The Refugees Trapped in A British Military Base in Cyprus
When I went to Cyprus this summer, I noticed a large strange fenced area that seemed to be under high security that was bordered by the sea. I asked our taxi driver what this area was. He explained that it was one of the UK Military Base areas in Cyprus, known as Akrotiri (the other UK base is called Dhekelia). I later found out that these bases covered 3% of Cyprus’s territory. He told me that when Cyprus was granted independence in 1960, the British kept these bases under their control. The importance of these bases lie in that they are strategically close to the Middle East. For example in 2013, British forces bombed Syria from Akrotiri and Dhekelia, to support the efforts against the Syrian government.
Approximately 16,000 people live in the bases – around 8,000 are Cypriots whilst the others are either part of the British military or family members to them. Buying property in the bases is extremely difficult, as the UK has contended that the bases are not to be used for civilian purposes.
However, there is an estranged group of foreigners who not only live in the base, but are not allowed out – they are refugees, mostly Syrian and Palestinian. Some of them have been living on the island for up to 17 years after they arrived at the shore of the base by boat. A group of 67 Iraqi and Syrian Kurds live in Dhekelia. Many of them arrived in 1998, whilst some of them were born there. They are separated in a “fenced off area in tents” from the 114 Syrian and Palestinian refugees that also arrived there recently.
Some of these refugees living on the base are stateless, since they were born on the base. 16-year-old Layali’s case is an exceptional one as she is stateless since she was born on the boat when her mother was trying to escape Iraq in 1998. Her and her mother, like many others, had not anticipated landing in a British sovereign base in Cyprus, as they thought they were destined for Italy. In 1998, 21 people were on that boat. Today, they and their children make up 67 refugees in the base. Of them, 38 are “failed asylum seekers”, unqualified to work. They are given welfare allowances although they are not allowed to work anywhere in Cyprus or Britain, since they are essentially stateless. Although they are not technically trapped in the base, their stateless status restricts them from moving anywhere, as they would not be able to have a job, apply for financial aid, or do the basic things that people who have a passport can do to lead a normal life.
The new wave of 114 refugees in the base have far more unfortunate circumstances. A twelve year old boy says that “we cannot leave the tents because it is too cold, there are no schools, there is nothing”. These refugees, unlike those 67, are not allowed out of the fenced area despite their pleas. A video from The Guardian shows a refugee threatening to hang himself in front of British police officers if they do not let him out. Another man is seen bloodied and cutting himself after pleading to get out. One refugee claimed that the officers “count them” everyday as if they were in prison, and another claimed that they are “treated like animals”. Galvanized anger led to an attempt to set the tents at the base on fire on October 31st.
How is Britain going to deal with these 114 refugees that inadvertently landed in their territory? It is clearly Britain’s responsibility, as these bases are their territory, but they have put the responsibility on Cyprus. To rid themselves of the burden, whilst reaping the benefits of owning the base, Britain has claimed that the Cyprian government is responsible for the refugees. How is this so, when the Cyprian government has little to no say regarding Britain’s military affairs in the bases, including the Syrian bombings in 2013? It seems as though Britain refuses to deal with issues that do not directly benefit them, like dealing with refugees. But if they want to use the resources and land of an area, they better be prepared to deal with the problems that come with it.
It is absolutely unacceptable for these refugees to have “failed asylum” status, like the 38 refugees who have been in the Dhekelia base with their families since 1998. Like one of the trapped men said, they are not animals. They should not be trapped in this strange military base. It is not their fault they were born in conflict ridden countries and washed up on the shore of this base. This base and the people within it, however, are Britain’s responsibility. It is despicable to treat the lives of these people as unworthy; as only worth rotting away in between a strange fenced area in Cyprus, simply because they were born in the wrong place and washed up upon the wrong shore.
All photos credit to Flickr Creative Commons