No man’s land: three asylum seekers stranded in the buffer zone of Cyprus | Migration and development

A A few months after Grace Ngo flew to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus from her native Cameroon, she decided to head “west”. The smugglers showed the student the direction of the Venetian walls that cut through the heart of Nicosia, the last divided capital in Europe.

A little before midnight on May 24, Ngo leaped from the separatist Turkish Cypriot republic in what she hoped to be the internationally recognized Greek south of the war-divided island.

“I just said ‘God protect me’,” recalls the 24-year-old, describing the jump that instead brought her into the UN-guarded buffer zone, where she has been stranded ever since. “The walls were so high. I hurt my leg badly, but I desperately needed the west.

Emil, one of three Cameroonians stranded in the Cypriot buffer zone. “If I go back, I will face certain death,” he said. Photograph: Helena Smith / The Guardian

Daniel Djibrilla and Emil Etoundi, two other asylum seekers from Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, were in the same location that night, also drawn to the bright lights of the European metropolis beyond. Like Ngo, who says she would not have made the trip if she hadn’t been abused, both cited the civil war in Cameroon as the reason for their departure.

“We jumped out of there,” said Etoundi, a former soldier, pointing to the ceasefire line that has divided the ethnically divided island since the Turkish invasion in 1974 after a coup. State aiming to unite Cyprus with Greece. “We didn’t know it was no man’s land. I can not believe it.

After the refusal of the government of President Nicos Anastasiades to allow them to seek asylum, the three Cameroonians remain trapped in the buffer zone, protected by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, but living in tents and in thanks for the goodwill of others.

At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, Cyprus remained relatively unvisited by displaced people, the majority having passed through Turkey and the Aegean Islands on their way to Europe.

That changed in 2018, when smugglers started seeing the EU’s easternmost state as an easy base.

On May 21, the Anastasiades administration declared a state of emergency, with officials saying the Mediterranean island faced insurmountable pressures from the continued arrivals. It came after Cyprus was censored by a human rights watchdog amid allegations of illegal refoulements of migrants at sea.

At the end of 2020, nearly 20,000 asylum applications were pending, according to the Greek Cypriot authorities. A record 13,648 people applied for protection in 2019. In the first six months of 2021, more than 5,000 applications were made, more than half of the total in 2020.

Cyprus has the highest number of first-time asylum seekers per capita in the EU, according to the EU statistical agency, Eurostat.

“We are in a critical situation,” Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told the Guardian ahead of a European summit in Slovenia on Thursday. “All [reception] the centers are full and we just don’t have the capacity to receive more. If we are to talk about solidarity and responsibility, we have to stand alongside frontline Member States like Cyprus, which is the main host country for asylum seekers.

The majority of migrants entering southern Greece pass illegally through Turkey and parts of Cyprus over which the republic has no control, according to Nouris.

With smuggling networks taking advantage of the partition, Nouris said there were real fears that a new front could open on an island where migrants arrive both by boat and along the ceasefire line. 110 mile (180 km) fire.

“You have to be very careful not to open a new passage,” he said. “It’s not a three-person question – it would be ridiculous when there are so many coming. But if I accept these three people, then [such crossings] will be the next common practice. They will come by the thousands… Turkey will put them on buses and send them to the checkpoints.

The plight of Cameroonians has highlighted the firm position of a government which, like Greece, feels abandoned by Europe in matters of migration.

“They have the right to have their asylum application examined,” said UN refugee agency spokeswoman Emilia Strovolidou, explaining that the trio were returned to no man’s land after s’ being approached by a UN patrol unit and going to the nearest Greek Cypriot checkpoint.

“This is a blatant case of people seeking international protection, and we have made a number of interventions with the relevant authorities to allow them access to the procedure.”

Cyprus is “obliged under international, European and national law” to process asylum claims and to provide people with dignified access to reception centers, Strovolidou said, adding: “Their conditions of life – right now, in tents, in the sweltering heat – are totally inappropriate. ”

Asylum seekers have already been stranded in the buffer zone, but none for so long. The nearly two-month saga has led human rights organizations to accuse the government of inflating the number of arrivals and generating a climate of fear based on xenophobia and anti-immigration hysteria fueled by the rise of the far-right Elam party.

On an island reliant on a low-skilled workforce, aid organizations argue that it is often foreigners already in Cyprus with student or work visas who seek asylum in an attempt to extend their stay legally.

Corina Drousiotou of the Cypriot Refugee Council says migrants keep the agricultural sector alive. “Despite the fact that the Cypriot economy is heavily dependent on low-skilled foreigners, the vast majority of whom work under difficult conditions with low wages and almost zero rights, there is no political will to properly address these issues,” she declared.

“A complete overhaul of the [asylum] system is needed to ensure dignity and equal rights for all, which in turn will have multiple benefits for many industries and local society.

For Ngo, Djibrilla and Etoundi, the prospect of any job would be welcome. But as temperatures rise above 40C (104F), Cameroonians eagerly await news in the shade of a strip of trees planted along a thin strip of gravel barely three feet wide.

” I am 33 years old. I [deserted] army after 10 years, ”says Etoundi, as Djibrilla plays a horrific video on his cell phone showing beheadings in his country’s conflict. “I can’t stand the [Cameroonian] fight of the separatists, but I had to leave because I did not agree with what the soldiers were asking us to do. If I come back, I will face death.

Cyprus’ interior minister said the case could be resolved if the EU agreed to include the island in a reallocation program.

“I wrote to the European Commission to tell them that we are ready to transfer them to other Member States, but that we have not had a response,” says Nouris. “If that were to happen, it could be so easily resolved. “

Grace, Emil and Daniel’s names have been changed

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