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Wave of anti-immigrant hostility sweeps across Cyprus

Chu Thi Dao, the 35-year-old Vietnamese owner of a convenience shop that was attacked in an anti-migrant riot,
Chu Thi Dao, the 35-year-old Vietnamese owner of a convenience shop that was attacked in an anti-migrant riot, Copyright YASMINE MOSIMANN / AFP
Copyright YASMINE MOSIMANN / AFP
By AFP
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There are fears of a climate of hate is emerging amid rising violence against immigrants.

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In early September, rumours of an anti-immigrant demonstration were circulating in Limassol, southern Cyprus. Egyptian restaurant owners rushed to bring in their shishes  and Vietnamese vendors cleared their vegetable stalls. 

Several hundred masked people armed with Molotov cocktails targeted foreign-owned stores and restaurants in the coastal town, creating a climate of fear.

Some observers suspected that, beneath the black hoods, were members of the far-right Elam party, a group originally formed from Golden Dawn, a now-banned Greek neo-Nazi formation.

Their resolutely anti-immigration stance has won them many supporters, and their leader, Christos Christou, came fourth in a February presidential election, with 6% of the vote.

Elam, however, has denied any involvement in the violence.

Mohammed el-Basaraty, a 38-year-old Egyptian restaurateur, hid in the back of his restaurant shortly before the demonstrators arrived in Limassol.

"I was with a neighbour and she told me to leave: 'If they see you, you who are a foreigner, they will hit you", he said, evoking the "sound of breaking glass" and "smell of smoke" as they attacked his business. 

IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU / AFP
Supporters of the Cypriot far-right National Popular Front wave Greek and party flags as they protest against the presence of illegal immigrants.IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU / AFP

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces occupied the northern part of the island in response to an attempted coup d'état by Greek-Cypriot nationalists who wanted to attach the country to Greece.

The Republic of Cyprus, which only exercises authority over the southern part, claims to be "on the front line" of the European Union's Mediterranean migrant route.

The attack on migrants in Limassol comes against a backdrop of rising violence against immigrants, amid claims asylum seekers now account for more than 5% of the southern part's 915,000 inhabitants.

A few days before the rampage, Cypriot police had arrested 21 people after clashes between Cypriots and migrants near the southern resort of Paphos, where authorities had begun evicting Syrians from an apartment complex they had been squatting.

In videos posted on social networks, men armed with crowbars shouted "out, out" in the streets of the apartment complex.

In Limassol, foreigners feel they are being protected enough. "There were over 600 of them. How many people did the police arrest? Only 13?" said Adel Hassan, 76, an Egyptian.

The head of the police force, Stelios Papatheodorou, admitted before Parliament the reaction of officers to the unrest was "slow".

Giorgos Charalambous, a professor specialising in European party politics, believes the trouble could also be attributed to smaller far-right groups in Cyprus.

Hate speech has become normalised across the political spectrum in his view.

Violence "has never escalated to such an extent", notes Corina Drousitiou, coordinator of the Cyprus Refugee Council. 

She attributes the rise in anti-migrant sentiment to inadequate measures taken by the authorities, who have stepped up efforts to send migrants to other countries.

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"The language used in official statements... was blatantly xenophobic", she felt.

But officials challenge this. 

"In no case did the official side express racist rhetoric", claimed Interior Ministry spokeswoman Elena Fysentzou, accusing "anonymous accounts" of sowing discord on social media. 

"There's no longer the sense of security we used to have," Sayed Samir, an Egyptian owner of Mr Habibi, one of the restaurants attacked in Limassol, told AFP.

It took Chu Thi Dao, a 35-year-old Vietnamese woman, years of hard work to open her convenience store on the seafront.

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After the violence, a video showing her crying in her ransacked store went viral.

Like her, the majority of the businesses attacked belong to people who fled war or difficult economic conditions to settle in Cyprus several years ago. 

Their economic activity contributes to prosperity of the island.

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