By Zoe Mize
BOLOGNA, Italy – The Republic of Cyprus lies in the azure waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, nestled between Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. The Greeks mythologized the island, the third largest in the Mediterranean Sea, as the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. Millions travel each year to discover for themselves the pleasures of this so-called “Jewel of the Mediterranean,”sipping brandy sours on its golden beaches.
Tourists, however, have not been the only visitors to the island. Over the last year, Cyprus has seen growing numbers of asylum seekers. Migrants, primarily from the Middle East or North Africa, arrive in the Republic of Cyprus by either boat or plane, though many more attempt to pass over land from the Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is currently occupied by Turkey, having arrived via flight to Ercan Airport. Only the southern two-thirds of the island, the Republic of Cyprus, is part of the European Union.
Many misconceptions about Cyprus propel migration to the island. Migrants may not understand that Cyprus is not geographically attached to Europe, nor that it is not a member of the Schengen area, a group of 26 European states between which one can travel without a passport. Further, it may not even be possible for them to cross into the Republic of Cyprus from the north.
To reach the Republic of Cyprus by land, migrants must pass through the United Nations Buffer Zone, or the Green Line. SAIS Europe MA candidate Elza Harb worked in Cyprus as a part of the Fulbright program there; she also interned at the Cyprus Refugee Council, a non-governmental organization associated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Using the patio of Giulio’s Bar on the SAIS Europe campus as a visual aid, Harb describes the checkpoint process in the Green Line. After passing through the Turkish checkpoint from the north (in Harb’s demonstration, the brick wall at the outer edge of the patio), a person with the appropriate documentation may pass through the buffer zone, which may be anywhere from two feet to half a mile in width (in this case, the patio itself). Afterwards, and again with the correct documents, a person can pass the Greek Cypriot checkpoint into the Republic of Cyprus (Giulio’s Bar).
Harb stresses that the Green Line is not a legal port of entry into the Republic of Cyprus. “If I tried to go into the Republic of Cyprus [after having flown into Ercan Airport], I’d be arrested, even with an American passport.” Migrants may appeal for asylum at the Greek Cypriot checkpoint, but without the correct visa, many are left trapped in the northern third of the island.
The migrant crisis emphasizes the difficulty of administering policy on the divided island. Cyprus has been split since a 1974 invasion by Turkey in response to a Greek attempt to annexthe island. Only Turkey now recognizes the Republic of Northern Cyprus as independent from the Republic of Cyprus, and the two governing entities share an icy relationship with minimal communication.
Brian Steiner, MA candidate at SAIS Europe, also worked in Cyprus for the Fulbright program. Steiner worked in both the Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus, requiring him to cross the Green Line at least twice a week. “I was always very aware of it,” he says of the buffer zone. According to Steiner, the division of the island makes migration policy particularly complicated. “EU laws, especially about migration, are very impossible to implement or enforce, and that’s what makes [the island] a complicated nexus [for migration policy],” he says.
Refugees from the Middle East dominate the conversation on Cypriot migration, but there remain other ways to obtain an EU passport through the Mediterranean nation. A golden visa permits residency or citizenship in exchange for a 2 million euro investment in real estate or infrastructure in addition to 150,000 euros in required donations. Applicants must maintain the investment for five years, though the citizenship process itself may take as little as six months and may be completed before the investment. The majority of immigrants with the means to take advantage of the program come from Russia and China.
The program, designed to encourage an inflow of foreign capital onto the island, is ripe for exploitation, being one of the simplest of its type within the EU. Cyprus’s program can be found on sites such as La Vida Golden Visas, NoMore Tax or Best Citizenships, which compile lists of countries with quick citizenship programs for those looking to evade taxes or gain entry to other EU nations. In November 2019, the Republic of Cyprus revoked passports granted to 26 investors accused of abusing the system to commit tax fraud.
Elza Harb was struck by the more visually obvious impact of this program: “They don’t finish the project.” She says that a southern coastal town, Limassol, is particularly popular for investment projects by those hoping to receive a golden passport. “The skyline of Limassol is filled with these cranes and unfinished buildings that will never, ever be finished, because once [the investors] have gotten their passport, it doesn’t matter anymore. Mostly they don’t even step foot in the country.” As to the claim that these investment projects boost the Cypriot economy, Harb says, “If you just build a half-finished hotel, that’s it. Construction workers stop getting paid, there are no hotel employees, tourists can’t stay there.”
While the Greek Cypriot government tightens the requirements for its golden passports and attempts to straighten out its convoluted approach to migration, there remains one more group for whom the island represents a chance at new life: “British retirees,” says Harb.