Early Years

On 20 August 1974, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, announced the appointment of the UN High Commissioner at the time, Sadruddin Aga Khan, as  coordinator of the humanitarian assistance for Cyprus. Within a couple of days following the appointment, the High Commissioner and two UNHCR staff members arrived on the island to make a first-hand assessment of the most urgent relief requirements.

An initial appeal was made by the High Commissioner in September for $22 million to cover emergency accommodation needs, food and for domestic and community equipment. By December 1974 the $22 million target was exceeded with the total value of contributions reaching $23.4million. Only in the first three years of its emergency operation in Cyprus, UNHCR disbursed over $83 million in humanitarian aid for the displaced populations in both communities. Funds for the assistance programmes were mainly provided by the US government and the European Economic Community also offered food in kind.

What the international community expected would be a short-term involvement for UNHCR lasted for over 23 years. 

UNHCR’s humanitarian assistance to displaced Cypriots gradually evolved from emergency assistance to strengthening of institutions and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, which were overstretched by population movements, and eventually to bi-communal projects meant to serve as a bridge of communication and dialogue with a view to improving mutual trust and confidence between the two communities.

What the international community expected would be a short-term involvement for UNHCR lasted for over 23 years. By 1998, the need for relief assistance for the internally displaced Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots had declined, and UNHCR handed over the work to other UN agencies responsible for development projects. In 1998, boats started to arrive on the island carrying asylum-seekers and migrants in larger numbers. There was also a significant increase in the number of asylum-seekers as a result of the war in the former Yugoslavia. In the absence of national asylum legislation and the requisite institutional arrangements and capacity, UNHCR had to assume the responsibilities for registering asylum-seekers arriving on the island and processing their applications. Gradually, the Government also started developing its legislative framework and the procedures and capacities for a refugee protection system in accordance with international standards. In the lead-up to EU accession, the Republic of Cyprus with the technical assistance of UNHCR adopted its first national refugee legislation and asylum procedures in 2000, and in 2002 took over from UNHCR the responsibility for asylum adjudication.

©UNHCR Cyprus

Cypriot displaced children in 1974 and Syrian refugees today in Cyprus © UNHCR Cyprus

Present Focus

At present, UNHCR’s fundamental business in Cyprus is to assist the Government to further refine and improve its asylum legislation and the procedures and capacities for a refugee protection system fully in line with international standards. This would require that existing gaps and weaknesses in the national asylum legislation and practice are addressed; migration management policies incorporate protection safeguards; the refugee status determination procedures are further reformed to make them both fair and efficient, and programmes are put in place to help refugees find a durable solution by way of local integration. To achieve these objectives, UNHCR undertakes a number of activities:

  • Monitoring and promoting respect for refugee rights and the standards of treatment of asylum-seekers, particularly as regards access to asylum procedures, reception conditions and detention.
  • Influencing legislation affecting refugees and asylum-seekers by providing expert advice and comments on relevant draft laws to ensure compliance with international and EU standards.
  • Providing technical assistance, legal advice and other forms of support to assist the authorities to further strengthen their refugee status determination procedures and ensure quality decision-making.
  • Monitoring and advocacy to ensure that unaccompanied and separated children have effective access to the national child protection system with respect to accurate and timely identification; registration and documentation; guardianship and legal representation; adequate care and supervision; tracing and family reunification. Central to these actions is a best interest determination.
  • Training of key stakeholders from the government and civil society on basic protection issues, including refugee rights, reception conditions for asylum-seekers, durable solutions and child protection.
  • Promoting good practices in relation to policies and measures that support the effective integration of refugees into the social, economic and cultural fabric of Cypriot society, including advocacy for naturalization, long-term residence permits and family reunification.
  • Promoting accession to the UN statelessness conventions.
  • Strengthening and broadening public information, education, awareness-raising and sensitization activities through media work, school activities, special campaigns, seminars and constituency-building.
  • Strengthening partnerships with NGOs and other civil society actors involved in refugee protection.