TUE, 24 APR 2001 14:09:28 GMT
When Roma Become a Political Hot Potato in Cyprus
AIM Athens, April 24, 2001
This spring the Cyprus government has been confronted with one of the
largest tides of Turkish Cypriot Roma flooding into the south from the
Turkish occupied north. Since the beginning of March, more than 150 Turkish
Cypriot Roma, in groups of ten or more, have crossed the so-called Green
Line that has divided the Mediterranean island since 1974.
Often coming in the dead of the night, with few belongings, the groups
travelled as families, with babies and toddlers in their arms. They told
police that they were fleeing the crippling economic crisis that has
gripped the north ever since the Turkish Lira went into free fall at the
end of February.
They were taken, as was their wish, to the Paphos area, given food, £375 a
month in state benefit for a family of four, and housed in abandoned
Turkish Cypriot villages or hotels until permanent residence could be
found. When as the trickle of arrivals became a flood, the Paphos Welfare
Department found their resources squeezed. The Roma were given beds in the
town's youth hostel - closed ahead of the summer season - then in makeshift
tents and finally, 45 were housed in the special immigration facility
within the Nicosia central prison compound.
Their predicament, flashed around the country on TV, showed them dirty and
bedraggled in campsites, reminiscent of refugees in the Balkans. The
government promised that permanent residence and jobs would be found, as
long as the Roma were Turkish Cypriots and not Turkish nationals, who would
face immediate deportation for illegal entry into the island.
The Cyprus government condemns Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash for
what they see as his deliberate policy of encouraging settlers from Turkey,
to distort the demographic balance of the population in the north. The
future of the settlers is one of the most problematic issues in a solution
to the island's political conundrum.
But the plight of the Turkish Cypriot Roma came to a head on Wednesday 18
April, when Attorney General Alecos Markides suddenly issued a public
warning that Cyprus was in danger of being taken to the European Court of
Human Rights for denying free movement to Cypriot citizens. The Legal
Service voiced concern that Roma housed inside the prison compound were
being denied freedom of movement.
Markides wrote letters to the Justice, Interior and Foreign Ministries,
urging them to sit up and take notice of his concerns. His office hastily
drew up legislative amendments to make wrongful denial of freedom a
criminal rather than just a civil offence. Markides hoped to push the
amendment through Parliament at its last pre-election session, on April 19.
Parliament refused to even consider the bill, saying there was no provision
on the agenda for its final session for the tabling of new bills.
Taking its cue from Markides, the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee
called an extraordinary meeting first thing on April 19 to tackle the
'gypsy' question. But, before committee members could leave their chairs to
inspect the accommodation in the Nicosia prison compound, where Markides
claimed 45 gypsies were wrongfully imprisoned, 23 had upped and left. The
five families of ten children and 13 adults aged from eight months to
45-years packed their meagre belongings into duffel bags and straggled back
through the Ledra Palace Checkpoint in Nicosia, returning to the
economically ravaged north after just 18 days in the south.
Rasvan Topaloglulan, 45, told reporters that they had decided to return
home because they weren't taken to Paphos, neither did they have homes,
jobs or money. Of the original 45 in the prison compound, less than 24
hours after the Attorney General kicked up a fuss about human rights
abuses, only seven remained. Apart from the 23 who went back to the north,
another 10 were reportedly lodged in a closed-down hotel. Three were taken
into custody as Turkish nationals, with four family members (three of them
underage children) allowed to stay behind with them.
Then the political backlash against the 'alarmist' Markides began. Interior
Minister Christodoulos Christodoulou lashed out against accusations that
the "gypsies" were being mistreated. "I don't think that the treatment they
received was inferior from that of taxpaying citizens," he retorted, before
accusing the gypsies of sponging off the government's generosity. The
verdict from the Human Rights Committee ruled against the Attorney General.
"It's not a five-star hotel, but it's not inhumane either. I think that
conditions here could be better than their actual living conditions," said
one left-wing member. A centre right colleague backed him up, "the
republic's behaviour does not constitute human rights violation," he
The truth is that Turkish Cypriot Roma are a political hot potato, not
helped by the timing of their arrival, coming just two months before a
general election. On the one hand, the government used their arrival to
score points against the Denktash 'paradise' in the north, where Turkish
Cypriots can supposedly live in peace, far from the prejudice and
discrimination sometimes meted out to them by Greek Cypriots. Comments such
as, 'things are so bad, even the gypsies can't handle them', were
brandished about in the public arena and eagerly snatched upon by the
media. "Conditions in the pseudo-state are hellish and even these gypsies,
who do not demand a lot from life, are not happy, and in spite of all the
dangers, dare to cross over into the free areas," said Christodoulou at the
end of March. When a total of 75 Roma arrived in that month alone, the
press nicknamed them "fugitives".
Plus it was impossible for the government - the only legal state on the
island - not to treat the Turkish Cypriot Roma as Cypriot citizens. As
Markides pointed out, Nicosia could not hope to gain support for settling
the Cyprus problem and for EU accession unless the Roma were treated fairly.
But, on the other hand, it's impossible to disguise the fact that Greek
Cypriots dislike an influx of gypsies, be they Turkish Cypriot or not.
When the vast majority were housed in Paphos, local residents bitterly
complained that Nicosia treated their neighbourhood as a dumping ground for
foreign "undesirables" in Cyprus. The coastal town is already over-flowing
with Russians and Greeks from Georgia. They disparaged the "gypsies" as
parasites on social welfare, claiming that they are never willing to work
and blend in with the rest of the community. Indeed, so vehement is
people's dislike that the government initially refused to disclose the
precise location of their living quarters. On previous occasions Turkish
Cypriot Roma have been taken to remote villages, as far as possible from
Greek Cypriot centres (and potential sources of work), to avoid upset from
the local voters.
A right-wing politician and keeper of a hard line policy on foreigners in
Cyprus, Christodoulou has just implemented police checks on all foreign
students to make sure they don't use their student visa as a backdoor work
permit. But he also likes to see himself as a man of the people - someone
who reflects and acts upon popular opinion. Hence his frank and almost
apologetic admittance that the government's hand was tied and that there
was nothing the authorities could do to stem the tide, because the Roma
were citizens of the Republic. "We are the legal state on the island and as
these people are Cypriot citizens we cannot appear to the outside world not
to be treating them as Cypriot citizens. Faced with the danger of being had
up for not meeting our obligations as stipulated by the constitution and
international treaties or of being accused of being discriminatory, it
becomes clear that the right thing to do is what we are going," he said.
When local residents in Kotsiatis, outside Nicosia, complained about a
"gypsy" holding centre being built in their village, where their status
could be validated, Christodoulou promised the building would be set up "at
least three kilometres away from any built up area". It was both a
concession to and an answer to widespread public prejudice. A report about
the Roma published in the "Washington Times" suggested the Greek Cypriot
reaction was indicative of their "inherent suspicion and dislike of
anything Turkish." Suspicion was exacerbated as conspiracy stories gathered
wind. Claims were made that Denktash had deliberately masterminded the
"gypsy influx" to de-stabilise the Republic. Then Justice Minister Nicos
Koshis announced that the intelligence branch suspected some "gypsies" were
posing as undercover Turkish spies. Correspondingly, they were all kept
under close police supervision.
In turn, the Turkish Cypriot press also exploited the matter for its own
purposes. One report alleged that the gypsies had been kept in police
custody and that a pregnant woman was taken to hospital in handcuffs when
her two-year old was unwell. The Turkish Cypriot authorities jumped on
their treatment as evidence of Greek Cypriot distrust and prejudice, which
threw UN plans for a bi-communal, bi-zonal solution into serious doubt. In
February, there were reports that police heavily beat a group of Turkish
Cypriots after they crossed into the free areas. They were then allegedly
dumped back in the Green Line. The Police publicly denied all knowledge of
the incident at the time, but the Attorney General still launched an
official enquiry into their claims of mistreatment. The Interior Minister
said that if any mistreatment had taken place, it had been carried out by
the Denktash regime. Members of the same group arrived back in the south in
* Martin Hellicar is Chief Reporter of the English-language daily "Cyprus