written in June 2006
I would like to comment on the recent letters regarding the issue of asylum seekers as written by Mr Epaminondas, “Asylum seekers fiasco”, June 4, and especially “Asylum seekers and the questions we need to ask”, June 21.
The scenario which Mr Epaminondas describes is unfortunately something that a lot of Cypriots seem to subscribe to, however, it lacks accuracy. International Organizations are not asking us to provide asylum unreservedly; they are merely asking us to listen to these people and to consider their situations, as some people have a valid fear for their life. (The definition of a refugee , for clarification, is someone who has crossed international borders due to a well-founded fear for their safety, and this fear may arise due to reasons such as their political or religious beliefs).
True, there are many who come to Cyprus for economic and call themselves refugees; however, it is important to distinguish between the two and to realize that the true refugees do indeed have a valid and well-founded fear for their lives because of circumstances in their home country, and have come to Cyprus to save their life. He argues that these people then “take to the streets trying to browbeat our administration into improving their living conditions”. Again, this is not the case; the reason why riots and demonstrations occur is because asylum seekers are simply asking for the government to consider their situations, and to provide them the basic rights as guaranteed to them by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and Cypriot legislation itself.
In his first letter, dated June 4, Mr Epaminondas stated that “one must have the means to sustain oneself when travelling abroad, in someone else’s home one must at all times behave.” I would like to ask him how people who are fleeing for their lives, escaping persecution and evading death for reasons such as their religion or political involvement, to name a few, are to be expected to have the means to support themselves, when they leave their country with often only the clothes on their back? How are they supposed to come up with the finances or the social capital to start a new life if they come to a different country, expecting at the very least some understanding and compassion, and instead they are faced with people such as Mr Epaminondas who describe their actions of asking for their basic rights as “browbeating”? Also, since when is asking for one’s rights considered misbehaving?
I have no argument with Mr Epaminondas’ claim that a more effective system is needed to differentiate between economic immigrants and genuine asylum seekers, and also that Cypriot people have so far been tolerant for the most part of refugees and asylum seekers. Also, it is my opinion that economic immigrants who have come to Cyprus or go elsewhere should not abuse the institution of asylum if they are not true refugees. An improved asylum application process would allow the government to distinguish between true refugees and economic immigrants, and even if one in a thousand applicants turns out to be a true refugee, the entire process would be worth it just so that the life of a single person can be saved.
No one is accusing the Cypriot people of being intolerant; however, a little more understanding of these people’s situations and support for them to be able to start a new life in Cyprus, whether economically or socially, is not something that is too much to ask.
by Geetanjali Chopra, Nicosia