AIM: start

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 concluded.

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 March.

----------------------------- * Martin Hellicar is Chief Reporter of the English-language daily "Cyprus Mail"

Martin Hellicar*