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 Speech: 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 ($12,000), or both.
Freedom of 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 ($60,000), or both.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. In 2019 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.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that some Social Welfare Service officers and judges subjected asylum seekers to racist verbal abuse. On April 28, the NGO KISA reported that security personnel at the Social Welfare Services office in Lakatamia physically attacked two asylum seekers and an infant child who had visited the office to inquire about the delay in receiving their food coupons and rent subsidy. The Ministry of Labor reported the incident to the police and asked the private company providing security services to transfer the security guard involved from Social Welfare Services office. The security guard was charged and the case was pending trial at year’s end.
In June UNCHR reported three unaccompanied minors at Kokkinotrimithia reception center renewed their claim that they were sexually harassed by adult residents of the center. The minors reported they were touched inappropriately while waiting in line for food or medical examinations and that adults violated their privacy while showering. The commissioner for the protection of the child, the ombudsman, members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Human Rights, and UNHCR criticized the government for keeping unaccompanied minors in the reception center until their age could be verified. The Asylum Service reported in September that according to its investigation the sexual harassment complaints were unfounded. It did, however, acknowledge it was a mistake and inappropriate to keep those who claimed they were unaccompanied minors with the general population. As a result the Asylum Service established a “safe zone” in the camp for persons claiming to be unaccompanied minors until their age could be verified. The Ministry of Labor reported that Social Welfare Services transferred two of the minors to a shelter for unaccompanied minors and the third to his sister’s house. Authorities referred the cases to the Children’s House, a multidisciplinary government center providing services to victims of child sexual abuse. According to the Ministry of Labor, two of the children interviewed by the center’s specialists did not report that they had been sexually harassed at the center. The third minor did not report sexual harassment and refused to be interviewed.
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.
Refoulement: On March 20, marine police directed a boat carrying 115 Syrians to leave Republic of Cyprus territorial waters and return to Syria. Authorities cited COVID-related entry restrictions as the justification. The boat eventually capsized in waters under Turkish Cypriot administration, and Turkish Cypriot authorities deported the Syrians to Turkey. On June 4, a boat reportedly carrying 30 Syrians attempted to enter the country and was pushed back by marine police. The vessel eventually landed in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration. The Syrian passengers reportedly crossed irregularly into the government-controlled area. A third pushback of a boat reportedly carrying 10 Syrians was reported in late July. It also landed in the north and its passengers crossed irregularly into the government-controlled area. Between September 1 and 8, police pushed back six more boats arriving from Lebanon. According to UNHCR, government authorities kept two additional boats, reportedly carrying Syrian nationals, at sea for days. NGOs reported that passengers that came ashore on vessels from Lebanon were not given the opportunity to submit asylum claims. Instead they were immediately quarantined and quickly deported. NGOs claimed some asylum seekers were tricked into boarding buses they believed were going to a hospital, only to be taken to the port and deported on government-chartered vessels.
As of September 8, authorities reportedly deported a total of 115 persons who had arrived by boat from Lebanon. On September 9, a Ministry of Interior spokesperson stated that government officials had boarded the boats and verified the passengers were not asylum seekers but economic migrants. The ministry therefore decided to send them back to Lebanon. A UNHCR spokesperson responded on September 9 that UNCHR was not given access to the passengers of the boats that were pushed back and was therefore not in a position to verify that the passengers did not ask for asylum.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. On March 16, however, the government suspended asylum processing procedures as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Registration of asylum applications resumed in late May. UNHCR and NGOs reported the suspension left many asylum seekers, including vulnerable populations, homeless and without benefits. The ombudsman received one official complaint from an asylum seeker who arrived on March 11 that authorities refused to accept the asylum seeker’s application, citing COVID-19 measures and that their passport had expired. The ombudsman’s investigation continued at year’s end.
Due to a significant increase in asylum claims in recent years and long delays in the examination of applications, more than 18,700 asylum claims were pending examination as of the end of September. The Asylum Service, the ombudsman, UNHCR, and NGOs reported some accelerated examination of asylum applications but the existing backlog remained and delays persisted in the appeals process. The government, UNHCR, and NGOs agreed that a significant proportion of registered asylum claims were not credible. In June 2019 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 duration of appeals.
Freedom of Movement: The government temporarily converted the two reception centers for asylum seekers in Kokkinotrimithia and Kofinou into closed centers with restricted entry and exit as part of the country-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The closure sparked a series of protests by camp residents in Kokkinotrimithia, a center designed to hold asylum seekers no more than 72 hours, who demanded to be allowed to freely exit. While movement restrictions were eased at Kofinou on May 21, entry and exit to Kokkinotrimithia remained restricted due to an outbreak of scabies. On May 27, UNHCR reported the decision effectively confined some 773 asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable persons, to the camp while only two residents were actually treated for scabies.
Media and NGOs reported unsanitary and harsh conditions for some asylum seekers, with insufficient food and lack of basic hygiene facilities, soap, and electricity. On April 23, after a visit to Kofinou and Kokkinotrimithia reception centers, the ombudsman reported that some of the newly installed tents at Kokkinotrimithia were placed on dirt that turned into mud after a heavy rainfall and some did not have electricity. She recommended opening of the centers as soon as pandemic conditions allowed, resumption of asylum procedures, and expediting the interviews of those who claimed to be minors to ensure no minors were left in temporary reception facilities.
There were several reports of arbitrary arrest and detentions of asylum seekers, including the May detention and confinement of 67 asylum seekers reported by the UNHCR (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest or Detention).
Several NGOs reported concerns about deteriorating conditions at the Pournara Migrant Reception Center in Kokkinotrimithia in October and November. The pandemic’s effect on the economy impacted camp residents, and while asylum seekers were free to leave once processed during that time period, many chose not to because they could not find jobs or afford outside accommodation. Adding to the hardship, according to NGOs and government officials, the Social Welfare Service was not functioning effectively, leaving many without basic necessities such as access to food, rent subsidies, or healthcare. UNHCR reported some asylum seekers stay at the center for months.
In November the center reported operating near capacity with 549 total residents, including 52 children. A total of 37 migrants had tested positive for COVID, and 260 residents were confined to the quarantine section of the camp. New arrivals had slowed during the period of April to June when flights to the country were halted or reduced, but from September through early November, the center had processed an average of 20 arrivals per day.
The ombudsman made an unannounced visit on December 4 and issued a report on December 10 with a set of recommendations, including 1) the immediate release of 200 residents who meet the established conditions to leave; 2) the immediate transfer of 13 unaccompanied minors, being held on the basis of COVID mitigation protocols, to other appropriate facilities; 3) the creation of a safe zone for unaccompanied minors in quarantine; 4) an immediate vulnerability assessment of all individuals in the center and transfer of vulnerable persons to other facilities; 5) institution of a preliminary medical screening for all asylum seekers upon admission into the center; 6) speeding up efforts for the establishment of a second, specially designed accommodation facility outside the center to transfer any COVID-19 positive asylum seekers in the center; and 7) immediately transferring individuals who complete 14 days in the quarantine area and test negative for COVID-19 to the main area of the center.
Employment: Authorities allowed asylum seekers whose cases were awaiting adjudication to work after a one-month waiting period. In May 2019 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. NGOs and press reported refugees and asylum seekers lost jobs due to the long-term closure of many establishments in the tourism and hospitality sectors due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Prior to the pandemic, many were already dealing with tenuous financial situations and had difficulties finding and maintaining employment due to limited access to the labor market, lack of skills or education, and the lack of social capital and networks.
There were reports of racism by Labor Department officers who met with valid residency applicants seeking a contract of employment. During the year the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance received 2,771 labor contracts applications for asylum seekers and by year’s end had approved 2,269 and rejected 54. 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. 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, the 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.
Emergency measures introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19 included restrictions on freedom of movement, social distancing requirements, and limits on gatherings, as well as the closure of public spaces and certain businesses, government institutions, and facilities. NGOs and UNHCR reported that these actions had personal, public, economic, and social implications on the human rights and living conditions of refugees and asylum seekers. Primarily these included prolonged detention at overcrowded government reception facilities in poor conditions (see “Freedom of Movement” above); the loss of jobs and livelihoods (see “Employment” above); restrictions in access to healthcare; adverse mental health impacts; delays in social welfare payments; a lack of access to technology, education and personal development opportunities; delays in asylum and migration procedures; and limited access to the legal and judicial systems.
The ombudsman received several complaints concerning the delivery of welfare support and has requested the views of the Ministry of Labor on the matter. NGOs reported that during the lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended housing subsidies provided to asylum seekers who were reportedly forcibly removed from their rented accommodations and transferred to the Kokkinotrimithia reception center. An unspecified number of asylum seekers accommodated by the government in hotels were also moved to Kokkinotrimithia, which the government temporarily turned into a closed reception center for the duration of the restrictions (April 8 to June 15).
UNHCR, NGOs, and asylum seekers reported delays and inconsistencies in the delivery of benefits. On March 18, the Council of Ministers abolished the coupon system for welfare support provided to asylum seekers and replaced it with direct payments. In previous years the ombudsman and NGOs reported that 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. In October the Social Welfare Service began printing and mailing benefit checks to asylum seekers or paying welfare benefits directly into beneficiaries’ accounts, in accordance with the new system. NGOs complained that many asylum seekers lack reliable, stable mailing addresses and the ability to cash checks, and noted that banks are unwilling or reluctant to open accounts for asylum seekers. Homeless asylum seekers faced difficulties in opening a bank account without a valid address.
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. The Ministry of Labor reported that it examines the reasons an asylum seeker declined a job offer and if found valid, benefits remain in place.
In May 2019 the Council of Ministers introduced a series of changes to improve the housing condition of asylum seekers. It approved an increase, effective June 1, 2019, 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.
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 1,209 persons during the first nine months of the year.