NICOSIA, Cyprus - A new report from the human rights group Amnesty International claims that hundreds of migrants fleeing persecution and conflict who arrive in Cyprus are locked up by authorities in violation of international law.
The report says the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government is responsible for holding hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers for months and even years in poor conditions, without adequate medical care or access to free legal aid, in violation of their basic rights.
Jezerca Tigani, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Program Director at Amnesty International, told VOA that Cyprus should urgently review its laws governing the detention of migrants to make sure they conform to policies elsewhere in the European Union.
"Detention is being used in Cyprus as a tool to regulate migration, which means the Cypriot authorities are violating international and European law when they detain illegal migrants without examining any alternative measures, or without demonstrating that their detention is indeed necessary," said Tigani.
The Amnesty report comes just as Cyprus is set to assume the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July.
Amnesty also claims that several dozen Syrians are being treated like criminals and held at detention centers, including some who claim to be escaping the bloodshed in their home country. Tigani says the Syrians should not be in detention.
"Many Syrians were being detained for months and months in the detention centers although there was an order by Cypriot authorities not to deport any Syrians back to Syria because of the situation in the country," said Tigani. "It is just shocking to see why the Syrians were being detained when actually they are not to be deported back to Syria in the current situation. Unfortunately, even the authorities do not understand that the detention should only be linked to the deportation."
Doros Polycarpou from the immigrant support group KISA told VOA he too is perplexed as to why the Syrians are still in detention.
"This is an un-understandable, a completely un-understandable situation," said Doros. "There is a violation of international law and refugee law itself."
Last week, Tigani visited some of those detained at Nicosia's main prison. She says the prison, which is over 130 years-old, is hot, overcrowded and filthy with migrants being held together with convicted criminals.
"The detention conditions are really awful and very overcrowded - many people are in the same cells, the smells are absolutely terrible inside the cells and the detainees have no access to fresh air outside or to exercise, you can see how the detention in these kind of conditions has a very bad [effect]," said Tigani. "It affects the detainees, it affects their mental health, but also their physical health and they have very little access, if all to any doctors."
In response to the allegations, the Cypriot Government EU Presidency Spokesman Nicos Christdoulides says that Cyprus welcomed the Amnesty report as an opportunity that will allow for “fruitful consultations.” But he stressed that Cyprus is adhering to its international obligations.
"In the case where an asylum seeker is detained, the examination of his application is prioritized while it is ensured that he has full access to his rights, provided for by the refugee law," said Christdoulides.
Christdoulides says the government will soon open a new detention facility designed especially for migrants and asylum seekers.
"To solve the problem the government of Cyprus has already set up a new detention facility, which is expected to operate soon and which is designed only for immigration purposes," said Christdoulides.
Amnesty International says however it has not seen any substantial improvement in the treatment of asylum seekers by Greek Cypriot authorities, despite repeated calls for conditions to change over the past decade.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by Greek Cypriot supporters of a union with Greece.