“If they see you, a foreigner, they will hit you”: a wave of anti-migrant hostility is sweeping the Mediterranean island of Cyprus where far-right groups are being singled out.
At the beginning of September, rumors of a demonstration against immigrants circulated in Limassol, in the south of the island. Egyptian restaurant owners rushed to bring in their hookahs and Vietnamese sellers to clear their vegetable displays.
Several hundred masked people, armed with Molotov cocktails, targeted foreign-owned shops and restaurants in this 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 initially formed from Golden Dawn, a now-banned Greek neo-Nazi outfit.
Their staunchly anti-immigration stance won them the support of many supporters, and their leader, Christos Christou, came in fourth place in February's presidential election, with 6 percent of the vote.
Elam, however, denied any involvement in this violence.
Mohammed el-Basaraty, a 38-year-old Egyptian restaurateur, hid at the back of his establishment shortly before protesters descended on Limassol.
“I was with a neighbor and she told me to leave: If they see you, you who are a foreigner, they will hit you,” he confided to AFP, referring to the “sound of the glass that breeze" and "the smell of smoke" when they attacked his restaurant.
Cyprus, a member of the European Union (EU), has been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces occupied the northern part of the island in response to an attempted coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists who wanted to unite the country. to Greece.
The Republic of Cyprus, which only exercises its authority over the southern part, claims to be "on the front line" on the route of migrants in the Mediterranean within the EU.
The attack on migrants in Limassol comes amid rising violence against immigrants on the small island, which says asylum seekers make up more than 5% of the southern part's 915,000 residents .
Days before the rampage, Cypriot police arrested 21 people after clashes between Cypriots and migrants near the southern resort of Paphos, where authorities began evicting Syrians from an apartment complex they were squatting.
In videos posted on social media, men with crowbars shouted “out, out” in the streets.
- "Pogroms" ?
In Limassol, foreigners believe they have not been protected enough. "There were more than 600 of them. How many people did the police arrest? Only 13?" blasted Adel Hassan, 76, an Egyptian.
The head of law enforcement, Stelios Papatheodorou, admitted to Parliament that the reaction had been "slow".
Giorgos Charalambous, a professor specializing in European party politics and mobilization, believes the violence could also be attributed to smaller far-right groups in Cyprus.
He says "hate speech" has become normalized across the political spectrum, creating an atmosphere conducive to attacks he describes as "pogroms."
Violence “has never experienced such an escalation,” notes Corina Drousitiou, coordinator at the Cyprus Refugee Council. She attributes the rise in anti-migrant sentiment to inadequate measures taken by the authorities, who have increased efforts to send irregular migrants to other countries.
“The language used in the official statements (...) was clearly xenophobic,” she said.
“In no case did the official side express racist rhetoric,” defended Elena Fysentzou, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, accusing “anonymous accounts” which sow discord on social networks.
“There is no longer the feeling of security that we had before,” 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 waterfront convenience store.
After the violence, a video showing her crying in her ransacked store went viral.
Like her, the majority of businesses attacked belong to people who fled war or difficult economic conditions to settle in Cyprus several years ago.
“She wanted a better life for us,” her 17-year-old daughter Flora told AFP. “I want to stay here and live with my mother and my family,” sobs the teenager, overcome by a feeling of disillusionment.
12/09/2023 05:44:23 - Limassol (Chyprus) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP