TO A few months after Grace Ngo flew into Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus from her native Cameroon, she decided to head “west.” The smugglers pointed the student in the direction of the Venetian walls that cut through the heart of Nicosia, the last divided capital of Europe.
Shortly before midnight on May 24,Ngo leapt from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic to what he hoped would be the internationally recognized Greek south of the war-torn island.
“I just said ‘God protect me,’” the 24-year-old recalled, describing the jump that took her to the UN-patrolled buffer zone, where she has been stranded ever since. “The walls were so high. I hurt my leg badly, but I was desperate for the west. “
Daniel Djibrilla and Emil Etoundi, two other asylum seekers from Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, were in the same spot that night, equally drawn by the bright lights of the European metropolis beyond. Like Ngo, who says he would not have made the trip had he not been abused, both cited Cameroon’s civil war as the reason for leaving home.
“We jump from there,” says Etoundi, a former soldier, pointing across the ceasefire line that has divided the ethnically divided island since Turkey invaded in 1974 after a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. “We had no idea that this was a no man’s land. I can not believe it “.
Following the refusal of the government of President Nicos Anastasiades to allow them to apply for asylum, the three Cameroonians remain trapped in the buffer zone, protected by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but living in tents and at the mercy of goodwill. of others.
At the height of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Cyprus remained relatively without visits from displaced persons, with the majority heading to Turkey and the Aegean islands en route to Europe.
What changed in 2018, when smugglers began to view the easternmost state of the EU as an easy abandonment.
On May 21, the Anastasiades administration declared a state of emergency, and officials said the Mediterranean island faced insurmountable pressure from continued arrivals. It came after Cyprus was censored by a human rights watchdog amid allegations of illegal returns of migrants at sea.
At the end of 2020, about 20,000 asylum applications were pending, according to the Greek Cypriot authorities. A record 13,648 people applied for protection in 2019. In the first six months of 2021, more than 5,000 claims had been made, more than half of the total in 2020.
Cyprus has the highest per capita number of first-time asylum seekers in the EU, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat.
“We are in a critical situation,” Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told The Guardian ahead of an EU summit in Slovenia on Thursday. “Everyone [reception] the centers are full and we simply do not have the capacity to receive more. If we want to talk about solidarity and responsibility, we have to support front-line member states like Cyprus, which is the country that receives the most asylum seekers ”.
Most of the migrants entering southern Greece are smuggled illegally through Turkey and areas of Cyprus over which the republic has no control, according to Nouris.
With smuggling networks profiting from the partition, Nouris said there were genuine fears that a new front would open on an island where migrants arrive both by boat and along the entire 110-mile (180-mile) ceasefire line. km).
“We have to be very careful not to open a new passage,” he says. “It is not a question of three people, it would be ridiculous when so many come. But if I accept these three people, then [such crossings] will be the next common practice. They will come by the thousands … Turkey will put them on the buses and send them to the checkpoints.
The plight of Cameroonians has highlighted the tough stance of a government that, like Greece, feels abandoned by Europe on migration.
“They have the right to have their asylum applications examined,” says the spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, Emilia Strovolidou, explaining that the trio were returned to no-man’s-land after approaching a patrol unit of the UN and go to the nearest Greek Cypriot checkpoint.
“This is a clear case of people requesting international protection, and we have carried out a series of interventions with the competent authorities in an effort to allow them to access the procedure.”
Cyprus is “bound by national, EU and international law” to process asylum applications and give people access to decent conditions in reception centers, says Strovolidou, adding: “Their living conditions, right now , in tents, in the sweltering heat, they are totally inappropriate. ”
Asylum seekers have been stranded in the buffer zone before, but none for that long. The nearly two-month saga has led human rights organizations to accuse the government of inflating the number of arrivals and generating a climate of fear based on xenophobia and anti-immigration hysteria fueled by the rise of the far-right Elam party.
On an island that relies on unskilled labor, aid organizations contend that it is often foreigners already in Cyprus on student or work visas who apply for asylum in an attempt to legally extend their stays.
Corina Drousiotou, from the Cyprus Refugee Council, says that migrants keep the agricultural sector alive. “Despite the fact that Cyprus’ economy is highly dependent on low-skilled foreigners, the vast majority of whom work in difficult conditions with low wages and almost zero entitlements, there is no political will to adequately address these problems,” he says.
“A complete review of the [asylum] A system is required to guarantee dignity and equal rights for all, which in turn will have multiple benefits for many industries and local society ”.
For Ngo, Djibrilla and Etoundi, the prospect of any work would be welcome. But as temperatures rise above 40 ° C (104 ° F), Cameroonians are anxiously awaiting news under the shade of a thin strip of trees planted along a strip of gravel.
“I am 33 years old. [deserted] the military after 10 years, ”says Etoundi, as Djibrilla plays a horrifying video on his mobile phone showing beheadings in his country’s conflict. “I do not support the [Cameroonian] struggle of the separatists, but I had to leave because I did not agree with what the military was asking of us. If I return, I will face death. “
Cyprus’ interior minister says the case could be resolved if the EU agrees to include the island in a reassignment program.
“I have written to the European Commission, saying that we are prepared to transfer them to other member states, but I have not received a response,” says Nouris. “If that happened, this could be easily resolved.”
Grace, Emil and Daniel’s last names have been changed
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism