“Beggars for money or beggars for life?”

Τhe title of an article in the daily press a few weeks ago was quite alarming: asylum seekers (which the writer confusingly referred to as illegal migrants) from Iraq are on a daily basis begging for money from shop owners and people at main streets in Larnaca, while at the same time they are being hosted – at Government’s expense- at nearby hotels.

Asylum seekers, not being entitled to work, have under the refugee legislation the right to receive public allowance, so why were they begging? UNHCR through an NGO partner, the Future World Center, referred the issue to the Welfare office in Larnaca. Although such allegations had been made to the office by citizens, the welfare office was not aware of particular asylum seekers begging. “There might be people who are begging, but the people in the streets cannot know their status [i.e. if they are asylum seekers]” one welfare officer told the UN refugee agency.

A UNHCR team went to see with its own eyes. On that particular day, those alleged beggars were not there – at least at the streets named in the article. The team also went to visit one of the hotels where asylum seekers are staying, but no beggars were there either.

The UN refugee agency saw instead ordinary people, all asylum seekers from Iraq, most of them of Palestinian origin, from 18 to 55 years old.

Forced decision to leave

‘Nobody wanted to leave Iraq but we had to. All of us have at least one person in our families who died because of the endless bloodshed there [Iraq]. We were expecting our turn to die’ says a 32 year old doctor, who had been threatened by a fundamentalist Islamic group.

The sad reality described by the young doctor gave the chance to a 50-year-old father to tell his own tragedy: “I lost my 17-year-old son, who got really sick because of the trauma he suffered from the war…”, he said in agony for his 13 years old son, who is also severely traumatised and needs an urgent psychological care, after seeing his brother dying and after witnessing the kidnapping of his father.

Among Iraqi refugees there is widespread depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as indicated by a recent UNHCR survey, conducted among Iraqi refugees in Syria. This is linked to terrors endured before they fled Iraq : air bombardments, shelling or rocket attacks, car bombings, interrogation or harassment as well as torture by militias or other groups, including death threats are abnormal life experiences capable of causing a wide range of physical and psychological suffering.

While waiting for the decision on their asylum applications

In Cyprus, the examination of an asylum application may take 3 or more years.
The 32 year old doctor applied one year ago, but he has not been called for an interview. ‘I called the Asylum Service twice in January. They told me that by February they would invite me for an interview, but I’m still waiting’

“We want to move on with our lives. Life is put on pause until the asylum application is examined. It should be speedier so that we can take our decisions; to start working and rebuild our lives or go back, even if that would mean death. …’

Right to work?

The refugee legislation provides that asylum seekers have ‘... the right to apply for work permit or a public allowance under the relevant laws’

While waiting for the examination of their claim, asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first 6 months after their arrival. Thus, during this period in which they are fully prohibited from working, they are entitled by EU law to be provided with at least, housing, food and clothing needs; the cost of these needs is to be covered by the public allowance that the Welfare office has to pay.

Not having the option to work, not having any other financial resources other than their lifesavings which are running out, all the some 50 Iraqi we met at this hotel applied to the welfare office for the public allowance:
“We are very well educated; we are engineers, architects, doctors, teachers, merchants, students. Why do we have to seat all day and be paid? We are not used to this kind of life. Why is the Cyprus Government not using us? We can contribute to the society and at the same time earn our own living and be able to live as we used to. Why are we being put in the margin? We did not commit any crime’ says a 30 year-ole engineer, who received his first public allowance after three months he applied.

Public allowance is not granted automatically upon the application for asylum. Asylum seekers need to apply to the welfare office and the examination of the application usually takes between 3-6 months, thus for this period asylum seekers are left without income.

According to a welfare officer, “all asylum seekers who are residing at hotels receive their benefits… [despite the delays]”.
Given the prohibition to work for the first six months and the EU law, all asylum seekers should be automatically granted with a welfare benefit, so as to be able to cover their basic housing, food and clothing needs. Therefore, the some 6,700 persons who applied for asylum in 2007 should all have been automatically provided with a welfare benefit for the first six months of their stay.

Despite the prevailing public opinion that all asylum seekers are receiving public allowance, the report of the General Auditor revealed that only 679 non-Cypriots (a category that does includes not only asylum seekers, but also refugees as well as other non-asylum related citizens) received public allowance in 2006. During 2006 some 4,500 persons applied for asylum.

Restrictive right to work after the 6 months

After the first six months, asylum seekers are allowed to work but only in the sectors of agriculture and farming.

“Why should I work in the agriculture sector? Some civil servants keep telling us to go back; there is no future for you here. If I go back I may die, but I prefer to die instead of being put in the corner and being forced not to work or to do a particular job which I’ve never done before” asks the young doctor, questioning the rationale of this restrictive labour policy.

The restrictive labour policy as regards the right to work of asylum seekers was condemned by the Ombudsperson in its recent report as one violating the labour principle of equal treatment of employees and a policy that forces a large group of foreigners of a particular legal status to work in the most adverse job sector, with wages which no unskilled local worker would accept. Ombudsperson viewed this policy as a deterrence measure of asylum applicationσ and as such as a policy that does not serve a lawful objective.

Right to be treated with respect

UNHCR didn’t need to ask them whether they were begging; it was obvious that they were not. We asked them if they knew about any Iraqi refugees in Larnaca who had been begging, but they didn’t: “We know many Iraqis who are staying in other hotels in Larnaca and nobody is begging” the young doctor told UNHCR.

“We come from a very rich country with so many opportunities and we are condemned to be caught in such tragic circumstances," one refugee told the UN refugee agency. "I hope things will improve, that peace will return and that we can finally go home." said the young doctor whose promising future had to be suspended because of being Sunni Muslim.

In the meantime they only want to be treated with dignity. “[Local] People are looking down to us. What have we done in order to deserve disrespect? The other day I went into a shop and the owner prevented me from entering his store. People think that we are criminals. But we are not; we are refugees, trying to gain back our lives…” says the doctor.

UNHCR estimates more than 4.5 million Iraqis have left their homes, many in dire need of humanitarian care. Of these, some 2.5 million Iraqis are displaced internally, while more than 2 million have fled to neighbouring states, particularly Syria , which hosts more than 1.5 million refugees and Jordan.

Α much smaller number managed to arrive in the industrialized countries, only 1%. Sweden was the first recipient of Iraqi asylum seekers in 2007.Cyprus hosts some 200 asylum seekers from Iraq and some 360 Iraqis more who have been recognised as being in need of international protection.

written in 2007 by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus

No comments: