Report: The Impact of COVID-19 on Refugees, Migrants, and Asylum Seekers in the Republic of Cyprus

Project Phoenix is currently conducting a three-part systemic analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers (RMAs) in Cyprus, in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Stifung (FES) and the Justice Project

This is a summary of the findings from Part I, which provides an overview of events and localised impacts and will be published shortly. The team is now embarking on Part II, which includes a detailed multi-city survey and interviews with RMAs, and offers in-person insight into the magnitude and personal effects of these impacts. 

As of September 29, 2020, the Cyprus Ministry of Health’s records indicate that Cyprus has seen 1,743 COVID cases and 29 deaths associated with the disease since its first documented case on March 9, 2020. Cyprus, like many other countries in Europe and around the globe, introduced emergency measures to contain the spread of the virus. These measures included restrictions on the freedom of movement, the closure of public institutions and facilities, as well as social and physical distancing requirements, inter alia

These precautionary measures put in place have had personal, public, economic, legal, and social implications on the human rights and living conditions of refugees, migrants, and asylum Seekers (RMAs) in Cyprus. Primarily, these have included arbitrary detention at overcrowded facilities in poor conditions, the loss of personal freedoms, jobs and livelihoods, restrictions in access to healthcare and mental health impacts, delays in receiving social welfare benefits, a lack of access to skills training and professional development opportunities and finally, a lack of access to the legal and migration systems and legal aid.

Access to Information 

Access to clear, comprehensible and actionable information for RMAs with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic was limited in the early months of the pandemic, given the rapidly evolving epidemiological situation and the often haphazard nature of the initial official messaging, in languages that many RMAs were unfamiliar with. 

At the outset, official COVID-19 information was limited to television channels and government websites that were not user-friendly and required RMAs to navigate complicated menus and actively search for information, rather than have it presented to them. Unfortunately, this continues to be the current reality, with many RMAs relying on social media, local human rights and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and international sources for updates.

The real world impacts of the pandemic

The dedicated COVID-19 informational hot lines setup for the pandemic have had a limited effect in the context of RMAs so far. There have been documented cases of RMAs calling the hotlines and being unable to communicate with telephone operators. This has resulted in a situation where RMAs have been unaware of legal requirements, health advisories and warnings and had limited understanding of the severity and nature of the disease.

This has been partly ameliorated by the work of the Cyprus Refugee Council, KISA, Caritas Cyprus, and the the Dignity Center Nicosia and other local organizations which have filled the gap by providing additional translations of advisories, warnings, information posters, and mandates, publishing these on their websites and sharing them on social media and viaSMS, Whatsapp, Viber and other messaging platforms.

While there have been certain improvements made, including clearer instructions in multiple languages on the governmental COVID-19 website and attempts to reach out to wider communities of RMAs through the use of multilingual posters, experts we interviewed suggested that an information gap continues to exist and should additional restrictions be imposed, there is a chance that RMAs will be caught unawares again.

The normally bustling Ledra Street in Nicosia was eerily empty during lockdown

The Impact of Movement Restrictions

On March 23, 2020, the Ministry of Health issued a decree which ordered the closure of all public gathering spaces, including parks, beaches, and places of worship, introduced a two-metre social distancing requirement, prohibited all unnecessary movements outside of the home, and required individuals to ask for permission from the government through an SMS texting system to leave their house.

Effective March 31, 2020, the government instituted a full lock-down on movement, with a curfew in place between 9:00pm and 6:00am, restricting movements outside home to once-a-day and the closure of most non-essential services and businesses. A month later, the curfew was shortened from 10:00pm to 6:00am, as part of the government’s relaxation in policy, which also allowed people to leave their home up to three times a day, with the messaging procedure still in place until May 21, 2020.

The messaging procedure required that non-Cypriots provide either an Alien Registration Number (ARC) or a foreign passport or ID number and that they carry these documents with them when they leave their home – documents which many RMAs did not have in their possession. Additionally, many RMAs were simply unable to navigate the complicated messaging rules, which were issued initially only in Greek and English. 

Our interviews with RMAs and case workers at humanitarian organisations suggested that the SMS regime was initially extremely challenging and often led to situations where RMAs were fined or moved around in breach of the rules, given the confusing instructions and on occasions when the 8998 number wasn’t operational. Though the Cyprus Refugee Council was quick to provide an in-house translation of the SMS procedure in multiple languages, filling the gap that the government created by issuing instructions initially only in Greek and English, the UNHCR was the first to share officially translated instructions from the government for the SMS procedure in multiple languages, on April 7, 2020 – a full fortnight after the initial restrictions were put in place.

The government mandates also prohibited anyone from entering or leaving reception or detention centres and camps, unless they were new arrivals. Specific permission from the Ministry of Interior was required to allow humanitarian or medical aid into the centres, as well as for residents to travel to and from work. These centres already faced overcrowding, making it nearly impossible to socially distance. Complicating matters further, the police under the instructions of the Ministry of Interior, rounded up several dozen RMAs in downtown Nicosia in April and May 2020, moving them to the Pournara Camp, leading to complaints of forcible detention and severe overcrowding

A volunteer medical doctor we interviewed, who is a regular at the Kofinou Camp, stated that the conditions are severely cramped across all camps on the island, with limited resources for sanitation, intensifying the risk of infection, not only with respect to COVID-19, but also with other diseases. While the situation has significantly improved in the past weeks, with many people who were forcibly detained now being let out, any further movement restrictions will run the risk of the same negative impacts.

Playgrounds and public spaces were closed to all

COVID-19 Testing and Health Impacts

In general, people across the country had difficulty gaining access to COVID-19 tests. Given the disparities in access to healthcare (recognised refugees and some categories of legal migrants can use the National Health Service (GESY) but asylum seekers and irregular migrants only have access to emergency healthcare), RMAs had almost no access to COVID-19 testing, except the new arrivals in the camps.

Initially, only individuals with symptoms or those who were found through contact tracing were able to access a COVID-19 test. Later, once private laboratories offered tests, anyone had the option of paying for a test which cost 110 EUR initially before being reduced to maximum 85 EUR in the following weeks. Due to the high cost of the test and the potential need of a translator, many RMAs were excluded from the testing regime.

Access to regular health care and medical treatment for RMAs was also limited during the COVID-19 lockdown. Across the country, physicians and outpatient hospital departments were closed to walk-ins, with the exception of emergency cases. RMAs we spoke to suggested that this significantly impacted their treatment for other health and chronic conditions they were suffering from. They also said that they had suffered mental health setbacks in the past months, with increased anxiety due to the pandemic situation, loss of their livelihoods, and delays in receiving their social benefits. 

The healthcare situation continues to be problematic for RMAs who do not have access to GESY and their level of healthcare access has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Delays in Asylum and Migration Procedures

Following the institution of the lockdown in late March 2020, RMAs had no access to migration offices, lawyers or the asylum process as many government offices functioned with skeletal staff or were closed to the public until June 2020. New arrivals could not lodge their applications for asylum, leaving them stranded and without necessary legal protection. While interviews that had already been conducted continued to be processed and national and appellate courts continued to receive legal aid applications and appeals, all other proceedings, with the exception of urgent cases, were suspended. 

An asylum seeker we interviewed, who had lost their ARC in March 2020, was unable to get a replacement till late May 2020. They were initially confined to their house and later used a photocopy as an ad-hoc proof of ID to leave home. 

While the situation has improved since the early summer, as of September 2020, the temporary closures have only added to the waiting time, compounding the misery of many asylum seekers, some of whom have been waiting for years for a decision. Currently, asylum decisions in Cyprus take on average between 36 and 60 months.

Economic Impact

The negative economic impact of COVID-19 on RMAs continues to be significant due to the loss of jobs and livelihoods, and difficulties re-entering the labour market after the lockdown. RMAs we spoke to in Nicosia and Paphos reported losing their jobs due to the long-term closure of many establishments that employed RMAs in the tourism, catering, and accommodation sectors.

Prior to the pandemic, many RMAs were already dealing with tenuous financial situations and had difficulties finding and maintaining employment due to their limited access to the labour market, lack of skills or education, and the lack of social capital and networks. 

Some RMAs we spoke to suggested that they continue to be in dire financial need and are still experiencing delays in receiving their social welfare and housing benefits. Many RMAs reported that they received their benefits for April and May 2020 at the end of June 2020, though it seems that the Social Welfare office has been able to rectify the situation for most, as things stand.

The economic impact on RMAs was further exacerbated during the lockdown due to the limited access they had to banks and the banking system. Given the long lines and crowding limitations, RMAs struggled to withdraw funds from their accounts and execute rent payments, due to the fact that a majority do not bank online and make use of physical bank branches.

Personal Development Impacts

Education is one of the most effective means to combat financial insecurity and to work towards a better future. It is predicted that COVID-19 will have a catastrophic impact on refugee education, which was already inaccessible for so many. In Cyprus, the law provides access to primary and secondary education for the children of RMAs. However, it is difficult to assess how many may have fallen through the cracks, due to the pandemic. 

Recognised refugees with international or temporary protection status and some categories of migrants can attend State Institutes of Further Education in Cyprus, for personal development and skills training. Asylum seekers and those migrants who do not speak Greek or Turkish have to pay out-of-pocket for private training opportunities, or attend those provided by NGOs and EU-funded projects, for free.

With the onset of the pandemic, many organizations had to halt their in-person classes and trainings, leaving many RMAs without access to skills development and education. Since the height of the pandemic, organizations have worked to fill this gap by moving classes online and creating in-person learning environments with fewer students and increased social distancing protocols. Project Phoenix’s transnational ‘Survival English’ language classes in collaboration with Caritas Cyprus was a notable success in this regard, but a large number of RMAs have lost valuable time in their personal development journeys due to the pandemic.

In conclusion, COVID-19 and the Cypriot government’s ensuing response have accentuated and exacerbated already existing faults in the various systems that shape RMA lives. Difficulties accessing government information, healthcare, legal assistance, and education, as well as poor living conditions in reception centres, harassment by authorities, and financial insecurity were very real challenges for RMAs in Cyprus prior to the pandemic. Now, many have been pushed to their limits and face even more dire circumstances. 

Some of the government’s mandates, although intended to curb the spread of the virus, have instead further marginalized RMAs and put them at increased risk of harm. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has already dramatically reshaped the way we think about the world, perhaps this can be an opportunity to address some of the underlying causes of the issues that RMAs face and systemically change migration systems in ways that offer adequate protection and respect human rights. 

Editors’ note: A previous version of this report stated that the UNHCR was the first to issue a translation of the instructions for the SMS procedure in multiple languages. In fact, however, it was the Cyprus Refugee Council that first began translating these instructions in other languages, and the UNHCR the first to share instructions for the SMS procedure officially translated by the government online.

Sarah Morsheimer, a Researcher at Project Phoenix and Global Law Scholar at Georgetown, is the lead author of Part I of the study. 

Kyriaki Chatzipanagiotou, Tina Mykkanen and Hrishabh Sandilya are the other researchers involved.

Except for the cover photograph, all photographs are by Hrishabh Sandilya.

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