On 10 December 2021, the UNHCR Country Office in Cyprus held its Third Annual Integration Conference in Nicosia. This year’s conference once again took place online due to the current health measures. The event was additionally live streamed on UNHCR Cyprus’ Facebook page.
“A refugee should not remain a refugee forever…While there are challenges, there are also opportunities to enhance the integration potential of refugees. Local integration is indeed a complex and gradual process with legal, economic, social and cultural dimensions. It is true that it imposes considerable demands on both the individual and the receiving society. But it can be achieved and there are many success stories showing us that if all actors, and each one of us, take positive actions, we can together create an environment that allows our differences to be accepted and valued,” said Katja Saha, the UNHCR Representative in Cyprus in her welcome address.
In this year’s Conference, UNHCR Cyprus brought together speakers from local municipalities in Cyprus, academics, colleagues from our partner NGO the Cyprus Refugee Council, UNHCR Europe Bureau and the Council of Europe as well as individuals representing grassroots civil society initiatives, the media and the refugee population. Mr. Michalis Beys, Administrative Officer at the Civil Registry and Migration Department of the Ministry of Interior shared priority areas for the National Integration Plan, for which some of UNHCR’s recommendations in the development phase were included in the final plan. The National Plan will be used as a reference document by the state for the integration policy that it follows and the financing of projects and programs of the new programming period 2021 – 2027. From the Council of Europe, Irina Guidikova spoke about support to the Republic of Cyprus in implementing its National Integration Action Plan, and how this would be realised by empowering local authorities, NGOs, and migrant organisations to be part of the integration process. Susanne Klink, Livelihood and Economic Inclusion Officer, UNHCR Europe Bureau shared the Practitioner’s Tool for Refugee Integration in Europe, which is linked to evidence of existing good practices on socio-economic inclusion, effective access to rights and cultural integration and will soon also be available in Greek and shared with civil society actors and other stakeholders.
“The increase and diversity of actors involved in the integration process is on its own a positive step forward. Enhanced networking, common platforms and communication are key to effective cooperation and solidarity. UNHCR will contribute to this effort in 2022 by bringing together stakeholders in thematic workshops and by supporting future and ongoing projects such as the Council of Europe project on Intercultural Integration,” said George Ailiotis, UNHCR Cyprus Protection Associate.
The municipalities of Larnaca and Limassol shared examples of their projects under AMIF that have contributed to a more open and inclusive society and spoke about the the responsibility of local authorities to enhance the social inclusion of refugees and migrants, and to reduce ignorance and fear. “My family are refugees,” said Mr. Andreas Vyras, Mayor of Larnaca. The University of Nicosia and the Cyprus Refugee Council shared research results on the needs and geographic concentration of asylum-seekers and refugees in Cyprus as well as their employability and labour prospects, respectively. Speaking on how to counter anti-refugee narratives in public discourse, Dr. Nicos Peristianis, Chairman of the Universitas Foundation reminded us of how refugees were warmly welcomed during the Second World War, and that the inclusion and integration of refugees in our society creates a win-win for all.
“My family are refugees” – Mr. Andreas Vyras, Mayor of Larnaca
Moreover, our latest publication, Untold Stories, a dedicated photo publication featuring the work of photographer Sebastian Rich that depicts the lives of refugees and asylum-seekers in Cyprus was launched, with a short talk by Sebastian himself. “Refugees are the same as you and I,” he said. “The only difference is that they have lost everything in an instant. The one thing you cannot take away from refugees is their dignity.” The photo-essay book is bilingual – English and Greek – and is available on the UNHCR Cyprus website while several copies will be distributed to governmental counterparts, local authorities, NGOs, media and schools.
“Refugees are the same as you and I. The only difference is that they have lost everything in an instant.” – Sebastian Rich, Photographer
In a dedicated final session on community-led initiatives and social inclusion that took place in Greek, the panel was led by Etinosa Erevbenagie Johnbull, founding member of Generation for Change and welcomed fellow volunteer from Generation for Change, Eleana Georgiou who spoke about some of the achievements this grassroots organisation has already made in just their first year, helping hundreds of vulnerable families with donations and hot means and offering language classes, to name a few. Also on the panel were Zahra Mashi who is a university student, Loukianos Lyritsas, a journalist for Deutsche Welle and Mr. Costas Englezos, Basketball Coach for the Hope Team.
Zahra, who is Cypriot by nationality and was born in Cyprus, and whose parents are refugees, shared that she has been discriminated against, despite the fact that she is fluent in multiple languages including Greek, Turkish and English, when applying for jobs, and was told her CV was not even reviewed because of her name. “Don’t change who you are; show that we are equal and there is no reason for the other to be afraid,” was her advice to other young refugees who might be facing similar challenges. Mr. Costas Englezos spoke about why he created the Hope Team, a highly skilled basketball team made up of asylum-seeking athletes who do not have the possibility to participate in professional sports due to the limitations of their legal status in Cyprus.
“For me it goes without saying, since these persons are living here in our country, alongside us, that we should welcome them and share with them…My goal is to sensitise as many people as possible, and give opportunities to as many athletes as possible,” said Coach Englezos. “Xenophobia has to do with fear of our own selves. We all need to work on improving that.”
Loukianos Lyritsas was the journalist who created a video for Deutsche Welle about the Hope Team. “The first impression I had when I met the members of the Hope Team was one of admiration. It’s incredible to see the sacrifices they each make just to get to practice, for example,” he said. “I saw optimism and joy in their eyes, despite all the difficulties they are facing in their individual lives.” On the role of the media and journalism in shaping the public discourse, Loukianos said that journalists “should focus on human stories and not on numbers, with the goal to teach the public about what we can all learn from refugees, without waiting only for the so-called ‘success stories.’ We should share the stories of the everyday lives of refugees – these are in themselves newsworthy.”
UNHCR Cyprus would like to thank all speakers and participants for their valuable contributions on a key topic that affects not only refugees and asylum-seekers, but society as a whole, and for which each of us as individuals can make a difference.
CONFERENCE PRESENTATIONS AND MATERIALS
Watch again on UNHCR Cyprus’ YouTube Channel
View UNHCR Cyprus’ bilingual photo-essay publication Untold Stories: Refugees and Asylum-Seekers in Cyprus here
Integration Conference 2020 Recap, 2021 Situation & 2022 Expectations – Mr. George Ailiotis, UNHCR Cyprus
The National Integration Policy: Next steps: Implementation, Representation and Monitoring – Mr. Michalis Beys, Ministry of Interior
UNHCR study: “Mapping the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in Cyprus” – Dr. Stefanos Spaneas, University of Nicosia
Building structures for intercultural integration in Cyprus – Ms. Irena Guidikova, Head of Division, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Programmes, Council of Europe
Practitioner’s tool for refugee integration in Europe – Ms Susanne Klink, Livelihood and Economic Inclusion Officer, UNHCR Europe Bureau
The Employability of Refugees in Cyprus: A skills profiling report – Mr. Manos Mathioudakis and Ms. Annagrace Messa, The Cyprus Refugee Council
Local integration: Good practices from Limassol – Ms. Christina Tsiamparta, Limassol Municipality and Limassol Intercultural Council