Nine months after Fadi, a refugee from Homs, Syria, landed in Cyprus on a boat carrying some 340 smuggled refugees, he still had not applied for asylum. He chose instead to attempt to reach mainland Europe by any means possible.
Fadi’s reluctance to plant roots in Cyprus, the European Union country closest to Syria, stems from Cyprus’ policy preventing most of those granted asylum from bringing their family members to join them.
For Fadi, who made the journey to Cyprus without his wife and 3-year-old son, the “right to family reunification” was important enough that he continued via “illegal ways,” he said, to Sweden, where he was granted refugee status in August.
Of the more than 487,000 refugees and migrants who have reached Europe by sea so far this year, just over half are Syrian. But fewer than 3,000 have come to Cyprus, an island nation of just 1 million people located 60 miles west of Syria.
The situation is worlds apart from that of the nearby Greek islands, which have seen 357,000 arrivals since January alone. And unlike Malta, located in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya, Cyprus is too far from the rest of Europe to be used as a transit country.
But according to a dozen refugees and migrants interviewed this summer, Cyprus’ asylum policies are the main reason they shun that country in favor of southern Europe. In Cyprus last year, only 3 percent of asylum-seekers were granted refugee status, which allows them to live and work legally. Fifty-six percent were granted subsidiary protection, a kind of second-tier international protection with fewer rights than refugee status. (The rest were rejected outright. But almost none of the rejections were Syrians; typically they get subsidiary protection.)
Most European countries make little distinction between the two. But in 2014, Cyprus amended its laws so that those who are granted subsidiary protection are not able to bring family members to Cyprus from their home countries or other nations to which they’d escaped — known as the right to family reunification — or to travel freely outside Cyprus. Subsidiary protection also comes with very limited work opportunities — which means those who get it can’t support themselves — and does not protect people from expulsion.
The distinction is just one example of discrepancies in how various European Union countries are treating the world’s biggest influx of migrants since the end of World War Two. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European network of NGOs, has warned that vastly different standards and quality of national asylum systems amounts to a “protection lottery” for those who reach Europe.
Reunification rights are particularly important for families like Fadi’s, which send fathers, husbands and underage children to Europe alone. If granted asylum, they become a kind of anchor drawing the rest of the family to safety.
“When you’re a refugee and you lost everything, your family is your support network to rebuild from scratch,” said Emilia Strovolidou, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cyprus.
Local lawyers and human rights advocates have accused the Cypriot government of changing the rules to deter migrants. “They want to give refugees the message: Don’t come to Cyprus because if you do, you won’t get refugee status,” said Doros Polykarpou, executive director of KISA, a Cypriot nonprofit. “And it works.”
Migrants also shun Cyprus because it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, the EU’s passport-free zone. Visitors to the country need a visa to get to the rest of Europe. But because most refugees do not have valid passports, they can’t get visas.
Many never register with authorities so that they can more easily apply for asylum elsewhere in Europe. This means they can’t live in Cypriot refugee camps — instead, they live on the streets or in unofficial, temporary shelters.
In an emailed statement, the Cypriot Asylum Service defended its policies, saying that “every case is examined on its own merits” and that it adhered to all of the EU directives concerning refugees.
On September 22, Cyprus voted in favor of an EU plan to relocate 120,000 refugees across Europe. But discussions leading up to the Brussels meeting highlighted a xenophobic sentiment seen in other Eastern European nations such as Hungary: Cypriot Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos said the country could take up to 300, but “we would seek for them to be Orthodox Christians.”
Meanwhile, the refugees’ widespread plots to leave Cyprus, as well as their choice to forego government-offered services, have drawn the ire of Cypriot authorities. One government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, likened it to “window shopping.”
“If you are running from persecution, should you get to choose?” the official said. “If someone is running behind you trying to kill you, do you say, ‘I don’t want Cyprus. I want Germany’?”
Tania Karas is an Istanbul-based multimedia journalist covering legal trends and human rights. This fall she will begin a nine-month Fulbright fellowship in Greece to report on refugees and migration policy at a time of financial crisis. Until December 2014, she covered legal education, immigration and New York courts for the New York Law Journal.