United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representation in Cyprus

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representation in Cyprus

Established on December 14 1950, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a United Nations agency mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. The UNHCR office in Cyprus opened in August 1974 upon the request of the UN Secretary General, immediately after the tragic events that left a large number of people in dire need. UNHCR Representation in Cyprus was designated as Coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Assistance for Cyprus. This assistance included provision of housing and small industries as well as promotion of projects and bi-communal activities, in order to remedy the shortages created due to population displacements and to encourage co-operation between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots towards a unified approach as regards issues of common concern. This function lasted till 1997.

Parallel to the above, UNHCR was also responsible, upon the request of the Cyprus Government, to examine applications for refugee status. Since the establishment of a UNHCR office in Cyprus in 1974 and until June 1998, the office received a small number of applications for refugee status per year. In 1998, however, a boat with persons claiming fear for their lives or serious violations of their human rights in their countries of origin started arriving in Cyprus asking for asylum.

Simultaneously UNHCR assisted the Government in developing their national legislation and procedure for the examination of asylum claims. The law came into life in 2000 and in January 2002 the Cyprus Government started receiving and processing asylum applications.

The UNHCR Representation in Cyprus offices are located in the United Nations Protected Area (UNPA), where the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) is based, in the United Nations Buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus and the "north" (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus). Access to this area is restricted and tightly controlled by UNFIYP, through check points and other forms of surveillance.


1998 - 2002

UNHCR has been assisting in Cyprus since 1974. At the request of the Government of Cyprus (GoC) and the United Nations Secretary General (UN-SG), UNHCR operated programs for internally displaced people (IDP) till 1998. Since 1998 it has worked on its regular mandate (international refugees), as the designated authority charged with supervising the implementation of international refugee conventions. The UN General Assembly (UN-GA) Resolution establishing UNHCR, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention (Cyprus affirmed its commitment by a declaration to the UN-SG in 1963), call for cooperation between the Governments and the UNHCR.

UNHCR Representation in Cyprus has heavily concentrated in supporting the efforts of the GoC to develop an asylum system and an asylum space in Cyprus. Since 1998 till 2002 UNHCR simultaneously undertook Refugee Status Determination (RSD) , resettled the recognized refugees in other countries, assisted in the drafting of the national refugee legislation, assisted in the configuration of the required institutions for its implementation, and trained such institutions.

In 2002 the GoC started undertaking RSD on its own. The first Refugee Law enacted in Parliament in 2000 has been amended in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2007 by transposing the EU directives aiming at harmonising the asylum space in the EU along common minimum standards. UNHCR has closely advised in the process of transposing each of these directives through direct guidance to the drafters (being the Asylum Service or the Attorney General office), as well as in the process of amending laws that should include sections on refugees..

2002 - today

UNHCR Cyprus undertook RSD training in June 2005 for the new Eligibility Officers (EO) of the Asylum Service (thereafter AS/ from the MoI) and Reviewing Authority (thereafter RA –an independent body). In addition, it trains cadets in the Police Academy twice a year as well as refreshment sessions for immigration police once a year.

UNHCR contributed to the development of the European Refugee Fund (ERF -managed by the MoI) annual and multi-annual strategy for Cyprus and participated in the selection committee for ERF project awards in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, it undertook training to civil servants coming in contact with asylum seekers and refugees, and training to teachers on asylum as a human right in the context of a project on European citizenship.

UNHCR monitored, and on the basis of it coached EO from September 2005 till April 2006 both at the Asylum Service (AS) and the Reviewing Authority (RA) once a week. This re-commenced at the RA in September 2006 until November 2006. Coaching sessions took place again from July through December 2007. UNHCR has closely advised the AS and the RA in particular towards sounding policy and practice towards applicants from Iraq and Palestine in light of the particular current circumstances.

UNHCR assisted in the transposition of the EU directive on the minimum standards for the reception conditions (transposed in December 2005), the transposition of the EU qualifications directive (transposed in July 2006), and it is currently starting to assist in the transposition of the EU procedures directive. This process entails to provide a written commentary on the draft law, to coach the drafters on every aspect of the draft, to present views in the various sessions as called by the Parliament, to provide written statements to the Parliament when these are necessary to complement the oral statements, to conduct sessions with members of the committees as requested. Similar task has been performed in regards to other minor directives and amendments to national legislation related to asylum (such as the public allowance law and the legal aid law).

UNHCR assisted the GoC and the Red Cross in the negotiation with the asylum seekers demonstrating during May and June 2006 and the persons granted subsidiary protection (lower standard than refugees) demonstrating from February though September 2007 for an appropriate conclusion of the demonstrations. UNHCR provides legal aid to well selected asylum applicants through a project undertaken by an NGO since legal aid does not exist in Cyprus for this sector at the moment. It also undertook a participatory assessment among refugees, persons granted subsidiary protection, and asylum seekers in November 2005. The participatory assessment was updated from June till September 2006 specifically on female refugees and asylum seekers.

UNHCR Representation in Cyprus undertook the following surveys: in the first quarter of 2006 on the use of lawyers by asylum seekers, from September till December on the quality of public allowance among those a/s and refugees who succeed in receiving it, from February through June 2007 on the enjoyment of public allowance and other entitlements by Iraqi refugees and persons granted subsidiary protection and finally on the training needs of refugees and persons granted subsidiary protection.

Recent Activities

UNHCR Cyprus launched in June 2006 the public awareness campaign "Hope" in order to share with the population the most fundamental concepts on asylum so as to foster the development of empathy and prevent the development of exclusion and even racism in the society. This campaign comes with the launching of the UNHCR t-shirt “HOPE”, which took place within the framework of the World Refugee Day (WRD) on 20 June 2006. The t-shirt, designed by the well known Cypriot fashion designer Ms Kika Ioannidou, portrays vulnerable human beings (either a man or woman) who had to flee their country because of fear for their life and are hoping for help; help is coming to them from those understanding the plea. Ms Kika Ioannidou states: "The red lines are the arms that are bringing the needed help. The yellow suns represent a brighter future with the hope that they will not have to run again from fear, hope that they will find safety, hope that they will manage to rebuild their lives”

With the same aim in June 2007 UNHCR Cyprus adapted in Greek language the electronic educational game for the youth, [http://www.taxidifygis.org.cy/"taxidi fygis"] , which was disseminated widely through brochures and workshops at schools. [http://www.taxidifygis.org.cy/"Taxidi fygis"] is a reworked version of a Swedish-language game, Motallaodds, which was designed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Stockholm and launched nearly two years ago. It is an interactive online game created to increase students’ awareness and knowledge about refugee situations by putting players in the position of a refugee. Divided into three categories –“War and Conflict”, “Borderland”, and “A New Life” - it takes players on a journey ultimately towards asylum, but also touches on issues of understanding and intuition in different environments. Players are challenged by a variety of obstacles and scenarios simulating struggles refugees are forced to deal with every day, from sneaking out of town to dealing with prejudices in a new place.

In June 2008, on the occasion of the World Refugee Day, UNHCR Representation in Cyprus launched a photographic exhibition called “Protection: what refugees need”. The aim of the photos – each with a message to be read - is to transmit to the widest possible audience how refugees differ from other population movements including irregular migrants, what the obligations of the Governments are to that end, what UNHCR does in respect of protection and the different aspects of protection in Cyprus and worldwide. In some of these photos, people – known and unknown - make the “protecting hand” sign, symbolizing their commitment and support towards the world’s most vulnerable and at the same time making UNHCR’ s logo widely known and synonymous with “refugee protection”. Other photos show internally displaced Cypriots or destruction that leads to forced displacement.

Plans for the future

In the years to come, UNHCR Cyprus will continue its activities aiming at enhancing the protection space for asylum seekers and refugees. At the same time, it is equally important to continue sharing information, policies and know-how with governmental and non-governmental actors with a view to improve their capacity to respond to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

UNHCR Cyprus would like to see more lawyers providing high quality counselling to asylum applicants, either through further development of NGO capacity or in kind contribution by registered lawyers. It will also pursue more projects to enhance the understanding of the refugee problem among the Cypriot society. Misinformation in the country of asylum will only exacerbate the suffering of refugees, who have already experienced enough pain after having lost their homes and loved ones just because of who they are or what they believe.

Finally, UNHCR Representation in Cyprus is also mandated to mobilize resources, both for the country field operations as well as for the UNHCR’s operations around the world.


Expertise provision

UNHCR contributes technical and worldwide expertise to the Cypriot Government in the processing of individual examination of applications for asylum, with the aim to ensure that the decisions are in accordance to international human rights standards. For this same purpose, UNHCR partially funds NGOs to provide gender based assistance, as well as legal advice to carefully selected asylum applicants for their appeals and access to the rights granted in the national law.

Government Advice

UNHCR advices the Government by providing comments on related legislative drafts, such as on the transposition of EU directives for the harmonization of the European refugee system.


UNHCR provides training to actors involved in the protection of refugees (police officers, officers who examine applications for refugee status, lawyers, civil servants responsible for the effective implementation of the related rights, etc.) and advocates for the improvement of the quality of the asylum system.


As in all countries, UNHCR Cyprus has a supervisory role under the 1951 Refugee Convention in ensuring that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are duly respected.


UNHCR informs and sensitizes the public on the problem of refugees around the world, and in Cyprus, by disseminating information to the media, and reviewing media reports on asylum seekers and refugees to ensure accuracy of facts. Public awareness can only have a positive impact on the public understanding.

Organization of activities

In order to sensitise the general public in Cyprus towards the refugee cause and to prevent xenophobic attitudes and promote tolerance, UNHCR organises either on its own or in co-operation with partners public awareness activities (e.g. photo or other exhibitions, concerts, etc.). In reaching the young people, UNHCR promotes school activities and disseminates educational material to educators in co-operation with governmental and non-governmental partners.

Refugee issues in Cyprus

Cyprus has been a destination for a consistently increasing number of immigrants, regular and irregular. According to national sources, the estimated number of irregular migrants in Cyprus is 50,000. Cyprus approved refugee national legislation in January 2000 and its asylum institutions started conducting RSD in 2002. In 2005, there were 6,991 refugee applications which is a very high number in proportion to the national population and in proportion to the human and material resources in the civil administration.

In principle, asylum-seekers are not denied access to Cyprus. Most asylum-seekers, however, do not try to enter the country through official channels, in order to avoid the risk of not being admitted. While the Asylum Service has done considerable progress in setting up the structures and the processes not only to ensure quality decisions, but also timely decisions, the subsantiated by the fact that by 31 January 2006, there were 11,265 cases pending to be decided.

Other problems related to refugees issues in Cyprus are the following:
* There is only one reception center in the country with a limited capacity to 80 people.
* There are no lawyers' networks providing legal aid for free. Coverage by NGOs is insufficient.
* Basic necessities for life are not safeguarded under the present reception conditions. During 2005, 13,547 asylum seekers applied to the Labor Offices in order to become legally employed but only 182 succeeded.
* Access to medical assistance is also handicapped by persistent departures from the official procedure in order to obtain the medical card, condition sine qua non to receive medical care.
* Integration programs, such as language and vocational training, appear insufficient and certainly insufficiently disseminated among asylum seekers and refugees.
* Prolonged detention of asylum seekers, both male and female, has occured during 2005. Asylum seekers were not detained due to their condition of a/s, but were also not freed until their status would be determined, which in some cases was delayed even for 8 months.

As far as the situation in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is concerned, there are no socio-economic data available. However, no incidents of denial of access to the territory are known. Persons are admitted, detained and deported as soon as possible, most of the times without being given an opportunity to distinguish irregular migrants from persons suffering persecution. The overwhelming majority of those individuals who succeed in entering into the "north" without being detected, cross the "Green Line" and apply in the Government of Cyprus. Applicants are examined by UNHCR.

See also

* United Nations
* United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
* United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus
* United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus
* Cypriot refugees
* Green Line (Cyprus)
* Refugee
* Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
* Republic of Cyprus
* Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
* Cyprus dispute


* [http://www.unhcr.org UNHCR Official web site]
* [http://www.unhcr.org/country/cyp.html UNHCR Official web site link to Cyprus]
* [http://www.unhcr.gr/ UNHCR Representation in Greece official web site]
* Gil Loescher, Alexander Betts and James Milner. "UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the Twenty-First Century", Routledge. 2008.
* "UNHCR in Cyprus at a glance", UNHCR Representation in Cyprus common file.
* "Activities of UNHCR in Cyprus under its mandate from 1998 - 2002", UNHCR Representation in Cyprus common file.
* Country Operations Plan - Regional Operations Plan (2008 - 2009), UNHCR Representation in Cyprus common file.

External links

* [http://www.unhcr.org UNHCR Official web site]
* [http://www.unhcr.org/country/cyp.html UNHCR Official web site link to Cyprus]
* [http://www.unhcr.gr/ UNHCR Representation in Greece official web site]
* [http://www.taxidifygis.org.cy/ E-game "taxidifygis" official web site (translated in Greek)]
* [http://playagainstallodds.com/ English version (againstallodds) of E-game "taxidifygis" official web site]
* [http://ec.europa.eu/cyprus/focus/unhcr_en.htm Internship opportunities in UNHCR Cyprus]
* [http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendoc.htm?tbl=NEWS&id=41e690364&page=news Cyprus: The twisted reality behind the statistics]

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