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Growing violence and harsher policies as Cypriot politicians weaponise migration

‘Racialised violence is on the rise in Cyprus – and the rest of Europe – as racist discourse from politicians across the political spectrum surges.’

Doros Polykarpou is pictured gesturing towards the window panes of the KISA office in Nicosia — shattered by an explosive device on January 5. Hanna Davis/TNH
Doros Polykarpou, founder of the refugee and asylum seeker support organisation KISA, in front of the shattered window of the group's office in Nicosia, Cyprus, which was attacked with explosives on 5 January.

After years of simmering anti-migrant sentiment and far-right agitation, violence against asylum seekers and migrants is spiking in EU member state Cyprus, even as civil society groups on the Mediterranean island rally to try and lend them a helping hand.

The trend has been present across Europe, as politicians and political parties have made anti-migration rhetoric and positions part of their platforms in the lead-up to EU parliamentary elections on 9 June. But it has been particularly marked in Cyprus, where it has been exacerbated by an increase in the number of Syrian refugees arriving by boat from nearby Lebanon.

"Racialised violence is on the rise in Cyprus – and the rest of Europe – as racist discourse from politicians across the political spectrum surges,” Emmanuel Achiri, policy and advocacy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told The New Humanitarian.

With a population of around 1.2 million, Cyprus regularly receives the most asylum applications per capita of any of the EU’s 27 member states. The annual number of requests, however, is relatively low compared to other countries, at around 21,600 in 2022 and 11,600 in 2023.

Political leaders in Cyprus have used the increase in Syrians arriving by boat to drum up a sense of crisis and threat, and used this to justify implementing migration policies that violate human rights, according to Achiri.

In the first four months of this year, nearly 4,440 people submitted asylum applications. In past years, most asylum seekers have arrived by plane or ferry to the north of Cyprus – occupied by Türkiye since 1974 – and then crossed the buffer zone to the south. But this year there has been a rise in the number of Syrian refugees reaching the island by boat from Lebanon, which is just over 260 kilometres away by sea.

Behind the increase in boat crossings is intensified anti-Syrian xenophobia, violence, and deportations in Lebanon. With a population of around 5.3 million, Lebanon itself hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees – the largest refugee population per capita in the world.

Regardless of the causes, political leaders in Cyprus have used the increase in Syrians arriving by boat to drum up a sense of crisis and threat, and used this to justify implementing migration policies that violate human rights, according to Achiri.

In an effort to deter Syrian arrivals, Cyprus on 14 April suspended the examination of Syrians’ asylum applications – following a previous pause between 2021 and 2023 that has created a serious backlog in the system. Two days later, the Cypriot government said it had sent two police boats to patrol international waters between Cyprus and Lebanon to prevent boats carrying refugees from reaching the island. The following day, it said it had prevented five boats carrying hundreds of refugees from leaving Lebanese waters. Human rights groups accused Cypriot authorities of pushing refugees back to Lebanon – a practice that violates international law, although Cyprus later claimed its actions didn’t amount to pushbacks.

On 2 May, the EU unveiled a one-billion-euro package of economic and security support for Lebanon, largely seen as part of the EU’s effort to try to curb migration by partnering with third countries.

Cyprus is also one of several EU countries pushing to designate some areas of Syria as ‘safe zones’ so it can carry out deportations to the country. Human rights groups have consistently warned for years that no part of Syria is safe for refugees to return to.

Tensions boiling over

Anti-migration sentiment and xenophobia has been building in recent years in Cyprus – and occasionally spilling over into violence.

That tension often comes to focus on the village of Chloraka, in the west of Cyprus, where a Syrian community of several hundred people has lived since the 1990s. As the number of Syrian refugees has risen, the Syrian community in Chloraka has expanded to over 1,000 people, living alongside roughly 7,000 Cypriots.

That’s where Ahmed and his 27-year-old wife, Sara, settled after escaping the Syrian civil war. Both of their names have been changed to protect their identities for security reasons.

Ahmed arrived in 2013, and Sara came three years later. The two met and got married in Cyprus. They now have four young children and live in a small apartment just a one-minute walk from the beach, where the children love to play in the sea.

Ahmed runs a Syrian restaurant to support the family. But on 27 August 2023, a mob of anti-refugee protesters stormed into the restaurant, yelling racist slurs, smashing windows, and overturning tables, according to Ahmed.

The police were present when the attack happened, Ahmed said, but “did not move a finger” to stop the demonstrators from ransacking the restaurant. Twenty-one people were eventually arrested, including eight Cypriots, one Greek national, and 12 Syrians.

Among the people who participated in the protest before the attack were local community leaders and politicians from far-right parties. The attack was just one of several by far-right groups against businesses owned by refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants around that time.

The violence prompted Amnesty International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) to issue a press release decrying the “pogrom-like demonstrations and violent attacks against racialised people”, and calling on the Cypriot authorities to do more to “protect migrants and refugees from racist attacks”.

Threats, a bomb, and intimidation

Right-wing intimidation and violence in Cyprus has also been directed against those speaking out against the government’s hardening migration policies and trying to help refugees and asylum seekers.

Early on 5 January, an explosive device detonated outside the office of KISA, one of the main civil society groups working to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in Cyprus. The explosion shattered the windows, blew out one of the walls, and destroyed almost all of the equipment and electronics in the office.

The organisation saw it as an escalation in a long-standing campaign of threats and intimidation by “racist and nationalist circles”, according to a statement KISA released. “This attack cannot be considered a surprise to the state authorities, whom we hold fully responsible and as the abettors of this attack,” the statement read.

Months later, police still haven’t managed to track down whoever threw the explosive device.

“Cypriots are saying that KISA is an organisation that is working against the country because we support refugees,” KISA’s founder, Doros Polykarpou, told The New Humanitarian.

The physical damage caused by the attack isn’t the worst problem, according to Polykarpou. “The main problem is the fear: You don’t know what [the attackers’] intentions are next,” he said.

KISA only has two full-time staff and about 15 to 20 active volunteers and steering committee members. Polykarpou said he is facing difficulties maintaining the critical volunteer network in the aftermath of the attack: “The main damage we’ve suffered is that people are afraid to affiliate [with KISA].”

Politicians and right-wing actors often paint KISA and other groups that speak out against government migration policies as being part of a Turkish plot to flood the country with Muslim asylum seekers and migrants. 

Politicians have also accused KISA and other organisations of money laundering and seeking to profit off refugees and migrants for personal gain – accusations Polykarpou said are baseless. The claims echo those levied against organisations and volunteers helping refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants elsewhere in the EU – including Greece and Italy – which activists have termed the “criminalisation of solidarity”. 

Polykarpou, who recently won a human rights defender award, said he currently has seven or eight criminal charges against him as a result of his work with refugees, and that he receives “direct threats daily”. He has been physically assaulted multiple times, including at a far-right demonstration in 2020, and by security guards at Cyprus’s Pournara refugee camp in 2022.

The smear campaign against KISA and the personal threats Polykarpou receives have made it difficult to carry out the work of supporting refugees and asylum seekers, he added – and they have seeped into his personal life.

“My wife and I are nervous,” he said, adding that his relatives often encourage him to step back from his activism. “Why do you do this? It’s better to keep silent for your family,” Polykarpou said his relatives say. 

Politicisation and pressured returns

The anti-refugee sentiment in Cyprus has been channelled into official government policy. Critics say the deterrence strategy seems to be that if living conditions on the island are made bad enough for those arriving, people will eventually stop coming. 

That is why, in January 2023, Cyprus extended the amount of time it takes for asylum seekers to become eligible to work after they submit an application from one month to nine months. The decision went into effect in October 2023.

“We are making them understand early [on], without wasting time, without wasting resources, that the ones who are rejected… need to go back [to their countries],” Andreas Georgiades, head of the government asylum service, told The New Humanitarian.

During that nine-month period, asylum seekers are eligible for a 300-euro stipend from the government, but only if they have a valid address in order to receive it. This often leaves them caught in an impossible cycle: Without money they cannot find an apartment to rent that would enable them to collect the stipend; and without the stipend, they don’t have money that would allow them to rent an apartment.

Ferit Koraltan, 37, is one of those confronted by this Catch-22. He came to Cyprus in December 2022 to escape the persecution that he said he faced as a member of the Kurdish minority group Türkiye. Since arriving, however, he has been homeless.

Ferit Koraltan stands behind a cardboard sign in protest of his poor living conditions in Cyprus. The sign reads: There are human rights violations in southern Cyprus "Stop this".
Hanna Davis/TNH
Asylum seeker Ferit Koraltan, who has been homeless since arriving to Cyprus in 2022, holding a sign in the capital Nicosia protesting the poor living conditions faced by asylum seekers and refugees on the island.

Koraltan hasn’t been able to find a decent place to live, so he doesn’t have an address; Without the welfare stipend he needs an address to obtain, he has no choice but to sleep in the streets. “If I had a work permit, I could work and start up my life. I wouldn’t need that [welfare] money,” he said. 

Cyprus is also trying to increase the number of asylum seekers and migrants who are willing to return to their home countries. “We have been pushing for the voluntary return scheme because it allows them to return in dignity,” Giorgiades said. 

In 2023, over 11,000 migrants were sent home, more than double the number in 2022, according to Cyprus’ Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou. About two thirds of those returns were voluntary. 

This year, Cyprus has doubled down on the deportation of failed asylum-seekers. In the first four months of 2024, it expelled 3,337 migrants, compared to 2,348 during the same period in 2023. These deportations include forced expulsions, voluntary returns, and relocations, typically of African nationals, but also of Bangladeshis and others whose countries of origin are deemed to be safe, according to the news website InfoMigrants.

Rising numbers of Syrians are also participating in the voluntary return programme. So far this year, 114 Syrians have returned, compared to around 30 in all of 2023, according to Syria Direct. 

Achiri, from ENAR, however, questioned how voluntary these returns truly are. “At the end of the day, the inhumane living conditions many are exposed to are leaving people with no other choice but to return back to the very same place where they were persecuted,” he said.

After attack comes arrest

After the attack on his restaurant in Chloraka, Ahmed said it felt like the life he had worked so hard to build was crumbling down. He told The New Humanitarian that he had to spend the equivalent of around $25,000 to make repairs, which he is yet to receive any compensation for despite filing a police complaint in August.

Then, in January, about a month after he was able to get the restaurant up and running again, police officers came to his home and arrested him, accusing him of helping to smuggle Syrian migrants to Cyprus. There are four other people accused in the case who Ahmed said he has never met before. 

Polykarpou from KISA said there are other cases like Ahmed’s. “The government is trying to crack down on community networks and link its work to security issues on the island,” he said.

“They say I am dangerous, a national security threat,” Ahmed told The New Humanitarian, speaking from prison. “I didn’t do anything.” 

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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