Clashes broke out between migrants at the overcrowded Pournaras reception facility in Cyprus on Friday. According to Al Jazeera, refugees from Nigeria and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo – two of the major migrant groups on the island – threw rocks and other objects at each other, and police reported that fires started at the reception centre, 22km west of Nicosia. Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire, but the clashes continued throughout the day. Many of the asylum seekers were forced to flee the facility in panic. 20 people were injured.
“I follow what is happening in Pournaras with disappointment and anger. This is how every Cypriot citizen feels today,” presidential candidate Averof Neophytou said. “Our country has assumed much greater responsibilities and obligations than it deserves. And the least we expect is elementary respect. We will continue to offer hospitality and protection to those who really need it. But there are limits that have been crossed. And our tolerance will be zero towards those who do not respect the laws, order and especially the citizens of the country that hosts them.”
Neophytou’s assertion that “every” Cypriot is concerned about the migrants’ behavior seems to have some truth to it. The island’s natural-born residents feel insecure, reporting crimes and drug use among the refugees. The local citizens even organized a protest against the irregular migrants in July.
The worries stem from Cyprus’s struggle to manage the flow of migrants from Syria and Africa: the island’s two facilities are sheltering well over their capacity. Currently, around 70,000 asylum seekers live in the country, 17,000 of which arrived this year alone through illegal channels. However, authorities believe that the number of refugees could be twice as high.
The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for handling the challenge of housing these people, appealed for help from U.N. officials earlier this month, but this appeal was not able to prevent the disaster at Pournaras. Following the clashes, the Ministry’s permanent secretary argued that the government was out of options regarding the influx of irregular migrants.
Cyprus’s problems are unique amongst Europe’s refugee-taking countries. Most asylum seekers reach the island by crossing a buffer zone which separates it from the area controlled by Turkey. Sending the illegal migrants back to this northern region on the basis that they crossed a “first safe country” would suggest that Cyprus recognizes the occupied buffer zone as an independent state, which is not the case. The best way to regulate the influx of migrants would be to co-operate with the Turkish Cypriots allowing the refugees to cross the border. A more controlled border crossing would limit overcrowding, potentially decreasing the risk of other clashes.
Overcrowding reception centres poses a high risk of conflict, but even if Cyprus has the resources, only a limited number of people can receive support. Therefore, the government needs to urgently seek better strategies to address the influx of asylum seekers in order to prevent more clashes. External assistance will help Cyprus to better cope with the many new people who have arrived.
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