By Vasos Vasiliou
In the wake of a report on Monday by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) on the sexual harassment of three underage boys at the Pournara refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia, the Minister of Interior Nicos Nouris has ordered an investigation.
The matter was raised during a discussion before the House standing committee on human rights, in the framework of which there were reports of harassment not only of underage boys but women too, as well as of grooming for prostitution.
“We are witnessing a chilling reality,” said the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in protest, while condemning reactions were recorded at the meeting by Akel MPs Skevi Koukouma and Irene Charalambidou. The latter even walked out of the meeting.
The agenda for the discussion was the situation at the Kokkinotrimithia refugee centre and attendees were unprepared of what was to follow. Everything was running smoothly and the Interior Minister was outlining the mode of operation of both refugee accommodation centres mentioning that no Coronavirus cases have been recorded there, which he attributed to government measures.
Things turned sour when the representative of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees started speaking, who mentioned the following, among other:
- The Pournara accommodation centre is not only used for 72 hours, as should have been the case, but guests stay there on a more permanent basis.
- In the last months of 2019, guests increased and the centre became of a “closed type”.
- Children are also restricted there.
- There is exploitation surrounding the rental of premises by asylum seekers.
- There are concerns over the great number of children there, who used to be 70 and are now 47.
- The Social Welfare Services did not know the number of unaccompanied minors at Pournara and even thought that there were no children there.
- Throughout this time, children did not experience their rights as children.
- Some of the children have relatives in Cyprus and it has not been clarified why they were not allowed to go live with them.
- During one of our visits, we found out that there are children, mainly boys, who are staying with adult men and have been sexually abused, which is attributed to the fact that they were not housed in a separate area.
Following the High Commission representative’s remarks, MP Irene Charalambidou commented that “What I just heard on the sexual harassment of minors is shocking,” with MP Skevi Koukouma addressing the Interior Minister Nicos Nouris right after saying “You allowed for the circumstances to create.”
Nouris reacted to the accusation and called on Koukouma to retract her statement, but the latter went on: “You knew that there were minors and that there are international conventions for them.”
The Commissioner for Children’s Rights mentioned that there was information of 48 unaccompanied children at Pournara. Commenting on some attendee’s remarks who questioned that all the children are minors, she noted that in the case of doubt, this should be in favour of the minor until it is proven that he/she is not a minor. She also emphasised that minors should be kept separate from adults adding that the risk of sexual harassment is serious, as are other types of exploitation.
“These are children with problems, some of whom do not have parents. We are witnessing a chilling reality,” she said.
The High Commission’s representative George Aeliotis said that he visited Pournara last Thursday and called the Commission’s office the next day and briefed an officer of the situation.
He said that during his visit, he spoke with three children living in the same tent with another five, mentioning that adults are also living in the same space.
The children told him that as they were queuing to get food, adults were touching them, pulled the curtain as they were showering, and they were terrified as a result.
Aeliotis also mentioned that when he asked the children whether a public official approached them to talk with them, they responded in the negative. They said that the only one who spoke to them was the police officer who received them.
He added that some of the children lost their parents and were also beaten by Turkish officers. He said that all three children have relatives in Cyprus. In particular, one has a sister in Cyprus and the others have uncles and wondered why the children were not allowed to stay with their relatives to be safer?
“When I was about to leave, they were pleading with me to stay with them a little longer,” Aeliotis added.
Representatives of other departments who were present at the meeting said that no official complaint was submitted to them for sexual harassment of minors.
On the government’s side, it was maintained that many of those who said they were minors were in fact not, a position seconded by the Interior Minister Nicos Nouris.
The assistant police chief for Nicosia said that the things mentioned constitute a serious criminal offence and should be investigated.
Addressing the complaint, Nouris said that he has “already given instructions for immediate investigation of the incident and we will communicate the outcome.”
He added that the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, the Social Welfare Services and the refugee centre’s officers were ignoring the complaint.
“Nevertheless we do not ignore or bypass such complaints. No matter the difficulties, people and especially children are very high up in our priorities, and we will act accordingly,” he said.
Asked to comment on remarks that some of the minors said they had relatives in Cyprus and whether they should have been allowed to live with them, Nouris said that the management of those living at the centre does not abide by what each of them says.