June 20th is World Refugee Day. As the world has the highest number of displacements on record, it is more important than ever to talk about the challenges refugees face.
According to UNHCR figures, one in 113 people have been forcibly displaced. This totals over 65 million people.
21.3 million of them are refugees, half of whom are children.
The Humanitarian Affairs Unit of the Future Worlds Center provides legal assistance, social support and psychological counselling to refugees and asylum seekers in Cyprus.
While the number of refugees arriving in Cyprus is not as great as in neighboring countries, the current situation is critical, said the Humanitarian Affairs Unit’s Integration Officer Manos Mathioudakis.
“The number of people coming to Cyprus is manageable but we are at a critical point as the people who are arriving will remain” he said.
“Therefore, it is important to have adequate integration opportunities that can facilitate their access to work, education and, eventually, citizenship.”
Mazen Beshtawe, the Unit’s cultural mediator and interpreter, is himself a recent refugee and can relate to the feeling of being in a new country. One of the main difficulties is language. Therefore, the Unit encourages and facilitates enrollment in language courses.
“Many refugees really want to learn the language so they can express themselves and integrate. It feels like an impairment if you don’t know the language.”, Beshtawe said. “In addition to this, newcomers also have to deal with being in a new culture.”
Social Adviser Fatema Islam says that going on the arduous journey of finding a safe haven is a courageous effort. This is especially the case for torture survivors, whom she often works with.
“Finding yourself in a new country with none to extremely limited social support, an unfamiliar social and cultural context, and a language barrier is itself a huge challenge” Islam said. “The very fact that a torture survivor has the courage to flee, endure a perilous journey and seek protection, indicates a high level of strength and courage.”
According to Tonia Loizidou, a psychologist who works for the Unit, being in a new country makes it hard to deal with past trauma.
“All refugees encounter hardship, loneliness, and cultural shock,” Loizidou said. “Many refugees have traumatic experiences before their arrival and experience symptoms that are not easily managed when the future is unstable. Some have tremendous hope, others are optimistic or rely on God, but mostly what gives them strength is family and social network.”
The Humanitarian Affairs Unit’s team guides newcomers with all aspects of integration.
“We have been providing direct assistance to refugees for 12 years now,” said Corina Drousiotou, who is the head of the Unit and a senior legal advisor. “This assistance consists of legal and social advice as well as psychological support for victims of torture and trafficking.”
At the same time, the Unit works to promote a better asylum procedure.
“Based on the evidence from the cases we assist, we advocate for fairer and more inclusive legislation and policies, in line with EU and International standards,” she said.
Elena Hadjichristodoulou, who oversees child protection, said that as the number of unaccompanied refugee children in Cyprus increases, so does the need for specialized services that can assist them.
“The number of unaccompanied children in Cyprus is steadily growing,” she said. “Children, especially refugee children, are at a greater risk than adults when it comes to abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation and trafficking.”
Single mothers often have a hard time finding a job because of discrimination, said Alexia Solomonidou, a social adviser for the Unit.
“Many women experience discrimination, marginalization and isolation,” she said. “Single mothers who are discriminated by employers have serious financial problems. Furthermore, it is hard for them to find childcare facilities, which puts them in an even more disadvantaged position on the job market.”
Besides discrimination, entangling legal procedures can also be a setback for refugees and asylum seekers, and specifically for those in a vulnerable position.
But the main problem, also for lawyers, might lie outside of the law.
“The biggest obstacle lawyers, as well as others who want to improve the refugee situation, face are the social norms and stereotypes with regards to sexual and gender-based violence in general,” Zalokosta said.
The strength refugees and asylum seekers display while enduring discrimination, financial, legal and social hardship can be inspiring.
“Their personal experience teaches us that it is possible to see even the slightest ray of optimism and positivity in the most adverse situations,” Zalokosta said. “They have enormous amounts of strength buried inside.”