A a few months after Grace Ngo flew to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus from her native Cameroon, she decided to head “west”. The smugglers directed the student in the direction of the Venetian walls that cut through the heart of Nicosia, the last divided capital of Europe.
Just before midnight on May 24th, NGO has moved from the Turkish Cypriot separatist republic to what it hoped would be the internationally recognized south of the war-torn Greek island.
“I just said ‘God protect me,'” the 24-year-old recalled, describing the jump that instead landed her in the UN patrolled buffer zone, where she has been stuck ever since. “The walls were so high. I hurt my leg a lot but I was desperate for the west ”.
Daniel Djibrilla and Emil Etoundi, two other asylum seekers from the Anglophone minority of Cameroon, were in the same spot that night, equally drawn to the bright lights of the European metropolis beyond. Like Ngo, who says she would not have made the trip had she not been abused, both cited Cameroon’s civil war as a reason to leave home.
“We jumped from there,” said Etoundi, a former soldier, pointing to the ceasefire line that divided the ethnically divided island since the 1974 invasion of Turkey after a coup to unite Cyprus with Greece. “We had no idea this 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 UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but live in tents and at the mercy of the good will of others.
At the height of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Cyprus remained relatively little visited by displaced people, as most traveled to Europe via Turkey and the Aegean islands.
That changed in 2018 when traffickers started seeing the EU’s easternmost state as an easy drop-off.
On May 21, the Anastasiades administration declared a state of emergency, with officials saying the Mediterranean island faced insurmountable pressures due to the constant arrivals. It came after Cyprus was censored by a human rights watchdog amid allegations of illegal push-backs of migrants into the sea.
At the end of 2020, almost 20,000 asylum applications were pending, according to the Greek Cypriot authorities. A record 13,648 people applied for protection in 2019. More than 5,000 applications were submitted in the first six months of 2021, more than half of the total in 2020.
Cyprus has the highest per capita number of first-time asylum seekers 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 the EU summit in Slovenia on Thursday. “All the [reception] the centers are full and we simply do not have the capacity to receive more. If we want to talk about solidarity and responsibility, we must stand alongside Member States on the front line such as Cyprus, which is the first country to welcome asylum seekers ”.
According to Nouris, most migrants entering southern Greece are smuggled illegally through Turkey and areas of Cyprus over which the republic has no control.
With smuggling networks exploiting partition, Nouris said there are real fears of opening a new front on an island where migrants arrive both by boat and along the entire 110-mile ceasefire line. (180 km).
“We have to be very careful not to open a new passage,” he says. “It’s not a matter of three people – it would be ridiculous when so many come. But if I accept these three people, then [such crossings] will be the next common practice. They will arrive by the thousands… Turkey will put them on buses and send them to checkpoints ”.
The difficult situation of the Cameroonians has illuminated the harsh position of a government which, like Greece, feels abandoned by Europe in matters of migration.
“They have the right to have their asylum applications examined,” says UN refugee agency spokesperson Emilia Strovolidou, explaining that the trio were taken back to no man’s land after approaching a patrol unit. United Nations and went to the nearest Greek Cypriot checkpoint.
“This is a clear case of people seeking international protection and we have made a series of interventions with the competent authorities to allow them to access the procedure”.
Cyprus is “obliged by international, EU and national law” to process asylum requests and give people access to decent conditions in reception centers, Strovolidou said, adding: “Their living conditions – at this moment, in the curtains, in the sweltering heat – they are totally unsuitable. ”
Asylum seekers have been stuck in the buffer zone before, but none for that 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.
On an island dependent on low-skilled labor, humanitarian organizations argue that foreigners already in Cyprus with work or study visas often seek asylum in an attempt to legally extend their stays.
Corina Drousiotou of the Cyprus Refugee Council says migrants keep the agricultural sector alive. “Despite the fact that Cyprus’s economy is heavily dependent on low-skilled foreigners, the vast majority of whom work in difficult conditions with low wages and near-zero rights, there is no political will to adequately address these problems,” he says .
“A complete review of the [asylum] system is necessary to guarantee dignity and equal rights to all, which in turn will have multiple benefits for many industries and local society ”.
For Ngo, Djibrilla and Etoundi, the prospect of any work would be welcome. But as temperatures exceed 40 ° C (104 ° F), Cameroonians are left eagerly awaiting news in the shade of a thin strip of trees planted along a strip of gravel.
“I’m 33 [deserted] the army after 10 years, ”says Etoundi, as Djibrilla plays a gruesome video on his cell phone showing the beheadings in his country’s conflict. “I don’t support the [Cameroonian] struggle of separatists, but I had to leave because I did not agree with what the military was asking us to do. If I come back, I will face death. “
Cyprus’s interior minister says the case could be resolved if the EU agrees to include the island in a reallocation program.
“I wrote to the European Commission, saying we are ready to move them to other Member States, but I have not received a reply,” says Nouris. “If that were to happen, this could be solved so easily.”
The surnames of Grace, Emil and Daniel have been changed
[ https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jul/17/no-mans-land-three-people-seeking-asylum-stuck-in-cypruss-buffer-zone https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214746/a-quiet-place-part-2-bigs-16.pdf