They are between the ages of 13 and 17 and think they can live out their European dreams in Cyprus. Every year, hundreds of young immigrants come to the island for protection. The shock of arriving in the country, which some did not even suspect existed, was quickly mixed with enormous disappointment. On the scene, living conditions left many of them feeling hopeless.
Marlène Panara, Special Correspondent based in Cyprus
Alpha*’s life changed dramatically in 2015. That year, after the death of his grandfather who raised him, he suddenly had to leave his village in Guinea. Alpha, who was 10 at the time, went to live with his father, who married a new woman at the same time. Then it began to be a real test for the little boy. Unlike his four siblings, Alpha was not allowed to attend school. He was often subjected to violence from his father. To escape the blow, he made the choice to leave his homeland for Europe at the age of 16. “I know that crossing Morocco is difficult for immigrants. I had a friend who died in Tunisia, he said. So I chose Cyprus”.
Like Alpha, hundreds of unaccompanied minors (UM) arrive every year on this small Mediterranean island: by boat, from the coast of Turkey, for Syrian exiles, or by plane, from Istanbul, then UM in the north Can Airport. Islands under Turkish occupation – nationals of Somalia, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire or Cameroon. According to the NGOs on site, if we exclude the months when Cyprus was locked down in 2020, the number of arrivals has been increasing since the end of 2018.
In 2021, 659 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum, compared with 304 in 2020 and 535 in 2019.
If more and more young exiles set foot on the land each year, Cyprus is not actually their preferred destination. “When they leave their country, minors know they are going to Europe, but they don’t know exactly where to go,” explains Katerina Melissari, child protection coordinator for the NGO Hope for Children. The “big boss” who traveled with them accompanied them to the northern part of the island and, to the children’s astonishment, abandoned them there. Many told them they had reached Italy or France.”
Some young migrants then took taxis and crossed the Green Line, the dividing line that separates the north and south of the island. Others were taken directly to the door of the association by another “guide”. In both cases, everyone must go to the Pournara Centre to register their asylum application.
Sexual Harassment Cases
After the shock of arriving in an unknown place, the minor must face a new test: living in an overcrowded camp in conditions “completely unsuitable for young people”, protests Andria Neocleous, who runs Child Hope Aid.
In Pournara, specific safe zones do exist for vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors. But according to an AIDA report released by the Cyprus Refugee Council, the safe zone is not “appropriately monitored during the day or night”. Violations with serious consequences for young occupants: In 2021 and 2020, several cases of sexual harassment of minors were reported to the police.
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Outside this area, still overcrowded, teens are forced to “live in tents or prefabs” with adults and have to share showers and toilets. The dangerous condition of unaccompanied minors, especially since 2020, the time spent in the center has increased from the previous days to several months.
This year, President Nicos Anastasiades visited the area on 13 March after the Commissioner for the Rights of the Child issued a scathing report on living conditions in Pournara. After the visit, he pledged to provide “more humane” living conditions for the 350 minors housed in the camp.
Since then, 150 people have moved to hotels on the island. But for everyone else, “nothing has changed,” sighs Andria Neocleous. In March, nine young Somalis camped for several days in front of the Hope Children’s Apartment in Nicosia, asking for asylum. Exhausted, they waited more than six months at Camp Bonara.
‘We shattered their dreams a little’
The young exiles were authorized to leave the center once their request was finalized. They are then placed in apartments managed by social services in Larnaca and Limassol (south of the island) or supported by associations such as Children of Hope. Currently, nearly 600 minors between the ages of 13 and 17 benefit from these accommodations in Cyprus.
The beginning of this period is again synonymous with disappointment for these teens. “Most of them are already very affected by their first week in Cyprus. When they finally think they can build something, we have to explain to them that it will be very long and difficult. Katerina Melissari said, They didn’t expect this. Some people come to Europe to become professional footballers. Then we have to tell them why it’s not possible at the moment. We shattered their dreams a little bit”.
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According to Children’s Hope, a third of unaccompanied minors pass through Cyprus and are able to reunite with their loved ones elsewhere in Europe through family reunification. Here, “It’s a long and complicated process. Many people are very angry, disappointed, because they think everything will be done quickly. In reality, they will spend months or even years waiting.
Psychological Disorders and Addiction
Fear of the future has taken hold of the vast majority of young immigrants during this long wait. “Syrian teenagers are less anxious because they will almost certainly be granted asylum,” the humanitarian said. For African nationals, it is much more difficult because we know the rejection rate is high. The domestic violence they fled, some of which left them near death, did not, according to the authorities, justify protection.”
This anxiety can cause some people to develop psychological disorders and possibly even drug or alcohol abuse. It is then hoped that the child’s psychologist can intervene in the accommodation they are responsible for. But for the most severe cases, “it’s complicated,” Andria Neocleous assures. “Specialized public institutions do not accept young people who do not speak Greek. They refuse to accept interpreters”.
Alpha never drowned his despair with alcohol. But he has “wanted to end” three times. “I’m not an adult yet, but I already know what awaits my life, as I live today: working from 6am to 5pm, earning a little bit of money, no consideration. For an African like me It’s the only point of view. I worry when I think too much”.
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According to Andria Neocleous, the authorities “have recently made similar efforts, such as partnering with NGOs to provide accommodation and education for young people. But there is still a lot to do. Most importantly, it is not fast enough. Because When politicians take their time, there are always more demands.
In six months, Alpha will turn 18. He will have to leave the apartment lent to him by the government to live with four other young exiles. In order not to get himself into trouble, he took the lead. Every day, Alpha wakes up at 5am, takes the bus at 6am and starts maintenance work on her villa in the area at 7am. On Saturday, he cleaned the tanker. “I was offered to go to school, but I had to say no. I have to work to save a little money, otherwise how am I going to live? Unfortunately, studying won’t let me eat”.
*Name changed at the request of the client.