In 2006 UNHCR in Cyprus conducted a Gender, Age and Diversity Participatory Assessment (GADPA), which reported the needs of women and girls refugees and asylum seekers through their own experiences. According to the female asylum seekers and refugees who participated in this exercise, their main concerns were with regard to fear of authorities and lack of security, financial problems, including housing.
‘Go back to your country’
Refugee women have an immense fear of ‘getting deported by immigration police’ and some of them even refuse to leave their house for anything but extremely important reasons and therefore this isolation reduce their possibilities of integration or awareness of their basic rights. Syrian asylum seeker Fatemeh**, 35, knows nothing about her rights as asylum-seeker: “The lawyer who helped me to file my application didn’t tell me what my rights are. I only know that I can’t work and I spend most of the day in my house because I don’t want to have problems with the police.”
When it comes to discrimination, women think they are in a disadvantaged position because even verbal abuse can lead to a deeper impact: “Men are trained to deal with rougher situations and they normally overcome verbal abuse easily, it’s not the same when people raise their voice at women than men, women are more vulnerable in that respect,” Fatemeh explains.
She feels that the exclusion of refugee women from the Cypriot society is to be attributed to the general attitude of the Cypriot society towards non-Cypriots. “Many Cypriots have this perception about certain races or nationalities, either they think you can only be a housemaid, a prostitute or simply less educated,” she claims.
A report by the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies on integration of refugee women in Cyprus claims that “a number of refugee women are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, low self-esteem and depression,” caused in part by “the inexistent formal education regarding intercultural learning and awareness, increasing racism and xenophobia.”
The GADPA also states that financial problems are one of their main concerns of refugee women and asylum-seekers in Cyprus.
Iranian recognised refugee Layla**, 48, thinks many women are still very much depending on their husbands or family to survive in Cyprus: “We are always more committed to our children and sometimes we don’t have time to think about building up a long-term sustainable future.”
Layla has devoted her life to her daughter and she now has no properties or savings in which she can rely on. She doesn’t have a husband anymore and hence thinks her future is bleak: “Older refugee women are not easily employed these days. I had to work with a very low salary only to be able to pay for her daughter’s studies and subsistence. I have always wondered how people expect women to work in a farm***, continue with their education or professional training so they can seek better jobs along with her responsibilities as mothers and wives, all at the same time.”
Palestinian recognised refugee Atila**, 41, has lived in Cyprus for more than 10 years and has three children of one, five and nine years old. She has mainly struggled due to her responsibility for looking after and providing her family with all means to survive.
“I urgently need a job because my children need so many things which I can’t provide.” Atila is a nurse and has been looking for a job since April last year, but with no success: “Next month will be a year now and still no news from the Labour Office, I am desperate because I can’t receive welfare either, my husband is only a construction worker so how we are supposed to survive?”
Living with strangers
The GADPA report also covers the housing problem. Fatemeh thinks her experience with finding accommodation has been a nightmare as women can not normally live as men do: “Many men can live together in a single room without having much of a problem but women can’t, especially if they have children.”
“I have been asked to go to Kofinou but I have been there before and it is a very depressing place,” she added.
Kofinou Reception Centre is the first Reception Centre created for asylum-seekers in Cyprus in 2004, and is situated at the village of Kofinou between Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol. The Centre is only aimed at providing emergency accommodation to newly arrived asylum-seekers, particularly women and families.
However some concerns regarding the lack of integration possibilities for the residents have arisen since the centre was opened. UNHCR’s position is that the remoteness of this Center – it can only be reached by a secondary road with no electricity- hampers the residents’ possibilities of finding a job and being able to commute before being able to become self sufficient and move out. Although it has never been envisaged as such, at the end of the day it has become a long-term accommodation for the most vulnerable, such as women and families.
A study by the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies on integration of refugee women in Cyprus added that Kofinou has “served to the disempowered of women asylum seekers further by effectively excluding and marginalizing them from the wider society, as well as exacerbating their limited access to education, health and employment.”
The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in its Annual Report of 2006 mentions that the Reception Center in Cyprus is characterized by inconveniently small spaces. Moreover, the Ombudsperson in her recent report on this issue (February 2007) mentions that the prolonged stay in the Center which is situated in an isolated area of Kofinou, where employment opportunities, education and social interactions are non-existent, leads to a series of problems, as the lack of a feeling of self sufficiency, lack of future prospects, gradual exclusion, violence as well as an increase in mental health illnesses.
Fleeing poverty or persecution?
33-years-old Amy** thinks people normally deem all the Southern Asian females coming into Cyprus as economic migrants because they came to this country as legal workers in the first place: “I didn’t know myself anything about asylum, I just knew that I had to flee my country because I didn’t want to be killed,” she claims.
Amy hails from a small village in Nepal where rebel Maoist groups have based their operations: “I happened to meet this agent who was dealing with work permits and I applied because I was really afraid of the rebels and their terrorism, I just wanted to get out of there and I had no choice other than that because even as a tourist it’d have been very difficult for me to get a visa. I paid this agent to get me a work permit as a waitress.”
Reliable reports indicate that in Nepal there is widespread gender based violence, such as domestic violence and human trafficking that particularly affects women. Amy recalls: “These people used to go to the villages to take people against their wishes, the villagers were forced to join them otherwise they’d have died. They were particular mean with women because as a woman you were forced to do anything they wished, either cook, sleep with them or even fight…” says Amy.
“Being a young woman in a place full of strangers was one of the scariest things I have ever experienced in my life, I always had the feeling that men would try to abuse or take advantage of me”, she says. Amy is now 33 years old and would like to get married and have children but she is afraid of trying to settle down whereas no one can guarantee if she will remain in Cyprus: “A woman can’t easily plan her life on this level of uncertainty.”
* The available statistics do not reflect gender diversity as regards asylum seekers
**All the names have been changed for protection reasons
*** She is referring to the restriction of the right of the asylum seekers to work only in the agriculture and animal production sectors
written in 2007 by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus