Migrant Refugee Cyprus British Sovereign Base Areas Dhekelia Akrotiri

The cost of limbo: the 97 migrants living in RAF bases in Cyprus

Since Cyprus achieved independence in 1960, the UK has had an arrangement with the Cypriot Government to maintain two military bases in the country: RAF Akrotiri to the west and RAF Dhekelia to the east (both marked above). Collectively they are known as the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs). Technically, both bases are British territory and operate their own laws and customs.

This arrangement becomes a problem when migrants enter into SBA territory and apply for asylum there, because it raises questions over which country – Britain or Cyprus – is responsible for them.

This happened on two occasions in the past, after two groups of migrants arrived at the bases by boat. This first happened in October 1998, when 74 migrants – most of them Iraqi Kurds – reached the SBAs by sea. On the second occasion, in October 2015, 115 migrants – most of them Palestinian – reached RAF Akrotiri.

Because we don’t want to set a precedent, we’ve refused to consider these applications under UK law or grant them any right of residence in the UK. Instead, in 2003, an arrangement was made between with Cypriot authorities, wherein their applications are considered by Cypriot authorities under their law and any successful applicants are entitled, amongst other things, to social security and other support.

If they decide to remain in the sovereign base areas, it appears that their welfare and other support is paid for by the British taxpayer. There is also, of course, a cost associated with providing emergency support for these migrants at the point of their arrival.

I’ve taken a keen interest in this issue over the past month, and a Written Parliamentary Question we sent in (see here) has revealed the full extent of the cost to the British public of housing and supporting these migrants. It’s just received coverage in a range of media outlets, not least the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express and – most important of all – Ripley & Heanor News in Derbyshire.

Unsurprisingly, and sadly, the media focus has been on the injustice to British taxpayers. As important as this is, there’s another underlying issue here about whether many of these migrants are being left in limbo, and if an alternative arrangement could be made. Let’s look at the story behind the headlines.

The process for managing these migrants is set out in the Refugees Ordinance 20031, and amended by both the Refugees (Amendment) Ordinance 20082 and Refugees (Amendment) Ordinance 2014.3 The 2008 amendment made it clear that the Cypriot Government is responsible for assessing these migrants under their own law.

The regulations establish that these migrants have a right to a “temporary residence permit” whilst their application is being considered, which entitles them to healthcare, work and free movement within the island of Cyprus.

Anyone accepted as refugees will then receive a three-year residence permit which is automatically renewed so long as they retain refugee status. With this permit, they can be considered to have two “layers” of entitlement (my terminology, not theirs) to public funds and support:

  • For some things they get a very strong entitlement and should “receive the same protection as that provided to residents of the [Sovereign Base] Areas.” The right to elementary education, access to courts, “public relief and assistance”, “social security” and intellectual property protection all fall into this category.
  • For other things they get what, to me, appears to be a weaker level of entitlement. For these things they should receive support on a level “which is no less favourable than that accorded to aliens who are neither refugees nor applying for asylum but who in all other respects are in the same circumstances as the refugee.” In this category they include recognition of any diplomas or degrees, “the right to engage in paid employment” and, for post-elementary educational purposes, “exemption from fees and the granting of scholarships.”

In total, I count a total of 97 migrants still resident at the bases as of mid-February 2016. I break this figure down as follows:

  • We have 30 migrants still there of the 115 who arrived at the SBA most recently, in October 2015. As late as 8th December 2015, the Government were using the figure of 60/115 (see here) but later figures have put it lower. Within this we know that 46 of the original 115 migrants made asylum applications, of which just 21 have been determined thus far (6 accepted, 15 rejected).
  • We have 67 migrants linked to the original 74 who arrived in October 1998. All 67 of these migrants applied for asylum at some point after their arrival, but only 29 of these applications were accepted. The other 38 were never determined until, in 2014, an Ordinance was passed establishing that these applications had been rejected. The Government says they had to pass this Ordinance because these 38 were refusing to comply to allow their claims to be assessed. Despite effectively being rejected, all 38 of these migrants are still in the SBAs.

It’s possible to cross-reference all these figures with the written parliamentary answer received and calculate some rough figures to give an impression of the cost per migrant. I will stress, however, that these are very rough estimates – especially for the migrants who arrived in Oct 1998, where the Government haven’t given me much to work with.

I attempt to do this in the table below. You can download the contents of this table in Excel format here.

Refugee / Migrant Group Type of Cost Cost
Oct 1998 Refugees estimated annual cost (EUR/year) EUR 165.000
estimated annual cost (£/Year) £127.015.07
estimated total cost from Oct 1998 -Jan 2016 (17 years) £
estimated annual cost per original migrant (74) £1.716.42
estimated annual cost per current migrant (67) £1.895.74
Oct 2015 Migrants total cost to date (£) £1.122.972
total cost per original migrant (115) £9.764.97
Both Groups estimated total cost from Oct 1998 – Jan 2016 (17 years) £

So what can I say about all this? I have two disconnected thoughts.

First, it’s interesting to compare this with the cost of the usual asylum and refugee claim in the UK itself. If you applied in the UK, then unlike (apparently) with these migrants and refugees, there’s a good chance you would have a No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition attached to your asylum, severely curtailing your entitlement to welfare support – over 90% of people granted leave to remain in the UK have NRPF conditions in place. The entitlement in Cyprus seems to be more generous.

Secondly, I have doubts about the real level of educational and workplace support these migrants are entitled to. The Ordinances appear to set out strong entitlement, and Ministers have been adamant to us that this legislation is being applied generously – they’ve told us that some of the refugees are attending University. But this appears to be completely contradicted by in-depth reports by journalists, which suggest that many migrants have no real legal rights at all and are struggling to get entitlement to University places, apply for jobs or even get official birth certificates for babies born in the bases. This Daily Telegraph report by James Badcock, for example, paints a much bleaker picture, and it completely contradicts the account given by Ministers and set out in SBA regulations.

Why this gap between legal jargon and the reality on the ground? There are some clear explanations:

  • The regulations only took effect in 2003. They are not retrospective for the migrants already accepted as refugees before that point.
  • As I point out above, the entitlement to work and post-elementary education, in my interpretation, is weaker than that for other more basic rights like welfare support – they only get it on the same basis as “aliens” living in the SBAs. So this may, in practice, act as a very severe restriction on their entitlement.
  • A high proportion of these migrants have not been granted refugee status. The figure currently stands at just 35 refugees out of 97 migrants on the camps.

Clearly the Tabloids will disagree and take a more parochial view, but I draw a broader and more unifying lesson from the figures from the written answers. Quite clearly, it’s in nobody’s interests to keep these people in limbo.

Note: This post was updated on 22/03/2016 to reflect information from two further written parliamentary answers (see here and here).


Show 3 footnotes

  1.  Administrator of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, The Refugees Ordinance 2003, (SBA/AG/2/IA/207)
  2. Administrator of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, 28th November 2008, Refugees (Amendment) Ordinance 2008 (SBA/AG/2/IA/207)
  3. Administrator of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, 7th August 2014, Refugees (Amendment) Ordinance 2014 (SBA/AG/2/IA/207)

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