Cyprus, Asharq Al-Awsat—The building looks like a fortress, a modern-day castle made of concrete and steel perched on top of a parched, scrubby hilltop. It is grey, unwelcoming and utilitarian, and the sign at the entrance gate welcomes you in the baldest of terms: “Cyprus Police: Mennogeia Centre.”
The Cypriot authorities state that Mennogeia is not a prison, but a prison is what it feels like. As I wait for the guards at the gatehouse to check my passport and visitor’s permit, I hear an announcement come over the intercom: it is exercise time in the barbed-wire-ringed yard, and one hour only is allowed. But the people who are held here are not criminals. They are migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, all accused of breaking the terms of their visas or simply forced to stay here while the Cypriot bureaucracy decides on their visa statuses and asylum applications—and so, by extension, their futures.
Arranging my visit here was easy enough—I call up a day before and say that I am a friend of Abdo, one of the dozens of Syrians being held in Mennogeia while the Cypriot authorities decide what to do with them. But the people who have introduced me to him warn me not to reveal to the guards that I am a journalist—if they suspect that I am with the press, they say, I will be escorted straight back out. On the way in the guards take my passport, search me for weapons, and instruct me to leave all my belongings at reception.
It is July when I visit Mennogeia, and Abdo has already been held there for four months. He asks me not to publish his story until he is freed, fearful that there may be reprisals for him if the authorities know that he has spoken to a journalist. He tells me that he has witnessed detainees being beaten by the guards in Mennogeia. When I meet him twenty-five Syrians are on hunger strike at the center, in protest against the conditions and their continuing detention without trial or access to information and legal assistance. Like Abdo, most of them have been here for four months or more. None of them have any idea when they will be released, or what will happen to them once they are. “I have lost fifteen kilos since I’ve been in here,” Abdo tells me. “The food is just awful. You can’t eat it.”
The Greek Republic of Cyprus has long played host to a community of Syrian migrant workers—well before the onset of revolution in Syria and the massive human displacement it triggered. Abdo has been in Cyprus for five years and he had a job, a home and a girlfriend, but he lost them all when the authorities came knocking on his door and he was taken to Mennogeia on the charge of working without the appropriate permit. “My girlfriend just saw me as a criminal,” he says. “She thought that if I’m in prison then I must have done something wrong, and she left me.” Some of the Syrians in Mennogeia have, like Abdo, been living in Cyprus for a number of years but are accused of failing to work within the strict visa rules. Migrant workers’ residency rights in Cyprus are dependent on their working status—if they lose their job, they lose their right to remain there. The more recent arrivals are refugees who have fled the bloody conflict 200 miles to the east. But both groups are considered to have broken Cypriot law and are detained in conditions that were seriously criticized by Amnesty International in a report released last year.
Doros Polykarpou is a local activist and director of KISA, a pressure group that monitors the situation of migrant workers and asylum seekers in the Greek Republic of Cyprus. He believes that the underlying resentment that already existed on the island has been amplified by the Syrian conflict. “People in Cyprus believe that Syrian asylum seekers are flocking here, or are about to if they haven’t already,” he tells me over an arak in the quaint old city. The pavement cafés and good-looking young crowd suggest nothing of the economic earthquake that hit Cyprus’s economy at the start of this year and the aftershocks of social tension that followed it. Polykarpou says that the National People’s Front (commonly known as ELAM), the Cypriot franchise of Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn party, is gaining popularity on the island, bolstered by the economic chaos caused by the near-collapse of the country’s banks in March, and the fear of the impact that thousands of Syrian refugees will have on this socially and economically fragile island.
But these fears are not grounded in facts. “Only a small number of Syrians have actually come here since the conflict started,” says Polykarpou. European Parliament figures back up his claims; they show that just 565 Syrians applied for asylum in Cyprus in the whole of 2012, as has been the case for the past two and a half years. The overwhelming majority of displaced Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries or in the IDP camps that are strung out along the border. And yet the Cypriot local press—and, on occasion, international newspapers—have repeatedly published articles for the past two years about the coming influx that never materializes.
Polykarpou believes that the scapegoating of Syrian asylum seekers is an effective vote winner in the Republic of Cyprus, and that cynical government politicians are trying to utilize fears about migrants to their political advantage. Detaining a Syrian migrant worker like Abdo, even though he has been contributing to the life and economy of the island for five years, is an effective piece of propaganda. And for the past two years, the fear of a Syrian influx has proved a handy tool for political point-scoring. In December 2012, then-presidential candidate Nicos Anastasiadis, now the president, made unfounded claims that the government was preparing to receive 5,000 refugees, provoking anger across the country.
Meanwhile, in the hard metallic light of the visiting room, family and friends bring the everyday essentials as presents for the friends and relatives they are visiting. The piles of toilet rolls and cereal boxes in plastic supermarket bags underneath the nailed-down tables reveal just what Mennogeia is missing—home comforts, or any comforts at all. It is not a prison in name, but in every other respect it is. “I just want to leave, to get out of here,” says Abdo. “I don’t even want to stay in Cyprus after this, I’d rather go back home to Syria, even with everything that is happening there.”