Letters at Cyprus Mail concerning asylum seekers

27 June 2006

Dear Editor,

Thank you for hosting in your newspaper an exchange of opinions between your readers on the interesting, yet admittedly hot, issue of asylum. I’m referring in particular, to the letter of Mr Achilles George Epaminondas on 4 and 21 of June 2006 and the letters of Mr Francesco di Lillo and Ms Geetanjali Chopra.

As the UN Refugee Agency Representation in Cyprus we would like to underscore that the institution of asylum, that has been in existence for more that 3.500 years, should under no circumstances be undermined. Although the world has evolved, scientific discoveries have been made, unfortunately, the refugee plight is still acute in our times; we continue witnessing through the media millions of images of people, including women and children, on their journey to exile, fleeing death and other flagrant violations of fundamental human rights. Indeed, the right to seek asylum and the duty to provide sanctuary to those in need are still very pertinent today.

It is true that we have been experiencing increased population movements due to radical changes in the international environment, whereby many times refugees move together with other groups of people (often termed as economic migrants or illegal immigrants). Does this mean that the institution of asylum should be compromised in any way? What should be the response of asylum countries?

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.

Cyprus at present hosts around 600 recognised refugees and more than 12,000 asylum seekers. True, the numbers of asylum seekers are big, but imagine what would have happened to those 600 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.

The institution of asylum is a basic tenet of democracy. Thus, financial or any other considerations, however legitimate they might be from the taxpayer’s point of view, can only be addressed within the parameters of the rule of law. As Ms Geetanjali rightly pointed out, more effective asylum systems need to be in place. In the case of Cyprus for example, more resources could be allocated to undertake the examination procedure of the 12,000 asylum applicants, 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 having to meet 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.

As we have just marked this year’s World Refugee Day, let’s try to remember EVERYDAY that those who flee fear do not have any other option than to escape. They left everything behind – their home, their possessions, their life. What they haven’t lost is HOPE. Hope that they will find a helping hand- starting from sympathy and understanding- to start all over again. Let’s not deprive them of their only remaining possession.

Thank you very much for your attention

UNHCR Representation in Cyprus

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