We very much appreciate the hosting in your newspaper of an exchange of opinions between your readers on the interesting, yet admittedly hot, issue of immigration and asylum. I’m referring in particular, to the article of Mr Arsalides on 17 of June 2007 and the response of Ms Mitsidou, published on 18 July 2007.
As the UN Refugee Agency Representation in Cyprus, please allow us to highlight certain issues:
In an age where population movements in all directions are on the increase, some societies face them with increasing concerns over rising immigration and national cohesion. In such an environment, immigration policies and borders are tightened to the point that many times they keep out even those in desperate need of refuge and protection. It is therefore more pertinent than ever to remember that among this worldwide phenomenon of wide population movements there is a group of people who were forced to move, who had no other option than to flee their country. Also equally important is to remember that towards this group of people the international community has shaped an absolute obligation to protect them.
40 million people are displaced from their homes and the numbers unfortunately seem to be on the rise. Among those 40 million there are various groups who are in need of protection and here we are mentioning only three groups which are indicative of the extent of the displacement in our times. According to recent statistics of the UN Refugee Agency, the number of refugees under the agency’s mandate has risen from last year by 14 percent to almost 10 million, the highest level since 2002* . The increase in the number of refugees is largely due to the situation in Iraq, which by the end of 2006 had forced up to 1.5 million Iraqis to seek refuge in other countries, particularly Syria and Jordan. Other major refugee populations during 2006 are Afghans, Sudanese, Somalis and from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. In addition to refugees, the total number of conflict-related internally displaced people (IDPs)** worldwide, at the end of 2006, was estimated at 24.5 million. Furthermore, during 2006 some 600,000 asylum seekers*** were recorded. Most applications were registered in Europe (299,000), followed by Africa (159,000), the Americas (78,000), Asia (53,500), and Oceania (7,100). The biggest share in refugee hosting countries, however, is owned by Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan in 2006 continued to be the asylum country with the single largest number of refugees, followed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. By the end of the year, both countries together hosted one out of five (20%) of the world’s refugees.
It is evident, therefore, that the institution of asylum, that has been in existence for more that 3.500 years, should under no circumstances be undermined. Indeed, the right to seek asylum and the duty to provide sanctuary to those in need are still very pertinent today. The right to seek asylum is sacred and absolute, thus no exceptions to it can be made when someone is claiming to be a victim of persecution – his/her claim MUST be heard, because it can be a matter of life or death if the claim is true.
At present Cyprus hosts around 900 recognised refugees and more than 10,000 asylum seekers. True, the numbers of asylum seekers are big, but imagine what would have happened to those 900 if they never had the chance to have their claims heard. The reality is that there is only one way to distinguish those who fled because of fear from those who leave their countries for economic or other reasons, and this is the examination of each and every individual claim. Although not easy, it is still possible to identify the refugees among the mixed migratory movements and this can be done under the asylum procedure that the law provides.
The institution of asylum is a basic tenet of democracy. Thus, concerns about national cohesion, about absorption capacity of the big number, can only be addressed within the parameters of the rule of law. The Republic of Cyprus is bound by the International Refugee Convention of 1951 as well as by the EU acquis on asylum, all the instruments setting the standards that need to be adhered to for the effective protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Cyprus has enacted its own national refugee law which largely reflects the provisions of the 1951 and has transposed all the EU directives on asylum. By virtue of the legislation, refugees and asylum seekers have certain rights that will enable them to lead a dignified life (the right to reside legally in the country of asylum, the right to work, the right to receive public allowance if a job is not available, right to free medical treatment, access to public schools). However, there are many obstacles in the effective exercise of these rights. Numerous complaints are submitted by refugees and asylum seekers not receiving their social welfare entitlements and left destitute. In an effort to decrease the number of asylum applications submitted from people who resort to asylum in order to stay in Cyprus and work, the Government limited the right of work of asylum seekers to the areas of animal husbandry and agriculture. These are areas however cannot absorb the total number of asylum seekers. As a result, the majority of the asylum seekers are left in desperate need as they are not allowed to work and in practice very few are granted social welfare allowance.
It’s true that Cyprus hosts a big number of asylum seekers and true that not all of them are genuine refugees, as this is the case worldwide and not only in Cyprus. Asylum and migration in Cyprus became an issue of public discourse when numbers of asylum seekers increased rapidly in 2003 (compared to previous years). There are, however, ways to face this phenomenon within the parameters of the law and certainly restrictive policies, which will seriously undermine the protection of genuine refugees, are not the answer****. For example, more resources could be allocated to undertake the examination procedure of the 10,000 asylum applicants (both at first and second instance), with a view to expedite decisions while at the same time maintaining the quality and fairness of the decisions. This would be more cost effective than meeting the cost of the administrative requirements pertaining to the asylum seekers’ rights for an extended period of time (e.g. repeated renewal of residence permits, processing of requests for social welfare, issuing of unemployment cards, processing of medical cared, etc). More expeditious decisions would also discourage individuals who are not genuine refugees from applying. Moreover, implementation of EU legislation on migration (e.g. the long term residency directive, the EU directive on students who are third country nationals) could also be conducive to giving the right option to economic migrants or third country national students who will not have to resort to asylum anymore as a means to prolong legal stay and work.
Migration and asylum has been in existence since the creation of humankind and numbers tend to increase both as regards voluntary migration and forced displacement. Cyprus, due to a diversity of reasons, cannot remain unaffected by this contemporary phenomenon, which can be addressed through a comprehensive migration law and constructive management of the asylum system.
Thank you very much for your attention
UNHCR Representation in Cyprus
* This number does not include 4.3 million of Palestinian refugees who fall under the mandate of UNRWA
** IDPs are people who have also fled their homes because of threats to their safety but who have not crossed any internationally recognized borders.
*** When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another state, they often have to apply for 'asylum' – the right to be recognized as bona fide refugees and receive legal protection and material assistance
**** The monthly statistics from January-June 2007 show an increase compared to the statistics of the same period in 2006.