Inside Kofinou asylum centre, a life of grim uncertainty

Hundreds of asylum seekers from Middle East and Africa are hosted in a remote Cypriot centre where conditions are bleak.

by

    Kofinou, Cyprus - Half an hour south of Cyprus's capital, Nicosia, metal fencing slices through lush grassland at the foot of a rocky hillside.

    To get here, cars spill out from a major motorway onto a country road and wind down to a security gate on the edge of a sloping field.

    Inside the wire-rimmed perimeter, rows of prefabricated trailers line rubbish-strewn pathways.

    These container-like structures, whose sides are covered in graffiti and children's drawings, house about 300 people, most of whom are from the Middle East and Africa.

    Moments before the gate of the Kofinou reception centre for asylum seekers opens, a fistfight breaks out just metres away.

    The quarrel is brief, but tension hangs in the air long after it ends.

    The instigator "has psychological problems", bystanders say, and has apparently caused trouble before. As for the victim? He shares a tiny room with him.

    Sewage running through the Kofinou reception centre [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    The state-run Kofinou centre opened in 2004 to host a maximum of 120 people. A decade later, in 2014, the authorities increased its capacity and today the camp can be home to as many as 400 people.

    Refugees and asylum seekers reside here as they wait for a decision to be made on their asylum claims. But without a specific time limit on their stay, many end up living in the centre for several months, or even years.

    Living conditions are grim.

    At the far end of the isolated centre, past idling men and boisterous children, a stream of raw sewage trickles down the sun-beaten cement.

    The overflow is constant, ending in a pond of stagnant water, and the air is heavy with the stench of uncollected rubbish.

    While most of the residents avoid this area, Bassam, a 41-year-old ship mechanic from the Syrian coastal city of Tartus, has no choice - the unit housing his six-member family is just a few steps away.

    "I took my children twice to the doctor because of this [sewage]," he says, indignantly, through a translator one morning in February, as he gives his shy seven-year-old son a haircut.

    "Every day, it gets worse and worse," he adds, making a few final deft jabs with a bright red comb and black clippers.

    "The other day, my boy here told me, 'we're not allowed to go out any more ... it feels like being in prison'."

    The sewage problem has been going on for years.

    Standing nearby, Makis Polydorou, head of Cyprus's asylum service, which is responsible for the centre's overall management, says a sewerage truck comes by regularly to clean the area.

    However, he admits this is not a lasting solution. "Unfortunately, the problem remains," he says, adding that authorities are working for a permanent fix, without offering a timeframe.

    "We cannot hide; a mistake was done here."

    Bassam and his six-member family have been living in the centre for less than a year [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    Ever since its 2014 expansion, the centre has been full or close to its maximum capacity. Yet, the dramatic spike in the number of residents has not been followed by an increase in staff.

    As a result, residents complain of serious health and safety risks due to inadequate cleaning services, while delays in the maintenance of facilities, including problems with air-conditioning and heating systems, only exacerbate the worsening living conditions.

    "These [units] are ovens in the summer and freezer boxes in the winter," says Anastacia Wieclawska Kyriakou, mother and baby volunteer co-ordinator for Kofinou We Care, a group which supports the asylum seekers.

    "There are toilets that do not work in homes and mothers with young children have to walk for 100 metres in the middle of the night to take children as young as two to the toilet," she adds.

    "I defy anybody to stay in this camp for 48 hours."

    The remoteness of the centre adds to its residents' predicament. 

    "There's nothing to do. We wake up, we eat something and we sleep again - nothing else," says Bassam. "We don't have a real life."

    Unsurprisingly, anger often boils over, fuelled by long-standing grievances over poor living conditions, delays in processing their asylum claims and a lack of future prospects. Last week, some residents set rubbish bins on fire and caused extensive damage to a number of facilities.

    A kitchen stove provides heating in one of the centre's rooms [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    From 2002 to mid-2017, only two percent of asylum applications (2,351) were approved for refugee status in Cyprus, which allows asylum seekers to live and work legally, according to UN refugee agency data. 

    About 15 percent (6,887) of applicants were given subsidiary protection, a status below that of refugee. The rest of the applications - 83 percent (44,376) - were either rejected or otherwise closed.

    While many European Union countries do not differentiate between the two tiers of protection, the Cypriot government four years ago introduced changes which took away family reunification rights from people with subsidiary protection.

    The amended laws also did not protect them from expulsion prevention and did not give them immediate access to valid travel documents.

    Human rights advocates say the changes were politically motivated and aimed at preventing people from attempting to reach Cyprus's shores at the height of the refugee crisis.

    "The logic of the policy that was followed was 'it's better not to come to Cyprus, go to another country'," says Doros Polykarpou, executive director of KISA, a Nicosia-based NGO.

    The government's official line, he argues, is "'we do the minimum that is required of us according to our [EU] obligations, but we don't want to encourage them [asylum seekers] and let them think that they can visit our paradise'".

    Polydorou, the head of the asylum service, rejected the allegations Cyprus was working to keep asylum seekers out through strict policies, and defended the agency's decision-making record on asylum requests.

    "It's not a matter of percentages," he says. "There are criteria, and each individual case is examined on its own merit."

    Humanitarian groups say the conditions at the shared kitchens have deteriorated to a state of being a health risk [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    At the start of last year, nearly 3,100 asylum seekers had pending applications in Cyprus.

    A vast majority of the applicants lived independently, while 112 were unaccompanied children hosted in special reception centres and 307 lived at the Kofinou centre.

    In Kofinou, families are typically placed in units with two rooms - one for each family - and a shared bathroom.

    In some cases, large families are given both rooms, but in others, family members can be forced to sleep on mattresses on the cramped floor of their single room.

    Meanwhile, between two and four single persons - often all strangers to one another - must share a small room and use a communal bathroom outside their containers.

    A broken toilet in one of the communal bathrooms [Teo Kermeliotis/Al Jazeera]

    Those communal bathrooms are overrun with problems. A layer of mould coats the surface behind several of the showers, basin faucets are frequently broken, and doors are unhinged. In one of the cubicles, a toilet bowl lies upside down, ripped from the ground.

    Hot water is a rarity, residents also say.

    Nearby, in one of the shared kitchens, the situation is equally bad. The floor is covered in a shallow pool of liquid, fed by the constant leaking of ruptured water pipes. Black mould is visible here too, spreading in and around the hobs, many of which are not working.

    "How can anyone cook anything here?" Edi, a fifty-something Albanian resident, asks furiously. "Everything is rotten."

    Mohammed's home in Deraa, Syria was destroyed in June 2015 [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    Mohammed, 46, used to be a chef in the Syrian city of Deraa, but he doesn't spend much time in the shared kitchen.

    Sitting inside the poorly-lit trailer that has housed his family for the past 15 months, he jumps off a stool and flips open his phone.

    An amorphous mass of brown-hued rubble lights up the small screen. These ruins used to be his house, he says.

    The flattening of their two-storey home by heavy shelling in June 2015, on the third day of Ramadan, left Mohammed, his wife and their three young children with no option but to flee Syria’s long-running war - first to Turkey and then Cyprus.

    Today, inside the confines of the Kofinou centre, Mohammed - tired-looking but greeting visitors with a gentle smile - appears roundly out of place.

    Speaking through a translator, he says all he wants is to start a new life outside the centre, which he says is home to "a lot of" drug use, making him fear for the wellbeing of his children.

    Across the packed room, his wife agrees.

    "What's important to us is the future of our children, their safety and privacy," she says, holding the couple's 10-day-old fourth child on her lap.

    "Our dream is to find a place [outside] and get out of here."

    Yet, moving out and integrating into Cypriot society, as well as planting new roots on the island, is not easy.

    The centre can host up to 400 people [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    Like almost all Syrians seeking asylum on Cyprus, Mohammed was not granted refugee status but subsidiary protection.

    This was three months ago and since then, he says he has been searching in vain for a house in Nicosia.
    "We are a family, we are supposed to get 280 euro [$345] a month for the house but the house is 400-500 euro [$490-$615] a month," says Mohammed.

    "The houses are either so expensive or the ones with affordable rent, landlords don’t agree to rent to Arabs or [asylum seekers],” he continues. "And this is happening with everybody, not just with me."

    Mohammed says he had similar experiences while searching for a job in restaurants, as well as dealing with state officials.

    "I've tried a few times to find work but sometimes they say to me they don't [want to hire me] because I’m an Arab, and other times because of the language, and the age," he says.

    "If you mention the word that you are a refugee, they will not rent to you," says Kyriakou, from Kofinou We Care.

    "Institutional racism is also a problem, and I don’t know why because we are a refugee nation," she adds, referring to the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Cypriots following the island's division in 1974.

    The Kofinou centre lies on a field at the foot of a rocky hill [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    Polykarpou, of KISA, says there are three reasons for what he calls "harsh" attitudes towards asylum seekers.

    "The Cypriot society is self-centred and phobic," he says.

    The long-standing Cyprus issue has defined collective thinking to the point that "we worry too much about the alteration of our demographic situation and this stems from history, the experiences, the country’s psyche and the problem that exists".

    He also says that the populist, xenophobic far-right, feeding off the despair of a crippling financial crisis and a backlash against foreigners, gained ground on Cyprus in recent years, just as stricter policies towards refugees became the norm across Europe. 

    "Let's not fool ourselves, Europe is finding it difficult to assume its responsibilities in regards to the refugee crisis and each country is trying to 'push' refugees to a neighbouring country."

    Caught in all this, Mohammed says he is still not ready to give up, despite his hardship.

    "I'm scared about the future, but I'm not yet hopeless," he says from inside his trailer.

    "If you became hopeless, that means you will lose everything, and we have to be strong to be able to raise our children. But inside, we are hurting, we are in pain". 

    *The names of the centre's residents have been changed to protect their identity

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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