On May 24, 2021, three Cameroonian asylum seekers left northern Cyprus to try to reach the south. They were denied protection, triggering widespread international condemnationand found themselves stranded in no man’s land for almost seven months after the Cypriot authorities refused to recognize their asylum claim.
Their predicament stemmed in part from the island’s situation de facto division since 1974. Pass through the United Nations controlled area Green line separating the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus (RC) and Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey) is considered illegal if they are not allowed, even for asylum seekers.
The RC authorities argued that granting asylum to the three Cameroonians would encourage others to cross the green line and accused Turkey of encourage an influx refugees from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. But the reality is more complex.
Since 2018, Cyprus has become a main destination for refugees. As routes to the European Union via Greece close and refugees living conditions in countries like Turkey and Lebanon are getting worse, traffickers instead offer Syrian refugees a risky crossing to Cyprus. Many newcomers to the island live in dire conditions in overcrowded reception centerswhile government ministers fueled anti-refugee sentiment. Some land in northern Cyprus and confuse it with the Republic of Congo.
Responsibility for providing protection should rest with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The increase in the number of asylum seekers in northern Cyprus reflects both new arrivals by boat and the ‘university island‘ model. A recent study by the student group VOIS Cyprus shows a correlation between the growing number of university students in the north and the increase in the number of asylum seekers, 4.5% of the 763 respondents (mostly third country nationals ) citing war or conflict in their home country as their reason for studying there. There is currently 21 universities in northern Cyprus, with students from a hundred countries. For the 2021-22 academic year, there were 14,000 Turkish Cypriot students, 43,000 from Turkey and 51,000 from third countries.
Unfortunately for most refugees from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Northern Cyprus did not take responsibility to grant asylum to persons in need of protection. This is despite the fact that international human rights instruments such as the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture are part of the northern national legal framework.
In fact, there is no specific national legislation concerning the protection of refugees, and no differentiation between persons in need of protection and other groups of migrants. Refugees arriving in northern Cyprus by boat are often detained and deported. It is a similar story for students who cannot regularize their stay due to financial difficulties and who, fearing persecution and/or war in their home country, seek asylum.
Who is responsible ?
Responsibility to provide protection should lie with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But UNHCR’s mandate in northern Cyprus has diminished since 2014, as a lack of rules established with local authorities has prevented the agency from offering refugees meaningful protection. UNHCR’s mandate previously allowed refugee status determination in the north to be part of the process of determining whether a person was in need of protection. Its current mandate, however, allows it to provide asylum seekers only with letters of protection recognizing them as “persons of concern” (PoC). In theory, this document prevents PoCs from being deported and gives them access to the labor market, health care and (in the case of children) education. But the lack of a comprehensive mechanism to provide even basic protection to refugees in northern Cyprus is worrying.
Desperate people should not suffer more than they already have for the prospect of a better future.
In fact, there is no official agreement between the Refugee Rights Association (RRA, which acts as implementing partner on behalf of UNHCR) and the Turkish Cypriot authorities, and therefore no legal basis for UNHCR Protection Letters. It is simply an informal agreement that authorities can revoke at any time, which is why they have made no concerted effort to offer meaningful protection to PoCs.
Some therefore see crossing the Green Line into the Republic of Congo as their only option, despite the Republic of Congo’s poor record with refugees. Being internationally recognized as refugees would be at least preferable to the limbo they live in in the North.
The failure of the EU and the UNHCR
It is difficult to know exactly who is responsible for the fate of asylum seekers in northern Cyprus. But desperate people will continue to head for northern Cyprus, whether or not they are aware of its unrecognized status. International actors, in particular UNHCR and the EU, must therefore take concrete steps to provide them with meaningful protection.
Far too often, the UNHCR claimed that it was unable to establish relations with northern Cyprus because it was occupied territory. But for many asylum seekers languishing in appalling conditions, the issue of effective screening is irrelevant. To offer them meaningful protection, UNHCR must seek innovative ways of communicating with the authorities in the north. Giving the RRA more money and manpower to do this would be a good start.
The EU, meanwhile, should push the RC government to restore and recognize the protection claims of those crossing the Green Line and to work with the authorities in the north. In addition, it should investigate the increase and seemingly inhumane border policeincrease its support for the RRA and encourage the Turkish authorities to put pressure on their Turkish Cypriot counterparts to respect their human rights commitments.
More importantly, other EU member states must recognize their role in this debacle. The fact that asylum seekers are now opting for Cypriot shores is a direct result of the violent pushbacks against refugees at the borders of these countries. The EU can – and should – provide asylum seekers with safer humanitarian corridors, visas and resettlement programmes. Desperate people should not suffer more than they already have for the prospect of a better future.