Blog: The Cypriot Roma and their living conditions during COVID-19

April 3, 2020

By Chryso Pelekani
(part of the Roma Civil Monitor in Cyprus)

Cypriot government’s actions to integrate Roma do not seem to be effective enough and more must be done as soon as possible to protect their lives in the current time of pandemic revealed the interviews with members of the Roma community living in this insular member state.

Cypriot Roma (Kurbetties) continue to face difficulties in all areas of their lives, particularly in the area of ​​housing and employment. Their living conditions are generally characterized by high unemployment, inadequate housing and poor access to health services and education, combined with weaknesses, omissions and the indifference of the state to implement specific measures or policies to address such problems, and indeed, state indifference to taking care to provide social support measures for the smooth integration of the Roma into the wider society; this indifference results in their social exclusion.

In Cyprus, Roma live either in properties belonging originally to Turkish-Cypriots who were forcibly moved to the northern areas of Cyprus (controlled by Turkey since the Turkish invasion in 1974) and now administered by the Government, or in prefabricated houses in specially designated areas (in Paphos and in Limassol). Over the last two decades, a large number of Roma living in the northern areas of the country (especially in Morphou and Famagusta) returned to their initial local neighborhoods but were not positively accepted by the local majority, who treated them with hostility because they did not wish to live near Roma. To satisfy the local non-Roma inhabitants, the authorities then relocated the Roma to isolated areas, in settlements, in prefabricated houses. (See page 14 of the Year 2 RCM Report on Cyprus. Full reports are available here).

The residents who live in the formerly Turkish-Cypriot houses, maintained by the state-run Turkish-Cypriot property management service, pay a very small amount of rent every month to the Government and will do so until their initial owners, currently living in the Turkish-occupied areas of the country, return to reclaim the properties. Their rent was increased in 2017 as part of a plan by the Interior Minister to amend outdated procedures and introduce fairer distribution of Turkish-Cypriot assets to the beneficiaries. (See page 13 of the Year 2 RCM Report on Cyprus).

‘We are here, do not forget us!’

The Cypriot Roma speak openly about their living conditions in the settlements and about the measures they are taking to deal with the coronavirus. I have recently discussed this via telephone with some of the Cypriot Roma residing in the Agios Antonios area and in the Polemidia settlement in Limassol, and I have been informed that their living and sanitary conditions are even more difficult now. They shared with me how they are handling the current situation in the settlement as well as their concerns about coronavirus:

“There are currently 12 residential houses in Polemidia (approximately 70 people). Of these, only four have access to electricity and seven have access to water. Not everyone has water and electricity."  (Ayse, 30 years old)

“Those who have good relationships with their friends and relatives can use their electricity and water, but this does not happen all the time. Many times, many families may have water but because they do not have electricity, the water is not hot, that’s why they cannot take a bath.’’ (Ugur, 32 years old)

Another Roma woman mentioned hygiene problems in their settlement and the intervention of the municipality:

"We have complained to our mayor and to the Turkish Cypriot Property Management many times, and fortunately only a few months ago the Municipality of Limassol came and cleaned the area. The situation had reached an impasse. In the summer we have lots of mosquitoes, and there are snakes everywhere. Τhis cannot stay as it is. They must not forget us!" (Hivsiye, 47 years old)


(Photos: Ayshe E.)

A Roma woman who lives in the area of ​​Agios Antonios told me that she has repeatedly contacted the Turkish Cypriot Property Management office and asked them to repair the building she is living in, but she has not yet received any response.

"Chryso, I have spoken many times to officers of the Turkish Cypriot Property Management about the condition of my house. The rain has dampened the whole house and we smell mold everywhere. My husband is sick in bed and we have to live under these conditions. I have been living in this house for 20 years and they came only one time to repair it. It is dangerous with electric current and wet walls. One day we will get an electric shock! Tell them please to come and fix them." (Shenai, 55 years old)

(Photo: Shenay, A.)

‘Concerns about coronavirus’

Although no one has come to inform the Cypriot Roma about what the virus is and what steps they must take to keep themselves safe and healthy as much as they can at home, they seem well-informed nonetheless.

"We're not going out. We are confined to our homes. We are very afraid."  (Ayshe, 30 years old)

"We try to be as clean as possible, but without water and electricity, sometimes it is very difficult to do that. We need the understanding and help of the state. We are asking the Ministry of Interior and the Turkish Cypriot Services Administration in Limassol to provide us with a certificate of residence so we can apply for electricity and water and not be forced to borrow from others." (Hivsiye, 47 years old)

"Thank God! No one has been infected with coronavirus. We don't go out of the house. We are very careful. We remain at our settlement, but we need water and electricity to have a clean environment and to be healthy, and this is not only in our own hands, but also in that of the state to achieve." (Ayshe, 30 years old)

“My wife and I try not to go out frequently. We have three kids, we don't want to be sick. My wife cleans the house every day, either with detergent or vinegar (when she is out of detergent).  She learned this from my mother. I, myself, make fresh juice for all of us, to get the vitamin C that our body needs, and I try to exercise daily." (Apturrahman, 27 years old)

"I am very concerned about this situation. I wake up very early in the morning and clean everything, even the doorknobs! My mother is sick and I also take of my sister's child, Fatos, who is paraplegic. We are a vulnerable family who have to pay close attention to where we go and whom we come into contact with. We avoid going out frequently. We stay home. " (Kibariye, 29 years old)

"I don't go out of the house and I don't get visits. My husband is sick. We cannot risk it. There are also Roma who are not so clean. I take great care, I clean the house constantly, I have everything I need to keep my house and my family clean and healthy. " (Shenai, 55 years old)

‘Immediate actions to be taken by the government’

Almost all Cypriot Roma residing at the Polemidia settlement are welfare recipients. The residents are requesting the assistance of the state to issue them a certificate of residence so they can formally be registered for water and electricity delivery, which will allow them to protect themselves and their families during the current pandemic crisis.

In general, all Cypriot Roma are calling for systematic control of the area and the houses they live in by the welfare services and other authorities and for more frequent meetings and discussions with officials in order to discuss the various problems that concern them and their real needs.

It is, therefore, imperative that these people live in a clean and healthy environment, which is indispensable for a sustainable economy and an equal society. There are mechanisms that create safe and healthy environments, such as targeted interventions, health policies, redistribution policies, and universalization adjustments (both targeted and universal policies). In order to address this issue as closely as possible, the prerequisite is good cooperation among all stakeholders with a view to protecting and safeguarding the public health of the Roma and of all citizens in general.

The author is a scientist at the University of Cyprus and the Chair of the Cyprus Roma Association CYPROM. She has been
involved in the Roma Civil Monitor (RCM) pilot project, and developed monitoring reports on the Roma inclusion policy in Cyprus.

The RCM pilot project is carried out for the European Commission, DG Justice and Consumers. It is coordinated by the Center for Policy Studies of the Central European University (CEU CPS), in partnership with the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network (ERGO Network), the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) and the Roma Education Fund (REF) and implemented with around 90 NGOs and experts from up to 27 member states.

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors and/or their organizations. The CEU Center for Policy Studies is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.