying them minimum welfare benefits so they have access to food, housing, clothing, and education if, for any reason, they don't keep the job given them is not. And when the cause is the illegal behavior of the farmer, such a denial of benefits is totally immoral.
As a second appendix, I'm including another Cyprus Mail article about the "Cypriot immigration scandal", from the 13th of December 2005, characterising its recent history. It relayed that "immigration officials, for many years, had the power to refuse a visa to, or deport, anyone they chose without having to properly justify their decision. And they often abused the discretionary powers given to them by the law."

It noted that, at least before European Union (EU) policy and law was imposed,
  • there were "cases of immigration officials arranging the deportation of a foreign woman because she was having an affair with a married Cypriot and the wife had complained to the department";
  • that "foreign nationals in dispute with a Cypriot were often deported without advance warning and no right to fight the decision";
  • and that "the [immigration] department deported a Bangladeshi asylum seeker [Saif Islam], who had withdrawn his application for asylum because he had married a British woman [Lydia Dowdall] living in Cyprus".
As in the UK, in Cyprus, these are chronic problems (and they clearly haven't been cured by the EU's treatment). In the Cyprus Mail on the 25th of July 2005, Stefanos Evripidou pointed out that, "driven to the edge of despair, three asylum seekers have attempted to commit suicide in the space of a month. All three used horrific means to try and end their lives when the months of anxiety and uncertainty became too much to bear."
  • First, an Iranian who "had very strong grounds to seek asylum", became "so dejected" when his application was rejected that "he doused himself with petrol outside the Asylum Service. Luckily, a policeman stopped him before he lit the match."
  • Second, a man "cut his veins in front of a policeman after spending months in the holding cells of Block 10. He was treated and returned to Block 10 where he remains." He was held indefinitely on a deportation order, though, as Action for Equality, Support, Anti-racism (KISA) observed, "the Ombudswoman has said it is illegal to do this".
  • Third, having been imprisoned for assisting an "asylum claim in bad faith" (as far as I can tell, before the claim had even been judged), another Iranian who had been trying to help a friend ended up in a psychiatric unit and, at the end of the treatment, against his doctor's wishes, the police ordered that he be returned to prison, whereupon, "he put his arm between two bars and jerked it so violently that his arm was cut completely from his body".
Worse, the police tried to "persuade" this Iranian to withdraw his asylum claim and "they put the paper in front of him and told him to sign or wait behind bars for two years until a decision was reached. He blew his lid, reacted and police hit him. They say he became violent so they used reasonable force to contain him."

As a third appendix, I think it's interesting and productive to reproduce the two dominant narratives for one case of the abuse of asylum seekers in Cyprus, here those of the case of Lydia Dowdall and Saif Islam, simply because the Cyprus Mail presented them on the 13th of December 2005. The wife's father, Clive Dowdall, stated that:
on November 7, while in Nicosia attending to his immigration affairs, Saif was told to sign off as a refugee and he would be given a visa permitting him to live and work in Cyprus as he was now married to an EU citizen.

He was given a letter to take to the immigration office in Paphos. Two hours after delivering the letter the next day, he was arrested for being an illegal immigrant and was told that it was against the law for an EU citizen to marry a refugee. He was handcuffed, put into a deplorable cell, which had no heating, and told he would not be having hot food for 15 days.

He was advised that he would have a hearing with the Interior Ministry and that his case would be presented on November 14. Three hours later, an immigration officer telephoned Lydia, informing her that Saif would be deported on November 13.

My wife and I, along with Lydia, visited the police station where Saif was being held but a so-called officer banged his fist on the desk, picked up a chair and chased Lydia out of his office into the car park. The police here operate and act as in a third world country and are not trained in proper police methods.

There is no way to make an effective appeal as all government departments only pay lip service to the situation and show no interest or awareness in how this so-called EU country is behaving.
Hefter Dowdall, the wife's mother, railed that
the authorities in Cyprus display a flagrant abuse of human rights. Immigration just swipe people off the streets, but this is not the answer to whatever problems they think they have.
As far as I know, the case is (still) under investigation by the ombudsperson.

The competing narrative, that of the Chief Immigration Officer, Anni Shakalis, alleges that:
Mr Islam arrived in Cyprus under unknown conditions, possibly through the occupied areas. On October 15, 2003 he applied for political asylum. He did not appear for his requested interview to have his application examined, resulting in the closure of his file.

His lawyer sent a letter to the Asylum Service, who decided to examine his application, and his file was reopened on October 10, 2005. The next thing we heard was that he withdrew his application on November 11, stating that he no longer feared persecution back in Bangladesh.

He went to the Paphos Immigration Police Department later that day, with his wife, applying for residency and produced his marriage certificate. The police acted on the fact that he had lost his status as an asylum seeker when he withdrew his application and proceeded to arrest him as a prohibited immigrant.

The police then requested the relevant orders from me. After studying the reports, I proceeded with a deportation order on the grounds that Mr Islam was an illegal immigrant under section 6 (1) Paragraph K of the Aliens and Immigration Law...

It is my view that marriage celebrated to a Cypriot or other EU citizen, does not, on its own, make legal the stay of a prohibited immigrant in the Republic.

Additionally, I would like to state that I am not aware of any of the above allegations which have been made by the Dowdall family or that Mr Islam had suffered from any unfair or inappropriate treatment.
Apparently, the couple are now in Bangladesh, considering their options.

As a fourth appendix, as it marries British and Cypriot irresponsibility towards asylum seekers and refugees, I'm including Nigel Morris's article on the "search for [a] Kurdish refugee deported to Iraq by mistake" (published on the 20th of December 2005, from the Independent by way of Kurdish Media).
  • As part of the "forcible removals to Iraq", where the returnees are supposed to be safe, "the deported Iraqis were given flak jackets and helmets to protect them" (noting, by the way, that Cyprus was a stop-off point in the process of their deportation from the UK to Iraq);
  • the refugee accidentally deported "has gone into hiding, apparently unaware of efforts to track him down";
  • The Home Office's Clive Lewis "admitted there had been a breach of policy as Mr A had not been given removal directions in time to consult lawyers because he was considered to be at risk of self-harm or suicide";
  • According to Lewis, "the Secretary of State has decided that, since we did not follow the policy set out - albeit for the best of motives - we shall use our best endeavours to find him. The Secretary of State has done the decent, honourable thing."
Broome, B J. 1996: "The genesis of the bicommunal community". Available at:
Cyprus Mail. 2005a: "Treatment of asylum seekers 'abusive and inhuman'". Cyprus Mail, 22nd June. Available at:
Cyprus Mail, 2005b: "Cypriot immigration scandal". Cyprus Mail, 13th December. Available at:
Cyprus Mail. 2006: "Time to rethink asylum policy". Cyprus Mail, 14th May. Available at:
Cyprus Tales. 2005: "Catch 22 for asylum seekers". Cyprus Tales, 2nd September. Available at:
Evripidou, S. 2004: "Asylum seekers 'submitted to systematic abuse'". Cyprus Mail, 17th September. Available at:
Evripidou, S. 2005: "Asylum seekers choosing death". Cyprus Mail, 24th July. Available at:
Leonidou, L. 2005: "Asylum seeker still wants to sell her kidney". Cyprus Mail, 16th July. Available at:
Morris, N. 2005: "Search for Kurdish refugee deported to Iraq by mistake". The Independent, 20th December. Available at: [Also: Kurdish Media, 20th December. Available at:]
Papadakis, Y. 1995: "The politics of memory and forgetting". Available at:
Saoulli, A. 2006a: "The paradox faced by sylum seekers". Cyprus Mail, 11th May. Available at:
Saoulli, A. 2006b: "Tent protest to stay on". Cyprus Mail, 12th May. Available at:
Saoulli, A. 2006c: "Hunger strike latest move by asylum seekers". Cyprus Mail, 21st May. Available at:
Saoulli, A. 2006d: "Police moves in to end Iraqi protest". Cyprus Mail, 20th June. Available at:
Saoulli, A. 2006e: "Asylum seeker dragged from his own wedding". [A.k.a.: "Asylum seeker snatched from own wedding".] Cyprus Mail, 28th June, 1-2. Available at:

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