A concise historical account of the asylum seekers struggle.
May, 2006 Chronology of events
Subjectivities in solidarity
Lefkosia, Cyprus Observations and commentary
Uprising in detention Cell 10 in the area of the Central Prisons. Matresses are burnt, doors and windows smashed. Riot police suppresses the rebellion. Some immigrant prisoners and policemen are injured.
KISA (an NGO calling itself Action for Equality, Support, Anti-racism) calls a meeting of immigrants from various countries and a decision is taken to march the coming Monday to the presidential palace and submit a protest memorandum to the President of the Republic.
The prisoners (mostly asylum seekers of Iranian origin) revolted in protest for the inhuman detention conditions and their long stay in prison without trial. Their uprising however sparked a more generalised protest about the living conditions of all the asylum seekers in Cyprus.
Some immigrant-asylum seekers gather in protest in Eleftheria Square. Among the predominantly male protesters there are also some women and young children. March to the Presidential Palace. The President's secretary refuses to accept the protest memorandum, but listens to a briefing by the president of KISA, Doros Polycarpou. Protest ends up in Eleftheria Square as planned and around 200 Kurds (mostly coming from Syria and residing in Paphos) decide to remain there indefinately. A generalised call for money, tents, food and clothes is issued and some Cypriots respond in solidarity. Secret police is watching.
The Syrian Kurds' decision to camp in the capital's central square may have been an act of despair but its immediate consequence was a wave of solidarity by other asylum seekers and anti-racist Cypriots. After an informal, on the spot discussion about the politics of the protest the banner "No human being is illegal" is prepared accompanied by a leaflet in which the specific struggle is placed in a broader global and local context.
Asian asylum seekers (mostly Bangladeshi) arrive in the morning at Eleftheria Square and join the Kurds. Most of them come from Paphos and Limassol. KISA issues a statement of support, calls for a demonstration in solidarity with the detainees and the protesting asylum seekers and puts forward a set of demands concerning asylum application procedure, police conduct, welfare and housing policy and more generally immigrant integration policy. Police arrests two immigrants that were seen in Eleftheria Square and then releases them. Afternoon march around Nicosia, stopping briefly outside Paphos Gate. Heavy police presence prevents them from protesting outside the police station. Return to Eleftheria Square. The first steps are taken towards the creation of a collective fund and a collective kitchen.
The arrival of Asian immigrant-asylum seekers and Cypriots in solidarity expands both the scale and the scope of the struggle. It is not merely a struggle for asylum, but really a struggle against institutionalised racism. It is evident that this specific struggle will take longer than some people expected.
March to the Ministry of Interior. Minister states that “most asylum seekers are really economic immigrants”. March to the Welfare office. Director states that it is impossible to offer any immediate assistance and that individual applications only will be examined, and these must be submited to the relevant District Office. In the afternoon four asylum seekers of Syrian Kurdish origin climb up the roof of a big building, wound themselves and threaten to jump if their voices are not heard. After a long stay on the roof, they come down escorted by an UNCHR representative. Through television, the Head of the Cypriot Parliament, Demetris Christofias accepts to see them in his office on the following day.
Although the struggle has already been subsumed within the spectacle, the authorities' definition of asylum eligibility and more broadly legality is clearly being questioned as protesters accuse the government of violation of national law as well as european and international human rights conventions. One banner contests the separation of the economic from the political, alluded by the “communist” Minister of Interior, stating boldly that "economic immigrants are political immigrants".
March to the Parliament. Christofias promises to forward their demands to the executive authority, expresses his personal sympathy and promises 1000 CYP on behalf of AKEL. Protesters inform him that irrespective of that, they will continue their struggle in Eleftheria Square.
As a response to the appearance of nationalist tendencies among some protesters, expressed in the separation of the Kurdish from the Asian protesters, two banners appear stating "No border, no nation" and "Freedom to the prisoners". Another one reminds the Cypriots that they were themselves refugees some time ago. The message is clear. Join us because "It could have been U".
Delegation goes to the Welfare Office. Individual applications for welfare are not accepted because of the absence of acceptable residence addresses. Massive AKEL concert in Eleftheria Square. Protesters' camp survives without any damages.
Asian immigrants prepare artistic long banners demanding freedom and humanity. Both Kurdish and Asians bring photographs depicting the tortures faced by their compatriots in their countries of origin.
March to Nicosia Central Prisons. Prison authorities refuse to accept a delegation of protesters. Protesters chant outside for a few hours and then return to Eleftheria Square. In the evening APOEL (sports club) supporters celebrate the winning of the football cup. The protesters camp is not threatened.
Just in case around 50 Cypriots gather preemptively (some of them with cameras) at Eleftheria Square to guard against potential violence by fascist groupings associated with APOEL club. The immigrant protesters dance in the square this evening as well!
Arrangements are made for the children to attend lessons in the local primary school. Meeting of protesters’ delegation with an UNHCR represenative in the building of KISA. Protesters are informed that the UN conciders the Republic of Cyprus as the competent authority in the subject matter. Meeting of asylum seekers’ representatives and Cypriot organisations on KISA's inititiative. Escalation is decided. An agreement is reached by immigrant - asylum seekers' representatives that national symbols were to be avoided so as to prevent the division of the protesters.
As the protest grows in Eleftheria Square the police is unable to contain the protesters on the pavement. This night they are dancing in the middle of the square!
Around 800 asylum seekers march to the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance. Police is filming and taking photographs of leading individuals. Protesters occupy the entrance of the Ministry until the Minister accepts a delegation. The Minister states that his government does not violate any national or international law and that those eligible for welfare should apply individually according to the established procedure. The president of KISA informs him that from that moment onwards the responsibility for the physical survival of these people lies with his ministry. After pondering for some time the occupation of the ministry, the protesters eventually decide to return to Eleftheria Square.
The situation between the Kurds and the Asians has deteriorated. As some Kurds opened up their flags, some Asians complained and asserted their right to open up their national flags as well. Eventually more moderate Kurds intervened and further tension was avoided. However the stance of some Kurds has been instrumental in the withdrawal of some Asians that same evening.
Delegation takes 170 applications for welfare to the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance. Heavy rainfall makes the situation unbearable for some families who leave Eleftheria Square. The immense majority of the Kurds remains however and is determined to continue the struggle. The Asians decrease further in numbers. The police arrests two immigrants involved in the mobilisations and more generally makes its presence felt.
The rainfall and the police pressure made apparent the precariousness and temporariness of Eleftheria Square as a sanctuary. Most importantly the absence of clear-cut and effective proposals as to how the struggle ought to be continued, leads to an attempt by some Cypriots to investigate more thoroughly how the immigrants themselves view the situation. This initiative is welcomed, it sparks long discussions in general assemblies with women participation, but no concrete proposals. Cypriots wait for the immigrants to tell them what to do, and immigrants expect the Cypriots to tell them how to proceed.
The government announces officially and finally the rejection of all of the protesters' demands. However it appoints a committee representing the services involved, to examine individual claims and complaints.
The Kurds decide to continue, and state their preference to do it alone. The Asians withdraw but repeat their readiness to return if a general mobilisation is called.
The Kurds march to the Red Cross building in protest, some enter inside and occupy one room. No violence at all. The rest set up tents outside. The Red Cross buys fast food for them. Heavy police presence.
Many people are tired and frustrated. The Red Cross building, is perhaps a safer place compared to Eleftheria Square given that the coming Sunday is an election day. However, the Red Cross is also the place where the “enclaved” (Greek Cypriots residing in the northern part of Cyprus) will arrive on Sunday for propagandistc and ceremonial reasons on the occasion of the parliamentary elections. Therefore although the Red Cross, as the supreme charity organisation is not a political target per se, the protesters’ presence there in the building where a Cypriot group of politically persecuted people will be hosted on Sunday is heavily politically charged.
10 protesters begin hunger strike. The committee appointed by the government is in the room nearby.
The protesters have decided to boycot the “merely formal committees” which “do not have any authority” and “do not give practical solutions to our demands”. Their demands can be summarised as “complete political refugee right” and “if you cannot do that, we demand international protection and send us to other european countries who admit refugee and human rights”. The government has arranged three buses which are parked outside ready to take them back to Paphos. They have received an ultimatum to vacate the building. The ultimatum has expired. Meeting of protesters’, Red Cross and UNHCR representatives in the absence of state officials. Red Cross director accepts to allow them to keep their tents in the parking area and guarantees their protection from the police until Monday when negotiations with the state will continue.
Like with Eleftheria Square, it is not yet clear whether this is a “political” occupation (of right) or a merely a “humanitarian” sanctuary (from the police). Perhaps it is both...
20/05/06, Nicosia, Cyprus.