The uncontrolled influx of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa has caused inter-ethnic clashes in Cyprus. According to some estimates, the number of illegal migrants on the island may soon approach 70,000. Not all illegal migrants are registered with the migration service upon arrival in the country, so no one knows their exact number. In addition, Cyprus has received over 20 thousand refugees from Ukraine.
The local population and the island authorities have no difficulties with any of the groups of refugees and illegal migrants. The Cypriots have problems only with natives of Arab countries, mainly from Syria, and with Africans.
Tensions have been building up for several years and resulted in interethnic clashes in Chloraka and anti-migrant actions in Limassol.
The main reason that led to these events was the ugly behavior of Arabs and Africans, their aggressive behavior, contempt for the laws of Cyprus, and disrespect for local traditions, customs, culture, and religion. It should be said that these people behave like this everywhere, not only in Cyprus, and riots are also organized wherever they become relatively numerous.
Most of those who are supposed to deal with the problem of illegal migration are afraid to openly call things by their names for fear of being accused of xenophobia and racism. This is one of the reasons why the problem of irregular migrants does not find its solution.
The situation of irregular migrants and related developments in Cyprus requires deep analysis and reflection. For a successful solution to the problem of illegal migration, it is very important to understand who the illegal migrants are, what brought them to our country, and how they got to the Republic of Cyprus.
The Cyprus Daily News interviewed a refugee from Congo living in Paphos on condition of anonymity. His frank account sheds light on some aspects of the problem of illegal migration and raises questions that need to be answered.
Charles (name changed), who are you and where are you from?
I am a Congolese national. I am 34 years old. I studied in one of the countries of the former USSR, I am a doctor by profession. Now I am a refugee, I applied for asylum in Cyprus.
How long have you been living in Cyprus?
For two years now.
Why did you decide to come to Cyprus and seek asylum here?
After my studies I worked in my home country, and I had my clinic. But one day I had to leave everything and flee the Congo.
For what reason?
My father was involved in politics and at some point, he had a conflict with the current president of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi. Unfortunately, Congo is not a democratic country, so a conflict with the president would have probably ended with him being killed.
His father had to flee to save his life. He now lives in Tunisia as a refugee. After he fled, I stayed in Kinshasa for two months, thinking that my father’s problems with the president were not my concern and that I would not be touched.
I was wrong. One morning armed men came to my clinic, one of them put a gun to my head and said that he did not want to kill me, but that if I stayed in the country he would kill me. I was given two days to leave the country.
I could not have packed up and left in two days if I had wanted to, as I did not have a valid passport at the time. I left for another city where I hid with friends for a month while I waited for a new passport. All this time I was looking for a country where I could go without a visa and ask for protection. The easiest and cheapest option for me was Cyprus. I found information on the Internet that it was possible to get to Cyprus through Turkey. To do this, I had to apply for a student visa at one of the universities in the northern part of the island. I found such a university and wrote a letter. They sent me an application form, I filled it out, paid 1000 dollars, and got an electronic student visa. Then I bought a ticket to Nicosia via Istanbul and flew to Cyprus. I would have preferred to go to France or Belgium, but it was impossible for me at the time. I didn’t have time to wait several months for a visa to those countries.
Did you study at a university in the occupied part of Cyprus?
No, I didn’t even go there. I think nobody studies at this university and it exists formally only to issue visas for people like me. They understood perfectly well that I did not need a visa to study, but to get to Cyprus and ask for asylum in the southern part of the island.
How did you get here?
I first came to the northern part of the island on a student visa and wanted to seek asylum there. However, it turned out that in the occupied part of Cyprus, refugees were not given protection. It was useless to ask for asylum there. So I decided to sneak to the southern part of the country to seek asylum there.
For this purpose, I turned to Congolese citizens who have been living there for a long time and who are professionally engaged in transferring migrants like me to the free territory of Cyprus. They contacted other Congolese who had been living in Larnaca for many years and who were also involved in smuggling migrants across the border. It is their common business and they coordinate among themselves. These people instructed me on what I should do and say when I got to the southern part of the country.
What were the instructions?
When I arrive in the free part of the country, I must go to the police and declare myself a refugee. And I must not tell the authorities about the people who brought me to the south of the island.
The Congolese living in the north introduced me to a white man from the local mafia who is a police officer. He transports people illegally to the south of the island for money. I made a deal with him for 400 euros, paid him that amount and he brought me here.
What was it like, please tell me.
It wasn’t easy. After I paid 400 euros to the Turkish-Cypriot policeman he told me to be ready to go south anytime he told me. A few days later this Turkish-Cypriot policeman called me and told me to come to a certain place. There he was waiting for me in a windowless white cargo van packed with Africans. I could hardly squeeze in. The transporter told us that when we arrived we should go to the police and ask for protection. They know what to do in such cases. Then he told us not to move or make any noise, closed the door and we drove off.
It was very hot and stuffy in the car, I thought I would suffocate in there. Several people were fainting. We drove for a long time. A long time standing somewhere. I heard the driver talking to someone, I think it was the border. I couldn’t see anything and I tried not to move.
Did they check your car?
No, nobody checked it. After the border, we were brought to the village of Kiti, near Larnaca. The car stopped, the door opened and our driver shouted at us to get out of the car and run away from this place. I asked him where the police were, and he waved his hand somewhere and drove off.
We headed towards the village, asked the locals where the police were, and went there. The police told us that they do not deal with migrants and sent us to the Pournara refugee camp in Nicosia. There is a reception center for migrants there.
You said that many people were traveling with you in the minibus. Who were these people and how many were there?
There were 15 of us. All Africans from Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
What happened to you in Purnar?
They took away my passport, registered me as an asylum seeker, took tests to see if I had any diseases, gave me my documents, and left me at the center. They said that I would be called for an interview and after that, they would decide whether to grant me refugee status or not. Two years have passed since then, but no one has called me and my case is not solved yet.
What were the conditions in Purnar?
Terrible. It’s impossible to live in Purnar. The room where I was assigned to live was designed for 4 people, but there were already 7 people living there. The center is overcrowded beyond measure. Everywhere is unsanitary, dirty, and piles of garbage. The roof leaks. When it rains, the rooms flood and it is impossible to sleep. Toilets and showers are dirty, it is impossible to wash and use the toilet. Everyone went to the toilet wherever they could.
Who should keep the center clean?
I don’t know, no one looked after cleanliness and order there and no one cleaned anything.
Why didn’t the migrants clean up after themselves?
I’ll tell you what I think about it and you may think I’m racist. But I’m black so no one can accuse me of racism. You see, black people come in all kinds. There are good, educated, well-mannered people among us. But unfortunately, most blacks are not like that. And those who come here are mostly people from the lowest social strata of Africa. So when a lot of blacks get together in one place, they make a mess around them. They are used to living like that and they brought their habits here. That is our peculiarity.
That is why no one in Purnar was keeping clean. I and a few other Congolese tried somehow to keep order and clean up the garbage around the place where we lived. But, you know, when you live in a camp where there are hundreds of people shitting and throwing garbage wherever they want, there is no way to keep clean. Because of this, there were always conflicts and fights.
Were there only Africans in Purnar?
Not only Africans. There were Arabs, Afghans, Indians, and others.
What kind of relations did you have with migrants from other countries?
Bad. Everyone treated the others as enemies. The worst was with the Arabs. They were aggressive, tried to establish their order, and provoked conflicts all the time. They had conflicts with each other too. I think it doesn’t matter to them with whom they have a conflict, as long as there is a conflict. That’s their peculiarity. They were always arguing and fighting with each other and other residents of the center.
I could not stay long in Purnar so I asked my compatriots who rented an apartment in Larnaca to stay with them while I found a job. It took me two months to find a job near Paphos, so I moved from Larnaca to Paphos.
Where do you work?
At a gas station. It doesn’t pay much, but I’m happy with that. I get tips.
I can pay my rent and buy my food.
In the last few years, many illegal migrants from African countries have come to Cyprus. Tell me, who are these people, what are the motives behind their behavior, and for what purpose did they come to Cyprus? Are they refugees?
There are refugees among us, but most of the migrants from Africa who came to Cyprus are not refugees. Migrants fall into three categories.
The first category is us — the real refugees with real stories. We want to get asylum and live in peace until we can return home. There are about 10 percent of them in Cyprus, no more.
The second category is economic migrants with fake stories. They don’t have jobs at home, so they come here to make money. They don’t need documents or protection. They don’t need any status or asylum. They apply for asylum and tell fictitious stories of alleged political, religious, or sexual persecution, while they work at various jobs while their cases are pending. Legally or illegally, for little money, they live ten to a room, denying themselves everything. But, every month they have a few hundred euros left, which they send home to their families. This is a lot of money for Africa. Many people there literally survive on this money and have no other sources of income. This is the largest category of migrants. I think about 60-70 percent of them.
The rest belong to the third category — people who want to go to Europe through Cyprus and live there on benefits without doing anything. They come here and move to the continent in various illegal ways.
How do they do it?
African illegals have one effective way of getting to the European continent.
What is it?
First, they find black EU citizens who look like migrants who want to leave Cyprus for Europe. They are negotiated with and offered to sell their passports. Usually, they sell their passports for a few hundred euros. Sometimes, if someone does not want to sell their passport, the document is stolen. Then the passport is mailed to Cyprus and the customers go to Europe.
Many African migrants use this method. Sometimes they are caught at the airport, but most of them manage to get to the EU safely. Local police officers do not distinguish Africans well and many manage to pass pass passport control.
How do Africans in Cyprus find people in Europe who look like them and buy or steal their passports?
In France and Belgium, African organized criminal groups of document dealers, including fake ones, operate. They receive orders from Africans who live in Cyprus and they start looking for people with similar appearance in Europe. It’s called resemblance.
They have extensive databases of people of African descent. They also use social networks to search.
How much does this service cost?
Prices vary, from 700 to 1200 euros, depending on the circumstances.
Are there also people in Cyprus who do this business?
Yes, there are many. They are mostly Congolese, they are the best experts in forged documents in Africa.
Are there drug traffickers among the African migrants?
Mostly Nigerians deal in drugs. I can’t say anything else about it.
Can you identify which of the African irregular migrants fall into one of the three categories you mentioned above?
Congolese I can freely identify who belongs to which category. As for nationals of other countries, I cannot always be sure.
If I ask you to check the story of some refugee from Congo, can you do it and tell me if his story is real or fake?
Yes, I can. It’s not hard for me. There are stories of people who are known throughout the country. The story of my family’s persecution by President Tshisekedi is known to everyone in the Congo. There are stories of people who are not known to many people, but I have friends in Congo and they can always find out what I need to know.
Some stories have a special, Congolese specificity. For example: a rich man who had four wives dies. He has several children with each wife. He also has brothers and uncles. They can’t and don’t want to share the inheritance with the other heirs. War breaks out within the family, some heirs start killing other heirs. Those who don’t have the strength for the internecine massacre run abroad and ask for asylum. They need protection, but officials in Europe can’t always understand what they are talking about and can’t check whether the asylum seeker is telling the truth or making things up. I can tell at a glance whether a person is lying or telling the truth.
However, the main problem is that because many economic migrants come to Cyprus pretending to be refugees, it creates problems for real refugees.
What kind of problems?
Migration services are flooded with applications from fake refugees. Each case is considered for a very long time and there is no time to carefully consider the cases of real refugees. Migration officials are well aware that the majority of migrants’ applications for international protection are unfounded or fake. Because of this, they treat all asylum seekers with mistrust and consider them all liars. It is understandable when 90 out of 100 applicants tell lies, it is hard to stop believing all migrants.
How do you think this situation can be corrected?
Very simple. The Migration Service should hire one or two Congolese nationals who are familiar with the situation in their home country as experts or counselors. They will easily be able to tell when a migrant is telling the truth and when he or she is lying. This would greatly reduce the burden on the migration service and eliminate errors in decision-making.
I will give you an example, most of the migrants from Congo who are in Cyprus do not know French. This means that they did not go to school and they do not have school diplomas (in Congo schooling is in French). But all these people came to Cyprus on a student visa, which is impossible to get without a school diploma. This means that their diplomas are fake and the stories of these people are also fake. These people should be weeded out immediately at the registration stage and not waste Cypriot taxpayers’ time and money on processing their applications.
This will save time and resources to deal with the cases of real refugees. For this purpose, I repeat, it is necessary to involve Congolese people who were born in Congo and know how things work there.
Can you do that job?
Yes, I can.
Where do you live?
I don’t want to say where I live.
How much do you pay in rent?
I pay 350 euros. Five other people live with me. I don’t have a contract. Every month the landlord comes and collects money from all the tenants. I would love to rent a separate place, but I don’t have money for that and they don’t rent normal housing to illegal migrants from Africa.
Because many migrants from Africa have proven themselves to be very bad. They damaged furniture, broke appliances, did not pay on time, and moved in more people. And making a mess of the house, as usual. Hopefully I’ll have the money and I’ll be able to get a normal apartment where I can live alone. I just don’t know if anyone will rent it to me. I don’t know if I can convince the landlords that I am different from most of the African migrants they are used to dealing with.
You say that migrants from Africa are not given normal housing, but I have seen Africans living in expensive apartments and houses and I know they are migrants too.
Yes, there are illegal migrants with a lot of money. They are usually drug dealers, pimps, and smugglers. They have no problem renting to them because they have money, a lot of money. And people like me, who barely have enough food and housing, hardly anyone will rent a normal apartment. People like me willingly rent apartments in old, dilapidated houses where normal people do not rent. The owners of such houses are interested in migrants. Before, their immobility was of no use or profit. But now they are making good money by putting migrants in apartments by the dozens.
You’ve already told me about drug dealers. Tell me about pimps and smugglers among migrants from Africa. How widespread is this phenomenon? How is their criminal business organized?
There are a lot of them in the north of the island. There they make fortunes in drug trafficking, prostitution, and smuggling migrants to the south.
There are more in the southern part of Cyprus. So far they are fewer than in the north, but not yet. I see more and more of them every month. There is an explanation for this — more migrants means more demand for the services of drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, and the smugglers who will transport them across the border. The smugglers thrive. As I said, I was smuggled across the border by Congolese who have been doing it professionally for many years and making good money from it. They also provide Congolese migrants with false documents and use them as couriers to deliver drugs and fake money from the north during transit. The group has police connections in both parts of Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot policeman who brought me here I have already mentioned. They have police connections in the occupied part of the island.
That explains why the smugglers in the north feel free and nobody touches them. In addition, I think this correlates with the policy of the Turkish authorities, who are interested in getting as many illegal migrants as possible to the south side. This is how they put pressure on the Cypriot government.
The smugglers and pimps have no problem with money and no problem with housing. They have no problems with documents. Some of them have already received refugee status, although they are not refugees, just ordinary economic migrants. They have not even gone to the migration office to get refugee certificates. They don’t need these documents. They came to Cyprus to do criminal business, not to seek asylum.
They told fake stories about themselves to the migration authorities, claiming that they had fled the country for political reasons. It’s not true. I know very well who fled Congo for political reasons and who is pretending to be a refugee. The real refugees from Congo in Cyprus are about twenty, no more. The rest pretend to be refugees. Some tell the Cypriot authorities that they are gays and lesbians and fled persecution for their sexual orientation. They were given refugee status automatically without checking. This is not true though.
How can this be verified?
There is only one way to check it — to collect reliable information about the applicant. For this purpose, there must be a person in the migration service who has access to such information, and there is no such person there.
That is why smugglers and pimps get the documents they need, have money, and live peacefully, while real refugees with real stories, like me, cannot get refugee status for years. Many of us are denied protection and required to leave the country.
The Cypriot authorities need to understand a simple thing Illegal migrants tell stories that they were forced to flee their countries because of political, religious, or sexual persecution. Most of them are lying. We need to be able to separate those who are lying from those who are telling the truth. It’s not difficult. I have already told you how to do it.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to get official refugee status, live in peace without fear of deportation, and wait until I can return home to Congo.
You ran away from there and now you say you want to go back?
I ran away to save my life. But I am sure that the political situation in my country will change for the better and I will return there. I don’t want to live in Cyprus or any other country. I want to live and work in Congo.
During two years of living in Cyprus, I have seen and understood how life in the country can be organized so that citizens do not flee abroad. When I come back home I will definitely go into politics to make democratic reforms in Congo. I am sure it is possible. After that, I will call on all Congolese migrants to return home and build a new, democratic country.