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The Cypriot Response

Refugees in Cyprus: From 1974 to Today

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates, based on a 2014 U.S. Department of State report on human rights in Cyprus, that the Republic of Cyprus must continue to bear an estimated 217,000 internally displaced persons remaining from the 1974 conflict with Turkey that divided the island into two nations (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2017). This legacy of trauma remains a burden for Cypriot policy and creates a difficult environment for adapting to new challenges, specifically the European refugee crisis. The “collective” or “social memory” of Cypriots and their history reflect and shape their understanding of the present (Hallgrimsdottir, 2020). A look at the historical context of migration in and to Cyprus sheds light on the impacts of history on current policy and the framing of incoming refugees using a crisis narrative. Late British historian Eric Hobsbawm stated, “The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society” (Hobsbawm, 1972, as cited in Hallgrimsdottir, 2020). 

Graffiti in Nicosia, near the UN patrolled buffer zone separating the Republic of Cyprus from Turkish-occupied Cyprus
"One Cyprus"

The “Cyprus Problem”

From the Assyrians to the British, the Greek island of Cyprus has endured a long history of conquerors, evolving into a nation with a mosaic of ethnicities, the most prominent of them being Greek (about 80% of the population) followed by the Turks (18% of the population). “We lived with a Turkish butcher and the Armenian silk manufacturer and a British waiter, for that matter, and an Italian singer in the bar. These were the people who all live together” says Christos Constantinou, a Greek-Cypriot and American immigrant (Divided loyalties, 2001). After centuries of colonial rule, Cyprus won her independence from the British in 1960 with the hope and belief she would never be subjected to another foreign power. 

“You read in history, they [the Greeks] always fought for their freedom” says Maria Karayiannis, another Greek-Cypriot American (Divided loyalties, 2001). But Maria and her family lost their fight for freedom when, in 1974, they were uprooted from their home village in Kyrenia. Remembered as the greatest tragedy in Cypriot history, 1974 marks the Turkish invasion and the island’s partition. As Turkey invaded from the north of the island, all Greek-Cypriots living in the north fled south, later declaring the southern sector of the island the Republic of Cyprus. Subsequently, all Turkish-Cypriots fled north, fearing the vengeance of Greek-Cypriots and seeking the protection of the Turkish military. In 1983, northern Cyprus became the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC); Turkey is the only nation to recognize its sovereignty. But most tragically of all, the invasion forced around 200,000 Greek Cypriots and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots to abandon their homes without the hope of ever being able to return. Despite many efforts to resolve the Greek-Turkish conflict, all attempts have failed, compelling the international community to label the almost fifty-year issue and frozen conflict as the “Cyprus Problem.”


The psychological and physical connection to one’s home is no more prevalent than in the Mediterranean cultures. The Greek word Topos, directly translating to “place,” refers to what one child of uprooted Greek-Cypriots describes as, “the place where the family stays forever, to become emotionally attached to the place, to know each other, to know that everyone has lived there forever” (Hadjiyanni, 2018). A quarter of the population’s upheaval from their ancestral homes tarnished the Cypriot ethnic mosaic with the addition of a new identity: refugee. Deprived of their Topos and refusing to become refugees in their own homeland, many Greek-Cypriots emigrated to the United States. Greek-Cypriot immigrant Rina Katsellis explained, “I am a refugee now. We have to start again. If we say that we are okay, here as refugees, we have no dignity. Because if you throw out your home without any excuse, you have no dignity unless you fight back” (Divided loyalties, 2001).

The European Refugee Crisis

Cyprus’ EU membership and its proximity to Syria would likely seem attractive to Syrian refugees as a first destination towards Europe. But Cyprus had not been exposed to the refugee crisis, which peaked in its neighboring Greek island of Lesbos in 2015, until recently, with 4,000 arrivals since January of this year (Financial Times, 2020). Cyprus has “topped the EU charts” in terms of asylum claims relative to its population for three years in a row. According to the Cypriot Interior Minister, Nicos Nouris, migration flows increased 320% from 2015 to 2019 while migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers now account for 3.8% of the population (Cyprus Mail, 2020). The increase in refugee numbers may correlate with the porous border which separates the Republic of Cyprus and the TRNC. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) established a ceasefire line that stretches approximately 180 kilometers across the island, with only nine UN stations patrolling the border which encompasses 3% of the island. One Greek-Cypriot government official accused Turkey of smuggling refugees across the border, an action only possible due to the soured Greek-Turkish relationship. He states, “The new trend in the last two years is that two-thirds come illegally from the north, they are entering from illegal crossings.” He declared that claiming asylum through the North is the “favoured method of entry into the Republic” (Cyprus Mail, 2020).

Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades also blames Turkey (a tactic most Greek-Cypriot politicians have used since 1974) and the opening of its borders for the chaos that has ravaged Europe since the new year. Amid the “Cyprus Problem” and the finger-pointing stand the refugees, a vulnerable tool for states’ political agendas. Nicos Trimikliniotis of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights says, “The use of refugees and migrants in a geopolitical discussion and political discourse has to be carefully monitored.” The current situation, Timikliniotis says, “is a geopolitical game” (RFI, 2020). Despite its personal experience with refugee crises, old wounds and a population still displaced from 1974 cripple the Cypriot government’s ability to respond to the new influx of refugees. Even as new generations are born on a divided island, the traumatic memory of leaving Topos is forever engraved on the hearts of all Greek and Turkish Cypriots, so much so they find themselves unable to respond to current challenges. 


Divided loyalties. Constantinou, S. (Director). (2001, Jan 01).[Video/DVD] Retrieved from

Hadjiyanni, Tasoulla. “The Persistence of Refugee Consciousness – The Case of Greek-Cypriot Refugees.” The Cyprus Review.

Helga Hallgrimsdottir, Ari Finnsson, and Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly. “Austerity Talk and Crisis Narratives: Memory Politics, Xenophobia, and Citizenship in the European Union.” Frontiers in Sociology.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). “Global Report on Internal Displacement: CYPRUS.” GRID Database, 2018.

Made, Jan van der. “Cyprus Braces for Wave of Migrants as Turkey Opens Borders.” RFI. RFI, March 5, 2020.

Peel, Michael. “Cyprus President Warns of Looming Refugee 'Disaster' in Europe.” Subscribe to read | Financial Times. Financial Times, March 3, 2020.

Theodoulou, Nick. “Division Stokes Migrant Crisis.” Cyprus Mail, March 7, 2020.

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