Naturalization of refugees in Cyprus: between the law and the practice

September 2007

“Cyprus is my country now. I’ve been living for 10 years in Cyprus, working and paying my taxes without creating any problem…I don’t understand why they don’t grant Cyprus citizenship to me” M, a refugee from Iraq, with impeccable conduct and excellent recommendations from his employer, wonders why his application for naturalization has been denied. This is a question that remains unanswered for many other refugees residing in Cyprus for a number of years.

Granting of national citizenship is a matter within the competence of each State. This national discretion is, however, limited by international and regional instruments that impose an obligation on States to facilitate the naturalization of refugees.

For recognized refugees (for whom the conditions in their country of origin as regards persecution had not changed after a number of years) ending their refugee status and integrating in their host country is the most durable and often most desirable long-term solution.
“When we fled to Cyprus almost 14 years ago, my youngest son was only 2 months old. Now he only speaks Greek, all his friends are Cypriots and he feels like a Cypriot. Cyprus is now the home for all of us. We are working, we own our own flat and we are living as normal and lawful citizens. Why do we need to live as refugees for the rest of our lives?” wonders S*, a Serb from Bosnia who fled his country during the war back in the 90’s.

Indeed, while refugee status offers certain guarantees, refugees continue to be vulnerable in that they lack an effective nationality. A refugee can neither return to his or her country of origin, nor rely on a fully comprehensive state protection normally attached to citizenship.

Not in a limbo anymore
If S and his family are naturalized they will not have to renew their “refugee temporary residence permit” every 3 years and they will never have to fear again that they will be sent back to BiH! When he applied for naturalization three years ago, the authorities instead of examining his naturalization request, considered revoking his refugee status on the ground that the war was over in Bosnia, despite the fact that return to BiH is precarious for some returnees. As for S, he is nearly at a retirement age, without any house or other property to return to: ‘Where will I go? I lost my house there. Here we own our own flat and our life is here’. ‘Am I expected to start my life for a third time?”

For other refugees, Cypriot naturalization would allow them access to certain rights that as refugees don’t have. For instance the ability to travel on a Cypriot passport would mean a lot to M* from Iran, who hasn’t seen her sister for ages “I would be able [with a Cypriot passport] to travel to Germany to visit my sister …” The refugee travel document issued under national refugee law has not allowed M* to get a visa for Germany neither for K*, from Iran as well who wanted to travel to Ireland to visit his relative: “I had my travel documents and my plane tickets but visa request was denied.”

1951 Refugee Convention on naturalization and Cyprus legislation
Recognizing that naturalization is the final stage of integration the 1951 Refugee Convention imposes an obligation on states to “facilitate as far as possible” the naturalization of refugees by “making every effort to expedite naturalization proceeding …”

Cyprus national law provides that any person legally residing in Cyprus for more than 5 years or 7 years (if they are sports players, sports technicians or coaches or work in International Business Companies, or work for Cypriot employers etc.) can apply for naturalization.
Refugees have been requested to complete 7 years of legal residency, before being allowed to submit an application, on the justification that the refugee residence permits entitle them to work, (an interpretation not in line with Article 34 of the Convention -which speaks about facilitation of naturalization, especially by expediting it, not delaying it-, neither with the refugee law in that that residence permit is granted to refugees not because they came to Cyprus to work but because they resorted to Cyprus to protect their lives and basic freedoms).

Further to the submission of the application for naturalization, the applicant is called for 2 interviews: at the District Officer and at the Immigration Police, the recommendations of which will then be sent to the Civil Registry and Migration Department (Section of Citizenships). The latter will reach a recommendation based on the file and this recommendation is then submitted to the Minister of Interior who has the discretionary power to decide whether to grant the citizenship or not.

Is ‘every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings’ for refugees in Cyprus made?

S applied for naturalization in 2003, after 10 years of residence in Cyprus. He was called for the first interview after three years, while still not called for the second interview. “They told us that it is normal to wait for 3 years to receive a decision, but it’s now 4 years and still we have received no news…” said his daughter who is now studying in an EU country and intends to apply for naturalization during the Christmas vacations.

However for Sue*, a lawyer from Afghanistan who sought protection in Cyprus after being threatened by the Taliban regime, “waiting” is anything but normal. “Waiting is difficult; it puts your life on hold …” said Sue. She applied for naturalization in 2006, but when she called to ask for her case she was told that it would take 12 to 14 months for a decision to be reached.
According to Nadia*, a refugee from Palestine, she was advised at the Migration office that decisions are currently taken on applications submitted in 2004. Nadia submitted her application in March 2006, thus her life must be put “on hold” for at least two years.

An elusive dream even for those who meet the requirements?

Even if an applicant meets the requirement of 7 years of residency and has good recommendations, a positive decision cannot be guaranteed.
A.M.*, a 37 Iraqi national married to A, Palestinian refugee have been residing in Cyprus for 11 years, while in the meantime their two kids were born. He applied for naturalization in 2003 and was rejected in 2006. He appealed before the Supreme Court and won in May 2007. The judge noted in his decision that although it was in the discretion of the Minister to grant citizenship, the Minister too is bound by the administrative law principle of "good faith". He found that the decision of the Minister was not duly reasoned, in that it only made reference to the requirement of good character, without providing justification to the contrary. There was not any recommendation in the file that AM was not of a good character; two authorities expressly stated that he was of a good character, and according to a police report there was no hint to indicate that he would be a threat to public security.

Even though the court decision came out 5 months ago, the Migration has not proceeded to issue a new decision.
“I went to the Immigration office to see whether any action has been taken after the court decision but I was told to leave the office and never go back again.” Says AM bitterly

Moira* did not know what to say when she was told by an officer (orally) that her application submitted back in 2004 was rejected because she is a refugee and refugees are not entitled to naturalization.
Moira* after losing her husband, her parents and her house in Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the war she came to Cyprus in 1997with her daughters to heal the wounds of her shattered life. In Cyprus she met her second husband, from Bosnia as well, and she got recognized as a refugee in 2003. Moira, her daughters and her husband’s kids applied for naturalization in 2004.
Despite the flagrant violation of Article 34 of the Refugee Convention that lies behind the (oral) officer’s statement, Moira does not care about her case. “What matters for me is the decision on my children’s applications who are now studying in an EU country. All of them are excellent students and no 1 in their classes. My oldest daughter got the nationality but the other two are still waiting. If they don’t get the nationality I will have to pay 6,000 EUR in the bank account of each in order for their visas to be issued. I cannot afford to pay this amount in one go” says Mira in desperation feeling that the deadline is nearly expiring, as well as the dreams of her children who if they don’t get the nationality, they will have to postpone their studies until they are able to get their students visa.

The list of refugees who are waiting for years to receive a reply on their application is long, but they are still hoping despite the experience of other refugees. ‘It would not make any difference for Cyprus to give me the status, whereas for me it would mean everything’ says a refugee. Besides, as it emanates from the law, in a State characterized by the rule of law the discretion vested on a State can only be exercised within certain margins: those of good faith.

*Names changed

by the Representation in Cyprus of the UNHCR

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