By Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s Greece and Cyprus campaigner
Hundreds of migrants awaiting deportation from Cyprus are being held for months in squalid conditions with limited access to legal and medical aid.
A few muted rays of light seep through the barred cell windows of block ten of Nicosia’s Central Prison.
Not many miles down the road, a light breeze sweeps over long sandy beaches and tourists wander at their leisure, free to enjoy the fresh air and winter sunshine.
But inside Nicosia’s prison, the air is stuffy and the scruffy walls reverberate with the sounds of heavy doors being slammed shut and shouts from staff and detainees. Arabic music blares out from a television set.
For several years, two wings of the prison have been used as a detention centre for rejected asylum seekers and migrants awaiting deportation.
Up to three people sleep inside the draughty, minute cells. Some of the cell windows are broken and inmates have stuffed pieces of cloth in the gaps to prevent cold air from entering.
At the time of our visit in early December, some 56 migrants are being held in the prison. About 200 migrants – most of them from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East- are currently detained in Cyprus, a considerable number for such a small island. Even though the application numbers have recently fallen dramatically according to the UNHCR, Cyprus ranked first among 44 reviewed countries as regards asylum applications per inhabitant.
Sitting by a table next to the only window in the room , we meet Osman Kane, a Sierra Leonean migrant who has spent the past eleven months inside block ten of the Nicosia prison.
During Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, Osman worked as a chauffeur to the wife of the leader of one of the warring parties, he says.
Because of his job, he was tortured and persecuted by supporters of the opposition, he tells me. He fled the country, and arrived in Cyprus in 2000.
He applied for asylum, but in 2005 his file was closed after the authorities claimed they could not locate him to examine his claim.
During a few short periods of freedom, he was often left destitute and forced to take illegal work.
A few months later he was arrested and a total of five failed deportation attempts took place over the next three years, most of which he spent in detention in block ten.
In August this year, Osman challenged the legality of the length of his detention before the Supreme Court of Cyprus.
He won, and the court ordered his immediate release. He thought he was free at last but before even leaving the court premises he was arrested and detained once again.
His morale and his faith in justice were shattered, he says.
‘’In 2000, I was tricked by smugglers to believe I was safely in a European Union country’’ he adds.
“Now I have been tricked again, this time by the authorities. What is there left for me to do?’’, he asks.
Amnesty International raised its concerns with the Cypriot immigration authorities regarding the legality and the length of his detention already in 2007.
Amnesty International delegates visited three different detention facilities on the island and almost every detainee we talked to, spoke of lack of legal aid, poor conditions and insufficient medical care.
Bawa Kerimu is from Nigeria and has been in block 10 for over four months.
He claims he gradually lost his sight while in detention. The doctors wrote something in Greek on his papers, but he currently receives no adequate medical care, just some eye drops.
He described to me how his eyes swell up; he is often unable to sleep for days on end and moving around feels like torture. During our interview it was evident that he couldn’t really see me, for him I was only a blurry shape asking questions. He now fears that he will be blind for the rest of his life.
Amnesty International is urging the Cypriot authorities to fulfill their international obligations and respect the rights of asylum seekers and migrants.
The organization believes that detaining migrants for deportation should take place only as a last resort and only after other less restrictive alternatives to detention have been explored.
If detention takes place, effective safeguards should be in place and adequate medical care must be ensured. Those who cannot be deported must be released.