Migrants forced to stay in Cyprus camp despite easing of Covid-19 lockdown
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At the beginning of March, authorities closed the gates of a first reception centre for migrants in Cyprus, not letting people in or out. The Pournara camp in Kokkinotrimithia was initially built to host up to 350 asylum seekers for a maximum of 72 hours, but there are now 771 people living behind its fences – some of whom have been there for four months. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to people living inside the camp, who are pleading with authorities to let them leave and denouncing the poor living conditions there.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Cyprus implemented a nationwide lockdown on 25 March, which was also applied to the Pournara camp.
In early April, ombudswoman Maria Stylianou-Lottides visited the camp to make an assessment of living conditions there. In her report published 23 April, Stylianou-Lottides said that any rule restricting freedom of movement is an “arbitrary” measure and that migrants should still be allowed to leave the camp if it is for medical or humanitarian reasons.
Easing of lockdown measures began on 4 May, allowing citizens to leave their houses up to three times a day, upon request – but this relaxation of the rules did not apply to residents of the Pournara camp. In protest, some residents of the camp went on hunger strike, and demonstrations were forcibly shut down by police.
Local NGOs have condemned the government’s stance, saying that locking the doors of the camp is tantamount to the illegal indefinite detention of people in the camp.
Pournara camp is surrounded by layers of barbed wire. Our Observer sent us this photo, telling us, "They treat us like we are criminals."
On 19 May, the Ministry of Health announced that there had been an outbreak of scabies in the camp and no one was allowed to go in or out. The ministry reported that around 30 people had contracted scabies and were being isolated.
“I want to know why the government is keeping us here. Under what law?”
The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke with Emmanuel [his name has been changed to protect his identity], a 28-year-old Nigerian man who has been in the camp since the beginning of May. He first arrived in Cyprus in March 2019. He was taken first to the Pournara camp, then lived independently in an apartment in Nicosia, the capital, before moving to a different shared apartment in Ayia Napa. It was in this apartment that he received a visit from the police and social workers on 4 May.
They told us that we had two options: go to Pournara camp, where we would quarantine for two weeks, or return to our country. Those who chose voluntary return would get €750. Some of us chose to go back. I decided to obey the government and go to the camp. They told us that when the two weeks were up, we would be able to leave the camp.
They made us sign a document saying that we agreed to come to the camp. Now they are using it against us. They refuse to let us out of the camp. Each time, whenever they move us [from one apartment to another], we obey. But the more we obey, the more they use it against us. And if we break the law, they say we are violent migrants.
This is the document that our Observer Emmanuel had to sign when he was taken to Pournara camp. Identifying details have been blurred out.
We’ve stopped receiving our benefits, so I can’t pay the rent for the apartment I had lined up in Nicosia. I feel like a prisoner. We are separated into different sections, and they lock the different sections, like we are criminals.
“The authorities won’t let us leave”
Breakfast is just a lump of dry bread, with no water or tea. We only get one bottle of water per day. And it’s very hot here – as much as 41 degrees Celsius. [Editor’s note: earlier this month, Cyprus experienced its hottest May on record]. In the afternoons it’s too hot to stay in our tents. There are no fans in our tents, nothing to cool ourselves.
The bread provided for breakfast. Photo sent by our Observer.
The one bottle of water provided per day. Photo sent by our Observer.
The only place with wifi is in the communal yard, so we have to stand under the hot sun to talk with our families. We try and stand under the trees for shade, but there isn’t enough shade for all of us. There are flies everywhere and snakes in the tents. Some of the others found a snake in a tent and killed it.
Residents of the camp found a snake in a tent and killed it, before bringing it to the asylum services of the camp as a symbol of how unsafe they feel in the tents. Photo sent by our Observer.
Crowds of people gathered outside the asylum services office in Pournara camp. The voiceover in the video says that they are unable to leave, that they don't know what to do, and that they're frightened to sleep in the tents.
Some people have been here longer than us: three or four months. Some of us have been carrying out peaceful protests, but the police come and use tear gas to make people disperse.
I want to know why the government is keeping us here. I’ve been in Cyprus for over a year. I have all my documents. Why are they keeping us here, under what law? We went to the asylum office to ask to leave, and the person there said that we agreed to it because we signed this piece of paper.
"If they can’t take care of us, we want to leave"
Another Nigerian man told us that the medical services for the camp’s residents are not sufficient.
I’ve been trying to see a doctor since last week. I said I wasn’t feeling well, and went to the camp doctor last Thursday morning. They said they were too busy to come back later. So I went back again in the afternoon, and they told me to come back the next morning at 8am. So I did, but the same thing happened. Then when I came back in the afternoon, they told me to come back on Monday. It’s now Tuesday and I still haven’t been able to see a doctor. They say we have a right to medical care but there are no doctors.
Dirty urinals in the camp. Photo sent by our Observer.
And if we do manage to see a doctor, all they do is give us paracetamol. A friend thought he had an infection and they just gave him paracetamol. Yesterday, a guy fainted in the heat and it took more than 30 minutes for an ambulance to come and take him away. We don’t even know where he is or how he is. If they can’t take care of us, we want to leave, but they say they don’t have the right to release us.
The food isn’t sufficient. There’s not enough to drink. Just hard bread at breakfast, and then at lunch just boiled pasta with nothing else. If you have money, you can buy food from outside. There’s a shopkeeper who brings produce from his shop to the camp. There are even girls doing promiscuous things for money so they can buy food. We heard some women in the camp going around and offering to sleep with men for six euros, just so they could feed themselves.
Some of the food provided in Pournara camp. Photos sent by our Observer.
“We weren’t ready for Covid-19”
FRANCE 24 spoke with Stefanos Spaneas, the daily operations manager for the camp. The camp is run by an external contractor on behalf of Cyprus’ asylum service and the Ministry of the Interior. He responded to the various complaints FRANCE 24 had heard from various people inside the camp.
Due to Covid-19, we had to rapidly increase the centre’s capacity and improve infrastructure. We were not ready to accommodate all the people who were brought to the camp. Before, we had 20 tents. Now we have over 150 tents. It means we had to put in more portaloos and build additional water taps and showers. We are continuing to upgrade the centre.
There are more tents in the camp than the centre was originally designed for. Photo sent by our Observer.
I know we’ve had complaints about the food. We work with an external catering company. We have so many different nationalities in the centre; it’s difficult to please everyone. For a long time we had a majority of Syrians and now we have a majority of Africans, who tend to have different preferences.
I check the quality of the food. That is to say, I check whether it is well-cooked and hot, and whether it is edible – not whether it is something that I like. We try to ask the catering company to provide different things if we receive a lot of complaints. For instance, for breakfast we were serving a traditional Cypriot olive bread, which had a green tinge from the olives, and many people in the camp thought it was mouldy and didn’t like it, so we changed that to a type of sweet bread. An expert hired by the government comes to check whether the portions are sufficient. If there is food left over, we try to distribute it.
A video sent by our Observer that shows local Cypriot police intervening in the camp. He does not know what the men did or why they were taken away. The police officers use tear gas on the migrants watching the scuffle, even though they are separated by a metal fence.
In the past we were giving out two plastic bottles of water every day, and then the contract changed and now we only give out one bottle a day. But they do have access to water fountains in the camp where they can refill their bottles. In the future the plan is to give each person a refillable thermos when they enter the centre, for them to keep until they leave.
We have a 24-hour medical unit which consists of one nurse. In the past we had a doctor who visited every two days. It’s true that Covid-19 made things a lot more difficult. We had to make appointments to send people to hospital. Sometimes we would send people and hospitals wouldn’t accept them. We’ve had trouble recently getting doctors to come to the centre. It’s not yet as it was pre-pandemic, but access to medical services is slowly getting better again.
A video sent by our Observer that shows the group Antifa Nicosia protesting outside the camp on 26 May and calling for the government to release the migrants.
No longer scabies inside the camp
He confirmed that the scabies outbreak had been controlled, and there were now no known cases of scabies inside the camp – but did not know why residents of the camp were still not allowed to move freely from the camp.
The centre is a first reception centre for a particular time period, the time that it takes them to finish the first step of their application. After that, according to the law, they have to leave the centre. However, the state has to arrange and provide them with accommodation afterwards. If for administrative reasons they need to be held longer because they have a particular case, they should be taken to a different camp which is more suitable for long-term stays.
He explained that ultimately it is the decision of the Ministry of the Interior to continue to keep people there on a permanent basis.
“People want to know when they are going to be released. I hope and believe that the centre will regain its old character,” he said, but added that he wasn’t aware of any plan on the part of the Ministry of the Interior to allow people to leave.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted Cyprus’ Ministry of the Interior to ask them when residents in the camp would once again be allowed to moved freely in the country, but has not yet received a response. This article will be updated if and when that happens.
In the meantime, people in the camp remain in limbo, with no response from the authorities to their demands for release.
Article by Catherine Bennett.