A crossroads between continents in the
eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus is coping with
increasing migration in the midst of financial
crisis. One of the Movement’s newest National Societies responds.
Sitting on the edge of his single bed, one of only two pieces of furniture in his drab, rundown room, a 38-year-old Syrian man named Samir* speaks about how he ended up in Nicosia, Cyprus’s capital city.
“I was living in Damascus with my wife and my daughter,” he says. “I went to get some food for my family and when I was away, our apartment building was bombed. My wife and my daughter were killed.”
Fearing for his life, Samir says he left Damascus, lived in a refugee camp for several months before making his way towards Cyprus. Samir was lucky. He escaped the horrors of war. But like many migrants, he is now living another sort of nightmare — a legal limbo that forces him to live in the shadows of society, searching for work while trying to avoid the police.
Migrants from Syria who arrive in Cyprus qualify for ‘subsidiary protection’, a status that prevents them from being sent back to their native country. But it doesn’t protect them from being detained by police for entering and living in Cyprus illegally.
Samir has already spent four months in detention, first in Nicosia’s central prison and then later at the Menogia detention centre for immigrants near the south-eastern city of Larnaca. “I am worried about being sent back,” he says.
As an undocumented migrant, Samir doesn’t qualify for government financial assistance and because he left Syria quickly, without papers, he cannot prove his identity to authorities or agencies that might help him attain refugee status or asylum.
In the meantime, finding day labour is no easy task. A painter by trade, Samir finds himself in a country suffering from the aftermath of a nationwide banking crisis that culminated in late 2012 and which has brought the economy to a near complete standstill. Many Cypriots lost their businesses, homes, retirement pensions and savings, while many others can only withdraw small daily sums of money due to a policy aimed at preventing a run on the banks.
While economists and politicians see signs of a comeback (following a 10 billion euro bailout in 2013), many average Cypriots see little sign of improvement. Last year, unemployment reached 18 per cent for people aged 25 and over, and close to 45 per cent for people under 25.
Meanwhile, personal, home and business loans have all but dried up. Everyone has been hit, but migrants and the elderly (many of whom lost their retirement pensions) are particularly vulnerable.
“We see these cases every day, elderly people who are stuck in their beds at home begging for help,” says Leas Kontos, a volunteer with the Nicosia branch of the Cyprus Red Cross Society, who spends most days making house calls, delivering food packages or medicine to the elderly, single mothers or others who cannot come to the branch headquarters during food distributions.
Kontos also sees many migrants during his rounds. Most are from eastern European and Central Asian states, but others have come from as far away as Cameroon and Sri Lanka. More and more are coming from Syria.
“People are coming to Cyprus because they think there is work here or because they think it’s an entry into the European Union,” says Giorgio Frantzis, a field officer at the Nicosia branch, where migrants can get food, basic household supplies, clothing, information and referrals to help them survive in their new home. “They’ve heard that Cyprus is a prosperous place. Which it was until recently.”
New stories, new challenges
In the midst of all this, the Cyprus Red Cross Society itself is going through a metamorphosis of sorts, a transformation brought on by the economic crisis, the influx of migrants and the new opportunities posed by the National Society’s admission into the IFRC at its General Assembly in November 2013.
Today, the National Society is shouldering a new and growing set of responsibilities in a country with few remaining nationwide civil society organizations. But the crisis has also forced it to halt its long-standing support for international operations in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
“We were doing many projects abroad because we could afford it and because there were no great needs locally,” says Takis Neophytou, director general of the Cyprus Red Cross. “Now, we concentrate on local needs,” he adds, noting that some of the National Society’s own resources were lost or frozen due to the banking crisis. “Donations from individual donors overall are much less, while needs have increased.”
One important response has been a campaign, launched with the support of three major corporations, to secure money for a school breakfast programme and other local relief efforts. This campaign, and other fund-raising efforts, has allowed the National Society to nearly double its delivery of food parcels.
The crisis has also brought on a new sense of urgency and energy to a National Society whose domestic operations, up until two years ago, had been fairly routine, says Niki Hadjitsangari, the president of the Limassol branch on the island’s southern coast.
“We were a small, fairly typical and traditional European Red Cross,” she says. “We would do blood drives, deliver blood to the hospitals, visit old people in nursing homes and take presents to underprivileged children at Christmas. We were helping poor people, but because Cyprus was a very prosperous country, there were not so many needs.”
Now the branch distributes food, clothing and supplies on an ongoing basis and is struggling to find ways to expand the cramped, over-packed areas where it stores and prepares food packages. The branch’s lobby, about the size of an average elevator, is being expanded to accommodate the growing number of migrants who arrive seeking assistance, information and referrals. “We are operating in emergency mode,” says branch treasurer Annie Haraki.
In September, the branch faced one of its biggest recent emergencies when it mobilized to assist 345 Syrian and Palestinian migrants who arrived at the port of Limassol after having been rescued at sea during stormy weather by a passenger ship. Before they arrived, Red Cross staff in Nicosia called in additional volunteers who worked in three-day shifts to set up tents and established a distribution centre at a pre-existing, government-run camp for migrants nearby.
Cyprus Red Cross volunteers then provided migrants with basics necessities (clothes, shoes, hygienic kits, personal care items, toys for the children) as well as first aid, psychosocial support and help connecting with family back home or elsewhere. In following weeks, the National Society organized activities to improve the migrants’ quality of life, including schooling for the children, English language lessons for adults and limited legal advice and referrals.
When authorities stopped offering any services at the camp in January, roughly 100 migrants stayed on and volunteers continued to offer services, medicine and supplies to those who remained. A Cyprus Red Cross volunteer doctor made regular visits and the National Society offered transport to two local hospitals, which agreed to accept patients from the camp. Staff and volunteers also provided information aimed at protecting migrants from smugglers and others who might take advantage of their vulnerable situation.
The episode was a test of the National Society’s capacity to respond to an acute emergency as well as its role as a neutral and independent humanitarian organization. This was particularly true, says Neophytou, when government agencies asked the National Society to advance particular policies regarding the migrants’ legal status that might not be in the migrants’ best interests.
“Unacceptable demands by the public authorities, deriving from accidental or intentional conception or misinterpretation of our auxiliary role, must never overpower the Fundamental Principles of the Movement,” he says.
Indeed, charting a new course to increase assistance for vulnerable migrants is not easy during hard economic times. “With the economic crisis, people feel insecure,” says Andri Agrotis, a lawyer and volunteer who serves as secretary in the Nicosia branch and helps run the branch’s services for migrants. “Some people feel that if you have more foreigners in the country that means the country will never recover because we need to maintain these new people.”
The National Society has responded by saying it will endeavour to protect and support migrants, promote wider understanding of their rights and their need for social inclusion, as well as offer services (such as family tracing) at three government ‘reception centres for asylum seekers’ in Kofinou, Larnaca and Paphos.
“We feel that we have to follow the Fundamental Principles and that we are doing whatever we can within our resources and capabilities as a small National Society,” says Agrotis, who also represents the Cyprus Red Cross on the Platform for European Red Cross Cooperation on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants (PERCO).
Part of that responsibility, says Fotini Papadopoulou, president of the Cyprus Red Cross, is to be a voice for vulnerable people and to speak out against xenophobia, racism and attitudes that lead to exclusionary policies and social marginalization.
Now that the Movement has fully accepted it into its fold, she says the Cyprus Red Cross can play an even greater, and more effective, role on the local, European and global stages by participating in Movement decision-making and by benefiting from other forms of Movement support.
A key part of that process will be young people, many of whom are now facing a future in which half of them will not be able to find jobs on the island.
“Unemployment is the number-one issue in Cyprus,” says Vanessa Kyprianou, the president of the Cyprus Red Cross youth section, adding that volunteering is still a big part of the young Cypriot spirit. “But it’s often a challenge to ask people to volunteer when what they need is a job to help put food on the table.”
Despite this, many young people have mobilized to help fellow Cypriots and migrants, she says. And like youth anywhere, many are passionate about global issues, such as reducing the effects of climate change, as well as gender equality and youth empowerment.
“So we really need to come up with new programmes that will challenge the youth, not just ask them to do what the older generation has been doing,” she says, adding that the Cyprus Red Cross is taking steps in the right direction: the youth section has equal status to the branches, meaning it reports to the executive committee, has a voice in strategic decisions and has fund-raising responsibilities.
Some of the more innovative — and fun — responses to the crisis, most notably rock concert fund-raisers, were organized by young volunteers. Still, there is a gap in the National Society’s human resources. Most staff and leadership are 50 years old, or older. Many of the National Society’s older generation, including Papadopoulou, say it must do more to bring up a new generation of management and leadership.
“Cyprus was a paradise some years ago,” says Papadopoulou. “I think Cyprus can be a paradise again and I think the youth will be a big part of making that future. But it will only happen if we work very hard and if we help each other, help everyone, to get through this crisis.”
By Malcolm Lucard
Malcolm Lucard is editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.
*Not his real name
In September 2014, more than 350 refugees from the Syrian conflict were rescued from this fishing boat.
©AFP Photo/HO/Cyprus Defence Ministry
The refugees were brought by cruise ship to the Port of Limassol on the island of Cyprus.
©AFP Photo/Andew Caballero-Reynolds
“We see these cases
every day, elderly
people who are stuck
in their beds at home
begging for help.”
Red Cross Society
Already active in helping refugees and migrants, the Cyprus Red Cross Society responded by both advocating for the protection of the refugees and offering direct assistance at a temporary camp set up for the refugees.
Photo: ©Cyprus Red Cross Society
A banking crisis that hit Cyprus in 2012 continues to cause considerable hardship for average Cypriots. At the beginning of the crisis, people’s ability to withdraw money was greatly restricted and lines at banks were long. The crisis caused the Cyprus Red Cross to downscale international operations and focus more on the needs of local residents, as well as migrants and refugees.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel
demands by the publicauthorities, derivingfrom accidentalor intentional conception or misinterpretation
of our auxiliary role,
must never verpower
Principles of the
general of the
Cyprus Red Cross Society
Cyprus Red Cross volunteer Leas Kontos makes daily deliveries to people in Nicosia who have been hit hard by the 2012 financial crisis. Many of those he visits are elderly, unemployed or who have jobs that do not cover their expenses and debts.
Photo: ©Malcolm Lucard/IFRC