Joint Statement on the growing problem of homelessness among asylum-seekers in Cyprus

Given the alarming increase in the numbers of homeless asylum-seekers, these organisations issued a joint statement with a call to action.

Agapi, Caritas, Cyprus Red Cross Society, Cyprus Refugee Council, Hope for Children, KISA, MiHub, Municipality of Nicosia and UNHCR issue joint statement on increasing homelessness among asylum-seekers in Cyprus.

This Joint Statement on the growing problem of homelessness among asylum-seekers in Cyprus has been issued by the following organisations: Agapi, Caritas, Cyprus Red Cross Society, Cyprus Refugee Council, Hope for Children, KISA, MiHub, Municipality of Nicosia, UNHCR.

1. We note that the number of people seeking asylum in Cyprus has continued to show marked increases over the years, mostly due to the ongoing conflict in Syria: 1,887 in 2014; 2,108 in 2015; 2,871 in 2016 and 4,499 in 2017. We believe, however, that the national reception system has proven to be inadequate to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and is in urgent need of a comprehensive reform.

2. We further note that following a recent policy change by the Asylum Service, the Kofinou Reception Centre is no longer accepting single male asylum-seekers. With the Kofinou Centre presently hosting only 265 persons and another 130 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children housed at the four special shelters in Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol, the vast majority of asylum-seekers therefore live outside collective centres.

3. We are gravely concerned by the precarious living conditions of asylum-seekers, which is essentially the result of the very restrictive employment policy preventing asylum-seekers from becoming self-reliant, and remains unchanged despite the longer waiting period for receiving an asylum decision. Moreover, the material reception conditions are not adequate to ensure a dignified standard of living to protect their physical and mental health, especially given the increasing rent prices. This also affects transition to the community from both the Kofinou Reception Centre and the children’s shelters.

4. Asylum-seekers can only work after a six-month waiting period from the lodging of their asylum application and only in certain unskilled jobs, mainly agriculture and farming, regardless of their academic qualifications or professional experience. This type of employment is typically at the lower end of the pay scale and often requires constant separation from family members as it is commonly in remote areas. As a consequence, many asylum-seekers, including highly qualified individuals, find themselves unemployed for many years leading to frustration, demoralization, and a compromised ability to integrate in the long term. There are also serious problems with the job referral system.

5. We are particularly concerned by the level of social assistance asylum-seekers receive from the state. Asylum-seekers are excluded from the national Guaranteed Minimum Income scheme and are instead provided with a special ‘material reception assistance’. The assistance is provided by means of vouchers and a small cash allowance to be used for utilities and other expenses. A very small rent allowance is paid directly to the landlords. The level of assistance provided is less than half of that which nationals receive under the Guaranteed Minimum Income. It is in fact below the national risk-of-poverty threshold and does not meet the minimum standards of the EU Reception Conditions Directive.

6. There are significant problems with the present voucher system. First, the vouchers can be used only in a few designated small shops in each town, where a number of essential items are not available. Prices in these shops are apparently much higher than the larger supermarkets. Second, asylum-seekers receive their vouchers with significant delays, often only a few days before their expiry. Third, asylum-seekers need to make numerous visits to the welfare services office, often on foot, to receive their vouchers. Fourth, there are particular societal sensitivities to shopping with vouchers that leads to the stigmatization of asylum-seekers, subjecting them to further prejudice and discrimination.

7. We would also like to highlight that the allocated amount that asylum-seekers receive for rent is incredibly low for the current market prices. The rental allowance ranges from €50 in the case of shared accommodation to a maximum of €200 irrespective of the size of a family. The inadequacy of the allowance forces asylum-seekers, including families with young children, to find shelter in unsuitable premises, often without electricity and water and thereby exposing themselves to serious health risks. Moreover, the woefully inadequate rental allowance, including the irregularity with which it is paid, has led to a growing problem of homelessness.

8. In light of the foregoing, we call upon the Government to take immediate action to remedy the situation. In particular:

a. To ensure emergency accommodation to all asylum-seekers in need, who would otherwise be forced to live in substandard conditions or would be homeless. Existing EU funds can be utilized for subsidizing housing costs;

b. To increase the level of subsistence assistance for asylum-seekers – providing cash instead of vouchers – and to remove the cap on the assistance provided to families to ensure a dignified standard of living in accordance with Cyprus’ international and EU legal obligations;

c. To process applications for social assistance swiftly in order to prevent instances of destitution and homelessness;

d. To reduce the period of prohibition of access to the labour market and expand the economic sectors where asylum-seekers are permitted to work so that they become self-sufficient and further contribute to the society and the economy; it is further recommended to subsidize the income of employed asylum-seekers on low wages in order to encourage access to the labour market;

e. To put in place appropriate structures and procedures for the early and systematic identification of asylum-seekers with specific needs and to grant them access to tailored assistance, including special reception conditions and disability allowances;

f. To institute transitional measures to assist unaccompanied children with independent living once they attain the age of majority.