Paphos, Cyprus – Mustafa*, his wife and their four children felt a sense of relief last summer as they entered a condominium overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.
After 10 years of hardship, during which they first fled Syria’s brutal war and then Lebanon’s relentless economic crisis, the family arrived in Cyprus a year ago in the hope of having a stable, dignified life.
“We all felt very overwhelmed and stressed,” Mustafa said, recounting their experience at the camp that first hosted them. “I wanted to find a place for us to move to, and a Syrian friend of mine recommended this place.”
This place is in the coastal village of Chloraka, just north of the city of Paphos. However, just about a month after moving in, Mustafa was told by the authorities he could not live there any more.
Asylum seekers in Cyprus are allowed to move out of government-run reception centres after they submit their asylum applications and give authorities a new address. They are not permitted to work while their application is pending, though the government provides them with a modest monthly welfare cheque.
With tourism dwindling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a compound owner in Chloraka began renting out the flats at cheaper rates. Through word of mouth, many Syrians such as Mustapha moved in and joined others who had already settled there the previous years.
But in January, the Cypriot interior ministry implemented a decree that banned asylum seekers from moving to Chloraka, citing demographic changes and “social problems”.
“The authorities at the camp didn’t say anything about that when I presented my address and lease in May,” Mustafa said. “If they’d told me I wasn’t allowed to live in Chloraka, I would have stayed in the camp. I’m not here to break laws.”
Interior ministry spokesman Loizos Michael said Cyprus, a small island on the eastern Mediterranean, has been struggling to implement an integration strategy in the face of skyrocketing numbers of asylum seekers.
“What we are going to do is decrease the numbers, disperse the people around the island and not gather them in one single area, which would help integrate them in the schools, community and labour force,” Michael said.
He noted that some 1,500 of Chloraka’s 4,000 residents are Syrians, adding that they have been involved in what he described as the “ghettoisation” of some communities.
But Mustafa and other struggling Syrians at the compound, including some with no option but to informally take up manual labour, said moving elsewhere was a challenge.
After getting a 1,020 euro ($1,153) cheque in July, Mustafa was surprised to see the next month that he had not received any money. When he visited the local welfare office to inquire, he was informed he could no longer live in Chloraka. The authorities then gradually reduced the payment to 265 euros ($300), and he now has until the new year to change his address.
But with his limited budget, it has been tough for Mustapha to make a down payment to secure a flat. He also said some landlords told him they did not want to have refugees and asylum seekers as tenants.
Cyprus has been at the front line of refugee and migrant flows in Europe. It received the largest number of asylum seekers per capita, at 4.4 percent, according to the interior ministry.
This year, nearly a quarter of the almost 12,000 new asylum-seeker applicants in Cyprus were from Syrians, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some 5,000 Syrians’ asylum applications from previous years are still pending, though the interior ministry told Al Jazeera they are working to streamline the process.
Meanwhile, the ministry’s spokesperson Michael said many asylum seekers are in fact “economic migrants” who have clogged the application process for the many seeking protection from war and persecution, notably Syrians.
‘Profiling and discrimination’
North of Chloraka, some residents in the mountainous village of Drouseia said they did not want Syrians there, even though that was not always the case.
A hotel owner, who asked to stay anonymous, said Syrians were part of the Cypriot community for decades, with many workers moving to the island to fill in a labour shortage for stone house builders. In fact, they had even built his hotel.
“The vast majority of Syrians came 15 or 20 years ago, on their own as skilled stone builders,” he said. “But over the past three years, they started bringing their families too.”
He expressed hope that a similar decree to the one about Chloraka would be implemented in Drouseia, a village of roughly 400 residents. “I fear the demographic character of this village will change; it was always a poor Christian [place].”
But asylum lawyers and human rights experts have blasted such decrees amid an environment of rising intolerance.
“This is clear profiling and discrimination. You cannot say that Syrians are a threat for the national security because when they reach a certain level of percentage in the community they become a threat,” Doros Polycarpou, who heads the Cypriot non-governmental organisation KISA, told Al Jazeera.
“When you don’t allow them [asylum seekers] to work to earn enough money to sustain themselves, and the maximum subsidies you give their families is only half the money they need to find accommodation in Paphos, you can understand that there will be a high concentration of people where there are places to live in relatively good conditions.”
The alternative is far from ideal.
Pournara camp, near the UN-controlled buffer zone that has separated Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots for almost half a century, hosts some 2,500 people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq and a string of other countries who have mostly poured in from the divided island’s north.
It was built for 800 people.
Of that total, only 500 asylum seekers live in prefabricated shelters with electricity and heating, Emilia Strovolidou, a public information officer at the UN refugee agency or UNHCR office in Cyprus, told Al Jazeera.
“The rest reside in either tents or refugee housing units that are outside the main section of the camp without access to electricity and proper hygiene facilities,” Strovolidou said. “Among the residents, there are around 330 children, most of them unaccompanied.”
At the edge of the jam-packed camp, one asylum seeker who arrived from Nigeria in November was hanging his clothes outside of his tent.
“The tents are water-resistant but we’re getting cold at night,” he told Al Jazeera. “Some of us are clustering together in one tent at night to stay warm.” He said camp workers have been providing them with food and basic support, but he hoped he could find a place to stay with electricity and heating quickly.
Michael, the interior ministry spokesman, said asylum services staff at Pournara “are trying to do their best every single day to handle the issue”.
He also said other European countries have not done their part to help Cyprus deal with the situation.
“Unfortunately, the so-called solidarity everyone is claiming, at least for now, is just staying on paper,” he said. “We clearly stated there should be burden-sharing – we request European Commission to either support us on returns or at least having mandatory percentage of allocation per member state.”
Cyprus is among a few European countries that have moved towards restoring diplomatic ties with Syria, having reopened their embassy in Damascus, alongside Greece and Hungary last summer.
And while there is no consensus on the matter in Cyprus, Michael said Interior Minister Nicos Nouris believes the European Union needs to reconsider its position on returning Syrian refugees to their home country. “At this point, the European Union doesn’t consider Syria a safe place yet, but we need to be honest; there are safe places and cities within Syria,” he said.
Syria’s war began the brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011, before turning into a complex battlefield involving foreign armies, local militias and foreign fighters. It has killed an estimated 500,000 people and forced millions from their homes, including many seeking refuge in Europe.
Even in parts of Syria where the fighting has subsided, families are currently struggling to make ends meet amid an economic crisis that has seen the Syrian pound lose its value and prices of wheat and fuel increase. Violent crime has skyrocketed, as well, even as President Bashar al-Assad’s government has regained control of most of the country.
Because of this, the angry hotelier believes that Syrians in Cyprus should return home.
“They are good builders, and there is a lot to be rebuilt there,” he said. “They will have work for the next 100 years.”
However, the UN and global human rights watchdogs do not believe Syria is safe for return. “UNHCR continues to call for protection to be maintained for Syrian refugees and urge that they should not be returned forcibly to any part of Syria, regardless of who is in control of the area concerned,” Strovolidou said.
Watchdog groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented a host of abuses among returnees, including torture, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings.
In the meantime, Polycarpou, of KISA, which advocates against racism and xenophobia, expressed fear the domestic narrative of demographic shifts could lead to tensions with Syrians and further push policies that isolate the community.
“This is something we’re very much worried about,” he said. “The pressure reached to a level where we have direct threats [and] physical attacks,” he added, citing an incident in September in which he said some 20-30 Cypriot youngsters assaulted a refugee in a secondary school in Polis. “And the same people who attacked that young boy in school called and harassed the other kids in the family.
Polycarpou said that there is rising far-right sentiment in Paphos and in other parts of Cyprus, and the media has worsened some of these tensions.
“They are saying over the past few years that there are Syrians coming to Cyprus who are young, and potentially affiliated to terrorist organisations back in Syria,” he said. “This is absurd.”
* Name changed to protect the person’s identity
By Kareem Chehayeb