a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press and other media, 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 media.
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 ($11,500), or both.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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 ($57,500), or both.
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 the freedom of assembly but limited freedom of association.
Freedom of Association
In December 2020 the government removed NGO KISA from the registry of associations and froze its bank accounts because KISA had not submitted audited accounts and had not convened a general assembly within the two-month timeframe required by an August 2020 amendment to the law governing NGOs. The General Registrar of Associations rejected KISA’s request for an extension, stating it did not have the authority to grant extensions and that discretionary extensions would violate the principle of equal treatment. While KISA was not alone in facing this compliance enforcement – approximately 2,400 mostly defunct and inactive associations were similarly deregistered – human rights defenders asserted the Ministry of Interior was particularly inflexible on KISA’s appeals for a deadline extension given the contentious history between KISA and the ministry. International human rights watchdogs, including the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights and Amnesty International, criticized the move. On March 31, five UN Human Rights Office special rapporteurs issued a joint communication addressed to the government expressing grave concern regarding the deteriorating environment for civil society organizations, citing the 2020 amendment to the Law on Associations and the deregistration of KISA. Noting Minister of Interior Nicos Nouris’s earlier potentially defamatory accusations against KISA, the rapporteurs suggested the NGO had been targeted for its work supporting migrants and combating racial discrimination and xenophobia. Calling the suspension or dissolution of an association the severest form of restriction on freedom of association, the rapporteurs asserted such action should only be taken when a flagrant violation of law results in clear and imminent danger to the public. On June 10, the Administrative Court rejected KISA’s appeal to reverse its delisting.
Citing its deregistration as a legal NGO – and despite KISA’s assertions it was registered as a not-for-profit company and could continue to operate legally – authorities denied KISA access to migrant reception centers. At year’s end KISA’s bank account remained frozen, negatively impacting its capacity to operate, implement EU-funded projects, provide services to migrants and refugees, and advocate for their rights. KISA laid off its employees, relying on volunteers to continue limited operations, and, at year’s end faced eviction for being unable to pay rent and utilities for its premises. Citing the presence of a KISA representative, Minister of Interior Nouris refused to appear before the House of Representatives Human Rights Committee on September 20 to discuss the treatment of a pregnant Syrian asylum seeker and her family (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees). The ombudsman turned down a Council of Europe recommendation to include KISA in a national campaign against hate speech saying KISA was not recognized by the government.
f. Protection of Refugees
UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations reported difficulty in cooperating with the government to provide protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Three Cameroonians became stranded in the buffer zone on May 24 after attempting to cross into Republic of Cyprus-controlled territory from the area under Turkish Cypriot administration. According to UNHCR and NGOs, police at the Ledra Palace crossing, where the Cameroonians presented themselves to apply for asylum, received instructions from the government not to accept their applications. In October, one of the three Cameroonians appeared at Pournara reception center and applied for asylum. The other two remained in the buffer zone until early December, continuing to live in tents and subsisting on food provided by UNHCR and diplomatic missions. During a December 2-4 visit, Pope Francis arranged to take 50 asylum seekers, including the two Cameroonians, to Italy under a special humanitarian program. They travelled to the Vatican on December 16. Apart from this case, NGOs did not receive complaints that other asylum seekers were denied access to the asylum process.
Due to a significant increase in asylum claims in recent years and long delays in the examination of applications, 18,322 asylum claims were pending as of November 30 – approximately the same number as at the end of 2020. The Asylum Service, the ombudsman, UNHCR, and NGOs reported some accelerated examination of asylum applications, but the 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 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 of the previous system and that its decisions were fair, but the process was slow and a backlog of 7,000 appeals pending adjudication remained at year’s end.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: In May 2020 the government published a list of 21 safe countries of return with the aim of examining all applications from safe countries under accelerated procedures. As of August the list included 28 countries: Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Bangladesh, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Georgia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Pakistan, Philippines, Senegal, Serbia, Sri Lanka, The Gambia, Togo, Tunisia, Ukraine (not including the areas of Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk), and Vietnam.
Refoulement: Media outlets, NGOs, and UNHCR reported that authorities continued pushing back boats carrying irregular migrants, including potential asylum seekers. In a March 10 letter to Minister of Interior Nouris, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner stated she had “received a number of reports indicating that boats carrying migrants, including persons who may be in need of international protection, have been prevented from disembarking in Cyprus, and summarily returned, sometimes violently, without any possibility for their passengers to access the asylum procedure.” From January to August authorities pushed back to Lebanon a total of five boats carrying Syrians. UNHCR and NGOs reported many of these individuals faced “chain” refoulement, as they were subsequently deported from Lebanon back to Syria. In a December 30 Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations operation in Cyprus, Secretary-General Guterres confirmed that “pushbacks at sea increased during the reporting period,” July-December, “resulting in eight confirmed cases of collective refoulement and one person missing at sea.” NGOs and media outlets reported that irregular migrants, including women and children, were left at sea between two to five days, in high temperatures and with limited supplies. On May 16, authorities pushed back to Lebanon a boat carrying 56 individuals. On June 25, they pushed back a boat with 58 persons, and on July 25, pushed back a boat with 85 persons.
Maritime Police intercepted two boats carrying irregular migrants on August 22. UNHCR and NGO contacts reported both vessels departed from Lebanon and all individuals on board were Syrian nationals. The first boat, reportedly intercepted seven miles off Cape Greco, carried 69 persons. A second, carrying 19, was intercepted near Paralimni. According to media reports, five occupants of the boat jumped overboard as the Maritime Police approached. Four were rescued but a fifth, wearing a mask, flippers, and life preserver, reportedly swam to shore, where authorities were unable to locate him. UNHCR and NGO contacts reported a pregnant woman was separated from her family and transferred to shore, where she spent the night on a wooden bench. Authorities took her and an ill man to the hospital the next day, but chartered a vessel, and, under police escort, returned 85 of the 88 individuals to Lebanon, including the pregnant woman’s husband and two young children. The woman and her newborn were later transferred to Kofinou reception center for asylum seekers. NGOs, UNHCR, and the leader of the main opposition party made public statements requesting the government allow her family to join her. UNHCR stated the government was bound by EU law and international convention to abide by the principle of family unity.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: NGOs reported that some Social Welfare Service officers and police subjected asylum seekers to racist verbal abuse. The NGO KISA reported six cases of attacks against asylum seekers by security personnel at Social Welfare Services premises. On November 2, KISA made a formal complaint to the Independent Authority Investigating Complaints Against the Police that in all six cases, police failed to investigate, and in one case, police used excessive force against the complainants. On August 11, police officers of the Crime Investigation Unit were called to resolve an altercation between two Nigerian female asylum seekers and a local couple that had rented an apartment to them. The couple reportedly refused to allow them to move in after payment of two-months’ rent. The asylum seekers reported one police officer physically attacked them, grabbing one by the hair and pulling her out of the apartment. The same officer reportedly returned and grabbed the other woman by the neck, kicked her, and shouted “I will kill you.”
In an incident at the Lakatamia Welfare Office on October 18, KISA reported an asylum seeker waiting for several hours with her 11-month-old child for a scheduled appointment with her case worker was pushed and grabbed by the neck by a security guard. The asylum seeker told KISA she recorded the incident on her mobile phone and went to Lakatamia Police station to file a report. After seeing the video, police reportedly told her she was responsible because she touched the security guard. In a separate incident at the same welfare office, KISA reported a security guard used excessive force against a female asylum seeker on October 20. Police responded to the scene in response to a call from the asylum seeker and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital to treat her fractured leg. The asylum seeker told KISA that police at the scene refused to take her report, citing a need for a translator although they spoke to her in English. The government’s policy was to minimize the length of detention of irregular migrants. If unable to execute a court-ordered deportation order within 18 months, the government is required to release detained migrants and provide a temporary residency permit. 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 an asylum seeker from Kazakhstan was detained in 2019 for reasons of national security and continued to remain in detention at year’s end, despite Kazakh authorities withdrawing the Interpol notice that led to his arrest.
Freedom of Movement: The government restricted the exit of asylum seekers from the Pournara Migrant Reception Center in Kokkinotrimithia until March 2 as part of the country-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The restrictions resulted in severe overcrowding, with the center at times reaching nearly double its 1,000-person capacity.
NGOs and the ombudsman reported improved conditions for asylum seekers residing in the main compound of Pournara reception center. Increased arrivals and slow processing of applicants resulted in severe overcrowding of the center most of the year (see section 1.d., Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees). The Cyprus Refugee Council reported that the average stay at the center for processing was 30 days. The ombudsman reported that many improvements were implemented during the year, including the lifting of exit restrictions and the transfer of residents with vulnerabilities to accommodations outside the center. CARITAS reported that vulnerable asylum seekers transferred from Pournara to Social Welfare Services accommodations before their applications were processed were often unable to return to the center to complete their asylum process because of inadequate public transportation links to the center. As a result, many of these individuals did not have access to benefits for months.
Employment: Authorities allowed asylum seekers whose cases were awaiting adjudication to work after a one-month waiting period. In October the Ministry of Labor, pressured by the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and employers struggling with severe labor shortages, amended the process for employment of asylum seekers to allow employers to hire asylum seekers immediately, without waiting for approval of the contract by authorities. This effectively accelerated the permit process for the employment of asylum seekers from four to six months to one day, overcoming a significant hurdle that previously discouraged employers from employing asylum seekers.
During the year the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance received 3,279 applications for asylum seeker labor contracts, and by year’s end had approved 3,199 applications and rejected 80.
Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees had 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 continued to report 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 continued for part of the year to contain the spread of COVID-19, and 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.
NGOs reported long delays and inconsistencies in the delivery of welfare benefits to asylum seekers and payment of rent to landlords that in some cases led to evictions. The ombudsman reported that several complaints concerning the delivery of welfare support were resolved after her office mediated with the Ministry of Labor. An NGO reported exceptionally long delays of more than six months in Limassol and Paphos districts that left beneficiaries with only an emergency stipend of 100 euros ($115) per month. In March 2020 the Council of Ministers abolished the coupon system for welfare support provided to asylum seekers and replaced it with direct payments. In October 2020 the Social Welfare Services began printing and mailing benefit checks to asylum seekers or paying welfare benefits directly into beneficiaries’ accounts, in accordance with the new system. NGOs continued to complain that many asylum seekers lacked reliable, stable mailing addresses and the ability to cash checks, and noted that banks were 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. The Ministry of Labor reported that it examined the reasons an asylum seeker declined a job offer, and if found valid, benefits remained in place.
Durable Solutions: The government offered recognized refugee status to 249 asylum seekers residing in the country and in collaboration with the International Organization of Migration assisted 274 migrants in their voluntary return to their homes.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who might not qualify as refugees. The government provided subsidiary protection status for citizens or residents of Syria who entered the country legally but only some who entered illegally. All persons seeking such status were required to provide a Syrian passport or other identification. Authorities granted subsidiary protection to 1,866 persons during the year.