A disturbingly high number of asylum-seekers in Cyprus who have fled persecution and violence in their home countries are facing risk of homelessness, destitution and desperation because of critical shortcomings in the national asylum and reception policies.
© UNHCR/Béla Szandelszky
UNHCR is aware of a number of homeless men, women and families with young children from a number of countries including Syria, Cameroon, Somalia and Iraq. If they are not sleeping rough, they are temporarily housed by relatives, friends or strangers in very small and most often crowded studios or small flats that cannot be called decent home. Some of these individuals forced to sleep on the floor and without access to showers or toilets are additionally vulnerable with disabilities and other health concerns.
Housing insecurity is a cause of great anxiety, and has led a number of asylum-seekers to attempt suicide. The problem has escalated since the beginning of the year exacerbating the already dire living conditions faced by asylum-seekers living outside the Kofinou Reception Centre. While the Cyprus Refugee Law guarantees asylum-seekers immediate access to housing and social assistance once they have presented to the authorities their asylum applications, the present system fails to meet these basic rights placing a number of asylum-seekers at harm’s way.
One of the main problems is the delays in receiving and registering applications, which in turn poses obstacles to accessing social welfare assistance. In some cases, a small emergency cash allowance is provided to tide them over until their social welfare support application is processed and becomes effective. However, this emergency cash support can only cover very immediate and basic needs for a mere few days while welfare applications usually take up several weeks or even months to be processed. This results in individuals and families being left homeless and completely reliant on the goodwill of strangers and the support of a small number of charity organisations that themselves have limited resources.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that single asylum-seekers are no longer admitted to the Kofinou Reception Centre, which even when operating at full capacity only houses less than 5% of the asylum-seekers in the country. The vast majority of asylum-seekers therefore resides outside the Centre. Some are employed, but most are not mainly due to restrictive government policies that prohibit asylum-seekers from taking up any employment during the first six months from the time they have submitted their asylum application. Even after the six-month waiting period, they may only be employed in certain economic sectors that are at the lower end of the pay scale, e.g. agriculture, forage production, garbage collection, car wash and the like, regardless of their academic qualifications or professional experience.
“Given the way the national asylum system and reception policies work at the moment, homelessness and destitution are unfortunately an inevitable consequence for many asylum-seekers, both newly-arriving and long-stayers,” said Damtew Dessalegne, the UNHCR Representative in Cyprus. But the problem is avoidable. It is not just a matter of additional resources. The best way to ensure the dignity and well-being of asylum-seekers, at a reduced cost to the Government, is to allow them to work at the earliest possible stage and in as many sectors as possible based on the economics of demand and supply. The earlier asylum-seekers have access to the labour market, the quicker they become independent of State welfare and lead an autonomous, productive life
thereby also contributing to the development of their host country.
The issue of homelessness follows the deterioration of the reception conditions for asylum-seekers over the last two years. UNHCR has repeatedly voiced its concerns over the low level of assistance for needy asylum-seekers that is provided in vouchers and is equivalent to less than half of the Minimum Guaranteed Income (MGI) that Cypriots and recognized refugees in similar situation receive. What this means is that with the 100 Euro asylum-seekers get as rental allowance, they have major difficulties in finding any decent accommodation under the existing housing market.
“Getting refugees on their feet as quickly as possible is in the best interests of not only the people concerned, but also the host community,” said Damtew Dessalegne. It is essential, therefore, that as a matter of urgency the current policy on the reception conditions for asylum-seekers is reviewed so that the assistance provided to asylum-seekers is set at a level that ensures a standard of living adequate for the health of applicants and sufficient to ensure their subsistence, as required by the EU law. The emphasis should be on adequately assisting asylum-seekers outside of organized reception centres as they have greater success at integrating into the social, economic and cultural fabric of the host society once they are recognised as refugees.