Nicos Nouris, who recently replaced Constantinos Petrides as Minister of the Interior, kindly met with us to discuss the most important problems and issues facing Cyprus today.
When appointed as minister, you immediately got involved in the most challenging issues in Cypriot politics, such as the refugee crisis, the Cyprus problem and, on the top of it all, the coronavirus. How do you feel in your new role, and has it been difficult for you to start handling so many important issues?
Obviously, I’m not new to politics, so I was already familiar with the key challenges. I was in Parliament for seven years, dealing mainly with aspects and problems concerning the Ministry of the interior, so I’m very much up to speed. It’s true that the ministry has huge responsibilities – it’s actually the biggest ministry among the 11 that we have in Cyprus, and it means we are dealing with a great number of issues. It is also true that two of the most important issues I have prioritized from my very first day as minister is the migration problem Cyprus is facing, and the reform of local authorities. I’m very happy to say that I have already sent three acts of law regarding the reform of local authorities to the House of Representatives. Now the ball is in their court and soon I hope they will invite me there so discussions can begin.
We know the Ministry of the Interior is working on a new immigration policy. Please tell us when you are going to present it to Parliament and what the main points will be.
I must admit that as a country, we are facing a huge problem with migration. We have a great influx of irregular migrants and this is extremely serious both for Cyprus and for the European Union (EU) as well. It is quite obvious to everyone that the problem is coming from Turkey. I can say that straight, because 75% of the illegal migrants that arrive in Cyprus are coming through the Green Line. They are travelling through Turkey to the occupied part of the island, and from there they cross the line to our country and apply for asylum. Just to tell you the numbers: a month ago we were hosting 284 asylum seekers at the Pournara refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia village, and today we have 811. So in just two weeks we have had a huge increase in the number of asylum seekers. On the other hand, the problem is that Cyprus is not part of the Schengen Zone. The people who come to Cyprus think that by arriving here they can travel to other European countries, but in fact they cannot, so that means they have to cross another EU border or stay here, which is impossible. Even in Italy and Greece – but especially Greece, which is suffering because of the Greek-Turkish border – the percentage of migrants compared to the population is less than one percent. However, in Cyprus it’s 3.8%, which is totally unacceptable. To help tackle this, the government and the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for dealing with the influx, have already introduced a new policy that specifically targets economic migrants. We don’t refuse to help genuine refugees, including children. We, of course, want to give them the maximum support when they arrive, but at the same time we cannot accept everyone. We are not racists, but our country is small with a population of less than a million, so we cannot accept and support everyone who comes here in search of a better life. Back in 2015, we just had 2,500 asylum seekers. We could handle that, but in 2019 we had 18,000 applications for asylum. We do not have the infrastructure for such numbers of people, and on a top of this problem we have the coronavirus. The potential for contamination in a refugee camp is extremely high, and we are hardly controlling it.
Can the people from the camps move freely across the island?
It used to be an open camp, but it is closed now due to the health restrictions. As some of these people don’t have travel documents, it’s impossible to allow them to move freely in the country. So we keep them in the camp and ask for financial aid as well as help from Frontex (The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which is tasked with border control in the European Schengen Area, in coordination with the border and coast guards of the member states). What we are doing now is accelerating the process of examining applications so that it takes less than a month. And then we want to return them to their countries of origin or send them to a transit country.
The main aspect of our policy is that we have set up a list of 21 so called safe countries of origin and want to return people back to them. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s impossible because the countries will not accept them.
In Brussels a month ago, at the council of ministers of interiors, I submitted a suggestion that the new European asylum policy, which will be in place shortly, must include states that the EU negotiates with centrally, for example, Georgia, Pakistan, India, Cameroon, Nigeria and some other countries. The EU has to be able to return these people back to their countries.
As we know, the main access point for refugees is the Green Line. The second is the sea. Are you planning to do something to control this situation?
Yes, you are right. The main entry point is the Green Line. In 2019, 7,600 arrivals came through the Green Line while 450 came by boats. Of course the coastline has to be secure, but everybody knows that we don’t have a navy or the necessary infrastructure to secure our coastline properly. That’s why we have asked the EU to help us, and to send us Frontex forces. But as Minister of the Interior, I – and my colleagues – have clearly stated in Brussels that what we are asking them to do is secure and safeguard the northern, occupied part of the island, because all the boats are coming to Cyprusfrom Turkey.
We have pointed out to the National Guard and police the places where migrants enter the country, and they have started patrolling the area. But you know, this is not our border – it’s the Green Line and it’s a political issue. It is not the same as in Greece. Because we are very much willing to have a solution to the Cyprus problem, we are considering the Green Line as a division line and not as a border. It’s difficult for us to send people back across the Green Line, but at the same time the illegal entry of migrants is becoming a threat because the numbers are huge relative to the population. In fact, we are seeing demographical changes on the island. For example, in a village where only 67 Greek Cypriots live, we have now 57 migrants. So you can understand that nearly half of the population of this village are no longer Greek Cypriots, and it is a scary demographic change. We need solutions, and as Minister of the Interior I am totally committed to finding them.
There are a huge number of fake marriages in Cyprus. What can you say about this?
Yes, I have already sent a request to Parliament regarding this issue. Last year we had around 2,000 fake marriages in Cyprus, mostly among Asian people. I am going to take control of this, as I feel very ashamed for my country that these things are taking place through the municipalities. The first results will be seen in two or three months. It is the same situation with fake students. Imagine, instead of teaching students, our educational institutions are becoming producers of asylum seekers. By September, at the start of the new academic year, we and the Ministry of Culture will have processes in place so that fake students cannot enrol. We have already issued the criteria and have informed all the educational institutions so that everything will be in place in September.
Let’s talk about Brexit. What will be the impact of Brexit on the Cyprus economy?
We are one of the countries that will be very much affected – on the basis of tourism, on economic issues, and also by human aspects. We have 30,000 British nationals living in Cyprus, most of them living in Paphos, and they are considered to be permanent residents. At the same time, we have a huge community of Cypriots living in the UK, so we will come to a mutually reciprocal agreement with the British government which will mean that whatever decisions are made about UK citizens will be extended to Cypriots there. At the same time though, as a member of EU we have to follow whatever collective decisions are made.
The UK will exit the EU, but has given itself until 31st of December to agree with the EU how Brexit is going to be implemented. As a member of the EU, Cyprus must wait for the European Commission’s decisions, as we are committed to follow whatever is agreed. At the same time, I have visited London and met my colleagues from the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of European Affairs and have discussed all the aspects and issues that affect both Cypriots in the UK and British citizens living in Cyprus. I can say that despite the fact we have had some disagreements, I am confident that by the end of this year, even if the UK does not come to a full agreement with the EU, we are going to start bilateral communications to settle all the aspects relating to everyone affected.
The criminal situation on the island is obviously changing. What do you think of the installation of security cameras all over the island, just as it is in the UK and many other countries?
I cannot disagree that compared to the situation 10 years ago, we have witnessed an increase in the crime rate. But despite that, Cyprus still remains the safest country among the European member states. At the same time, we are very much willing to implement any kind of measures that will eliminate or decrease the crime rate. Cameras might be one solution, but if you ask me on a personal basis, I can tell you that I am very much looking forward to having them on the Green Line instead of all over the island because I want to control who is entering my country legally and who isn’t. So I don’t think we need cameras all over the country, because it is something that violates our personal lives, and that is not democracy. Borders should be controlled: we are obliged to do so, but at the same time if I want to live in a peaceful country, I don’t want cameras following my every move.
So this issue is not yet on your desk?
On a personal basis, it is not on my desk.
The Cyprus Investment Programme is a very interesting topic. Perhaps the new minister has some fresh ideas to put forward?
Yes, especially for Russians. I instructed the independent trilateral committee, which exists to examine and regulate the applications made to the investment programme, to explore some new ideas and I am awaiting their comments. It is true that in Cyprus we used to have a successful programme, which considered the interests of investors. At the same time, and for a number of reasons, the government changed the criteria. These are so strict now that they do not enable many people to apply for citizenship. Just to give you some numbers: from February 2019 through to 15th May 2019, when the previous criteria were still in place, 580 applications for citizenship were submitted. Since 15th May, when the new, stricter criteria took effect, only 165 people applied for citizenship from that date until the end of the year. The EU is discouraging the continuation of the Cyprus Investment programme. I was recently invited by the EU Commissioner of Justice to visit Brussels for discussions on this and I presented the revised scheme. Only two countries in the EU – Cyprus and Malta – have such programmes. It is something that we have to be careful about. We want to give people the opportunity to invest in Cyprus, and think we can examine the possibility of naturalization. At the same time, we are a member state of the EU and have to follow collective decisions, so I don’t think there are going to be any rapid changes in the criteria. Having said that, we are trying to make the programme more flexible and this is very important for people who are interested in applying I am sure we’re going to have some changes, possibly in the next month that will make the programme more flexible without changing the law. But at this point, do not ask me what.
What is the current situation with citizenship applications made through the Cyprus Investment Programme?
At the moment we have 800 applications that need to be examined, most of which were submitted before the new criteria came in. If we examine only the old applications, the programme will proceed more quickly. The changes to the criteria have created a kind of a mixed-up situation where we have both old and new applications. With every application, we have to apply to Interpol, to local forces, police, financial agents on the island, etc, and get their views on each application, and this is taking too long. However, what I have done during my mandate is to add two more people to the team that is reviewing applications, and it is my intention to respond to every citizenship request in a maximum of four months.
Why do people who have lived in Cyprus for more than seven years have to wait sometimes for an additional 10 years for their citizenship? Are you going to change this situation and make it quicker and more automated?
We have a law that states if you want to apply for citizenship by naturalization, you have to be a permanent resident for 7 years. You have to show us that you have no criminal record, prove that you have permanent work and sufficient money for living in Cyprus, and on top of that we are careful to whom we offer naturalization. While we are a semi-occupied country that plays host to many nationalities, we have to consider the interests of the majority – by that I mean Greek Cypriots. We are proud that so many people want Cypriot citizenship, but as I mentioned, we have to be very careful about who we give it to.
Obviously you are aware of the scandal with the Israeli “spy van” that recently happened. How has the story ended up?
As far as I know the story has not finished yet as the case is now in court, and a few days ago the owner of the the van, Tal Dillian, arrived in Cyprus voluntarily and is going to testify in court.
Given the many issues you have to deal with nowadays, how do you spend your free time?
I don’t know what being relaxed is! I don’t recall even one occasion where I made it back home before 11 o’clock at night. There are too many things in place now, and it’s actually a very critical period for Cyprus. The top priorities are national problems – the occupation problem; the migration problem; and now, globally, we are facing the coronavirus. I have always been a hard worker – I don’t complain. And my satisfaction will come from helping my country find solutions.
Talking about solutions for the Cyprus problem, do you think that the situation has become even worse recently because of the Turkish activities?
Because Turkey is acting so provocatively, not only towards Cyprus but also to the other countries in the area, we are not even getting closing to solving the Cyprus problem.
My own personal view is that when we were quite close to finding a solution and coming to an agreement regarding security and the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus, Turkey still wanted the upper hand. That made it impossible for President Anastasiades to sign an agreement. We cannot have a solution that involves Turkish troops remaining on Cyprus because we don’t trust them. We see how they are acting in Libya, Syria and on the border with Greece. We can live with the Turkish Cypriots, and we are willing to find a solution for Turkish Cypriots to live peacefully on the island, but we can’t live under the Turkish occupation. All we want is for Turkey to withdraw their troops, and we don’t need someone else, especially a third country, to secure our island.
Please tell us the current situation regarding coronavirus on the island. Do you share the view of the Ministry of Health that one in six Cypriots will become infected?
As a pharmacist, I do not share this view. It is a difficult situation that is going to affect economies globally. Many people are going to have problems and, of course, we have to protect the elderly. What we have to do, and I mean not only Cypriots but also everyone in the world, is isolate ourselves so we reduce contact with others. It is the first time that our priority is not to care of the kids, but for the elderly instead. The high mortality rate among older people is because they often have underlying health issues, which means it is easier for them to develop serious problems. This is why the government of Cyprus decided to close the borders. From Saturday 21st, we are not allowing any planes to arrive in Cyprus and will regulate the inflows of people coming here so that we have the ability to handle all the severe cases. We have had a number of cases and I am 100% sure that right now everything is under control, although I am expecting more incidents. But if we remain cool-headed and disciplined, and follow the instructions of the epidemiologists and the government, I am optimistically telling you that in two or three months things will be better.
Do you think that the situation will be normalized by May?
No, May is too soon. There is going to be a rise, as all pandemics have a statistical curve and this will be sharp. If you consider all the measures we are taking now as being precautionary, we will still have a steep curve; but if we don’t protect ourselves then that curve is going to be long, which means it is going to last much longer and incidents will be multiplied. We have not had any deaths as yet, and hopefully everything is going to be fine.