2020 was a challenging year for the reception system. The decisions of the authorities pointing towards stringent measures concerning handling of immigration and refugee flows and the outbreak of covid-19 pandemic have impacted the ability of the reception mechanisms to address the needs of newly arrived persons.
In particular, in the beginning of 2020, and before the outbreak of the pandemic, the Ministry of Interior announced the creation of closed reception centres in an effort to discourage migration and refugee flows. Pournara First Registration Centre, operating under the Asylum Service and originally meant to receive asylum seekers for a stay of 72 hours for purposes of lodging asylum applications, issuing documents and performing medical screenings, started accommodating all irregularly arriving asylum seekers for indefinite periods often reaching 4-6 months. In the meantime, the measures adopted for tackling the pandemic by the government were used to justify evictions of hundreds of asylum seekers already residing in the community, either in private accommodation which they had secured on their own, or in low budget hotels where they were placed by Social Welfare Services due to being homeless or vulnerable.
Given the existing shortcomings in regard to available services and infrastructure of Pournara Centre and despite the reluctant release of individuals from time to time, this practice quickly led to extreme overcrowding and severe deterioration of living conditions for approximately 1,600 residents. It also raised valid safety concerns for vulnerable residents (UASC, traumatised persons, families, women, victims of trafficking etc) which as of today continue to reside under conditions which cannot guarantee their safety and well-being. The situation in Kofinou Reception Centre is significantly better, however the movement restrictions imposed due to the pandemic intensified the challenges in facilitating the transition of persons granted international protection into the community.
The Asylum Service, the responsible authority for examination of asylum applications as well as the overall coordination on issues related to asylum, asylum seekers, and persons under international protection in coordination with EASO, UNHCR and CyRC, facilitated the development of a comprehensive vulnerability assessment procedure in Pournara, in order to identify vulnerable asylum seekers and determine the special procedural guarantees and reception conditions. However, efforts are still ongoing. Furthermore, the issue of identification, determination and provision of specialised reception conditions for vulnerable individuals in the community remains a challenge, due to lack of an effective mechanism which can provide and safeguard reception conditions that address the needs of vulnerable segments of the population.
Most asylum seekers continue to receive material conditions in the community, by submitting an application to Social Welfare Services, the appointed authority for covering reception needs outside the Centres. Several months of disruptions in the allocation of reception allowances were observed, related to the Labour Department’s operation arrangements due to the pandemic and the decision not to carry out new registrations, provide job referrals or renew unemployment cards for asylum seekers. Moreover, the private Banks’ unwillingness to open bank accounts for asylum seekers, despite the clear guidelines of the Central Bank, contributed to the disruption of reception allowances, especially after the (long awaited) decision of SWS to abandon the voucher system, which was ineffective and degrading for asylum seekers.
In October 2020 the Social Welfare Services terminated the practice of providing material conditions (food, clothes) in the way of vouchers. This practice had received many complaints by beneficiaries and criticism from NGOs and UNHCR as the system is considered degrading and ineffective. Specifically, the vouchers could only be redeemed at appointed local and usually small shops, often accused of high prices and there were systematic delays in the issuance of the vouchers leaving asylum seekers with no access to food. The new system replaces the amounts provided with vouchers with cheques but the intention is for these to be replaced by bank transfers and the SWS is currently requesting bank account details for this purpose. For exceptional cases where there is no bank account vouchers may still be issued
Risk of homelessness remains particularly high because of the high rent prices, the chronic lack of housing schemes and the current practice of SWS to carry out accommodation interventions for very few particularly vulnerable individuals.
The pandemic severely impacted asylum seekers’ access to jobs and posed challenges to enjoying health services, due to the fact that asylum seekers (and other TCN) do not participate in the new national health system (GESY), through which Covid-19 related medical advice and guidance was provided to the majority of Cyprus residents.