a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: The law criminalizes incitement to hatred and violence based on race, color, religion, genealogical origin, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. Such acts are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,000 euros ($11,000), or both. In August the attorney general ordered police to investigate whether public comments of the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop of Morphou Neophytos regarding homosexuals and women violated any laws. On September 9, the attorney general concurred with the police’s finding that the metropolitan’s remarks did not constitute hate speech nor an attempt to incite violence or hatred because of gender orientation or sexual identity.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
The law penalizes the use of geographical names and toponyms in the country other than those included in the gazetteer the government presented at the 1987 Fifth UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names. According to the law, anyone who publishes, imports, distributes, or sells maps, books, or any other documents in print or digital form that contain geographical names and toponyms on the island other than those permitted, commits an offense punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine of up to 50,000 euros ($55,000), or both.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
The law criminalizes the use of computer systems to incite and promote racism, xenophobia, prejudice, racial discrimination, hate speech, and violence. Such acts are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 35,000 euros ($38,500), or both.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government sometimes prevented visiting foreign academics and artistic groups from attending conferences or performing in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, in accordance with laws that provide them the right to deny entry to visitors who declare a hotel in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration not originally owned by Turkish Cypriots as the place of stay. In March immigration authorities at Larnaca airport denied entry to a Japanese academic invited by the Eastern Mediterranean University to deliver a series of lectures in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration. The academic reportedly boarded a flight back to Dubai and returned to Cyprus via Tymbou (Ercan) airport, the main airport in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement within government-controlled areas, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The government did not restrict Greek Cypriots from traveling to the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned foreigners against spending the night at Greek Cypriot properties occupied by Turkish Cypriots or Turks, gambling in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, or buying or developing property there. Authorities at ports of entry denied admission to tourists who listed hotels in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots as their intended place of residence during their visit. NGOs reported the government prohibited recognized non-Cypriot refugees with temporary residence status and asylum seekers from crossing to the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, asserting it could not assure their safety in an area not under its control. Local media reported police officers at the crossing points occasionally harassed Greek Cypriots returning from the area under Turkish Cypriot administration.
On June 10, a newspaper reported police officers at Ledra Palace crossing point violently grabbed and handcuffed a Greek Cypriot crossing from the area under Turkish Cypriot administration, despite the fact that he complied with a police request to show identification. The young man was taken to the Lycavitos police station, where he was detained for about an hour before being released. The Independent Authority Investigating Complaints Against the Police was investigating the case at year’s end.
e. Internally Displaced Persons
The government considers Greek Cypriots displaced as a result of the 1974 division of the island to be refugees, although they fell under the UN definition of internally displaced persons (IDPs). As of September there were 235,300 such individuals and their descendants. UNHCR provided assistance to Greek and Turkish Cypriot IDPs from 1974-88, after which it transferred assistance programs to UNFICYP and other UN agencies. Because UNHCR no longer extended assistance to these displaced persons, it officially considered the IDP population to be zero, consistent with UNHCR statistical reporting guidelines. Depending on their income, IDPs were eligible for financial assistance from the government. They were resettled, had access to humanitarian organizations, and were not subject to attack, targeting, or mandatory return under dangerous conditions.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported some Social Welfare Service officers and judges subjected asylum seekers to racist verbal abuse. On May 11, local press published an amateur video showing a security guard at a Social Welfare Services office in Larnaca District physically abusing a Somali asylum seeker. According to a KISA press release, the woman was facing eviction from her home due to long delays in the provision of Social Welfare Services financial assistance. On the day of the incident, a social welfare officer refused her request to meet with her case manager, threw her identity card on the floor, and asked her to leave. When the woman complained, the welfare officer at the reception called the security guard who approached her and grabbed her by the throat. The woman reacted by throwing her wallet at the security guard, who began hitting her repeatedly and pushing her out of the building. KISA reported that when the woman went to the Larnaca Central Police Station, a female police officer told her that she had provoked the security guard and refused to record her complaint. KISA said the security guard had previously physically abused Somali asylum seekers while working at a Social Welfare Services office in Nicosia. The Ministry of Justice stated police took statements from both the woman and the security guard. Police charged the security guard with assault and the woman with assault and creating a disturbance.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to, refugees and asylum seekers. During the year the Asylum Service accepted the secondment of a UNHCR consultant and established a Quality Assurance Unit to ensure the quality of the refugee status-determination procedures. The government did not accept UNHCR’s offer to second officers to Social Welfare Services to help ensure the mandatory vulnerability assessments of asylum applicants were conducted in a timely and comprehensive manner.
The government’s policy was not to hold irregular migrants in detention for long periods and to release them and provide them residency permits if they were not deported within 18 months. An NGO reported immigration authorities pressured migrant detainees to sign a voluntary return consent by threatening them with indefinite detention. The same NGO reported that some asylum seekers were detained for reasons of national security and remained in detention for several months without being informed of the evidence against them.
The ombudsman received complaints of extended detentions of irregular migrants who lacked travel documents or otherwise could not be deported. The ombudsman recommended the release of such detainees and reported that authorities implemented those recommendations in some cases.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
Due to a significant increase in asylum claims in recent years, more than 13,000 asylum claims were pending examination as of July. The Asylum Service, the ombudsman, UNHCR, and NGOs reported long delays in the examination of asylum applications and delays in the examination of appeals against rejections of asylum applications. The government, UNHCR, and local NGOs agreed that a significant proportion of registered asylum claims were not credible. In June the government established an International Protection Administrative Court (IPAC) to streamline the examination of asylum appeals. NGOs reported the establishment of IPAC was an improvement over the previous system, but there was not sufficient data to evaluate its effect on the length of appeals.
Employment: Authorities allowed asylum seekers whose cases were awaiting adjudication to work after a one-month waiting period. In May the Ministry of Labor expanded the number of sectors in which asylum seekers could work to include employment in animal shelters and kennels, night shifts in bakeries and dairies, auto-body paint and repair, garden cleaning, and as kitchen assistants and cleaners in hotels and restaurants. The law previously restricted asylum seekers to employment in fisheries, the production of animal feed, waste management, gas stations and car washes, freight handling in the wholesale trade, building and outdoor cleaning, distribution of advertising and informational materials, and food delivery. In June the ombudsman issued a report highlighting the need to further expand the sectors of employment accessible to asylum seekers.
There were reports of racism by Labor Department officers who met with valid residency applicants seeking a contract of employment. From January 1 to September 17, the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance received and approved 525 labor contracts for asylum seekers. NGOs reported the procedure for employing asylum seekers was slow and costly and discouraged employers from hiring asylum seekers.
Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees have access to public services, such as education, health care, and the courts. Since 2016 the living conditions of asylum seekers deteriorated as the numbers of applicants increased. The only permanent reception center for asylum seekers, located in Kofinou, remained full, and the majority of asylum seekers lacked proper housing. UNHCR and local NGOs noted a high number of asylum seekers faced homelessness and destitution. They reported that many asylum seekers slept in outdoor parks or temporarily stayed with friends, relatives, or strangers, often sleeping on floors without adequate access to hygiene facilities. The growing number of new arrivals, limited supply of affordable accommodations, delays in the provision of government financial support, and the backlog in the examination of asylum applications increased the risk of homelessness, according to local NGOs.
In May the Council of Ministers introduced a series of changes to improve the housing condition of asylum seekers. It approved an increase, effective June 1, in the housing subsidy provided to asylum seekers by Social Welfare Services, established criteria for the number of persons who can reside in a rented establishment based on the number of rooms, and began providing the initial rent deposit directly to the asylum seekers instead of to the landlord. An NGO stated the increase was not sufficient to cover the steep rise in rent prices. The Council of Ministers also authorized continued financial support to asylum seeker families even if a member of the family finds employment, provided that the salary does not exceed the total assistance to which the family is entitled. The ombudsman examined several complaints concerning the delivery of welfare support and concluded that the material support and housing benefits offered to asylum seekers were generally insufficient.
Asylum seekers who refused an available job could be denied state benefits. An NGO reported that mothers with young children and asylum seekers with medical conditions that prevented them from working in the permitted sectors of employment were sometimes refused state benefits. Asylum seekers needed to open a bank account to cash government checks, which was not possible for homeless applicants who lacked a valid address. UNHCR, NGOs, and asylum seekers reported delays and inconsistencies in the delivery of benefits.
The ombudsman and NGOs reported the system of providing welfare support to asylum seekers via coupons did not appropriately accommodate the special needs of vulnerable groups. The coupons could be redeemed only in specific shops that may lack some supplies, were usually more expensive than other grocery stores, and were often inconveniently located. The NGO KISA reported these shops exploited the vulnerable position of asylum seekers and charged up to 20 percent in fees to cash government checks. Although the Council of Ministers lifted restrictions on the types of business that could accept coupons in June, KISA reported the providers remained the same despite the decision.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government provides subsidiary protection status for citizens or residents of Syria who entered the country legally or illegally. All persons seeking such status were required to provide a Syrian passport or other identification. Authorities granted subsidiary protection to 719 persons during the first eight months of the year.