Asylum seekers relying on state subsidies to survive find themselves at the mercy of a handful of small retailers that accept vouchers issued by the Welfare Department, which can be exchanged for food, clothes and footwear.
But prices at these selected few stores are much more expensive than average supermarkets, so refugees are trapped into having to pay over the odds for essential food items as they are prevented from having any real choice.
Apart from the high prices, many items are not priced and left to the discretion of the retailer when it comes to ‘ringing up the bill’ and, in many cases, sales receipts are not given.
“How can we say that we are helping people by sending them to the most expensive shops to exchange their vouchers?” asked Gosia Chrysanthou of charity Caritas Cyprus.
“The problem is, we can’t prove that they are so expensive because they don’t give receipts,” Hrysanthou added.
“Just a few shops are involved in the programme, some of which don’t advertise prices on the products, while receipts are non-existent in one of the shops,” said KISA’s Doros Polykarpou, adding that as part of the Labour Ministry’s efforts to support small businesses, it had excluded large supermarkets and franchises from the refugee scheme.
The Social Welfare Department has confirmed that the criteria for the 23 retailers signing on to the programme are subject to the decision passed by the Cabinet on July 18, 2013 and is addressed exclusively to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in order to provide an incentive for the development of business entrepreneurship in this category.
What is even more disturbing according to KISA, is the apparent lack of control, supervision or inspection by state authorities, therefore leaving the system open to abuse.
“What the UNHCR can confirm from complaints submitted to us by asylum-seekers regarding the voucher system in general, is that the vouchers can only be redeemed at specific local shops in different cities, very few in each city, where prices are reportedly much higher than big supermarkets and choices limited,” said UNHCR Public Information officer, Emilia Strovolidou.
To put things in perspective, asylum seekers receive social aid depending on their family status. Single persons receive €150 in vouchers (to cover food, clothing and footwear expenses), €100 rent allowance (paid directly to their landlord) and €70 for water, electricity and incidentals, amounting to a total of €320 per month.
A family of two receive a total of €420 per month, while a three-member family receive €580 in monthly benefits. Larger families receive €375 in vouchers for food, clothes and footwear, €200 for rent (paid directly to their landlord) and €160 for water, electricity and essentials.
The total amount an asylum-seeker receives in state social assistance is €3,840 per annum and €8,820 for a family of four, which is less than half of the 2015 Cyprus poverty threshold and significantly below the minimum standards set out in the EU Receptions Directive.
It does not “ensure a standard of living adequate for the health of applicants and sufficient to ensure their subsistence”.
“It is also the greatest concern for the UNHCR as the amount of social assistance the state provides to asylum applicants is below the poverty line,” said Strovolidou.
Cashing cheques is a problem
The cash which the asylum seekers receive – to cover utilities and incidentals – are in the form of a cheque which, according to Polykarpou, pose more problems.
“They can’t cash the cheques at the banks because they aren’t allowed to open accounts,” said Polykarpou, indicating that asylum seekers often resort to ‘illegal’ methods to cash their cheques.
The UNHCR for its part has had meetings with officials from the Central Bank and many local banks to call for measures to resolve the matter, adding that it is simply inappropriate to demand refugees and asylum-seekers who are lawfully residing in this country to produce national passports they never had or which have expired and which they are not in a position to renew.
Cyprus, one of the states that signed on to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has agreed to issue refugees with an international travel document known as a Convention Travel Document.
Such Convention Travel Documents issued to refugees by the government are good enough to travel to any EU country without a visa, but certain banks in Cyprus find it insufficient to open a bank account.
“We hope that this issue will be resolved soon. European Union law, which provides for access to basic payment accounts for legal residents, including refugees and asylum-seekers, is now in the process of being transposed into national law,” said Strovolidou.
“We have found a way around the cheque issue,” says Caritas Cyprus’ Gosia Chrysanthou.
“We send them to Athienitis supermarket where they use their cheque to buy at least 10% of the cheques’ nominal value, and they receive the balance of the cheque as change.
“They need the cash because in many cases they use the money to pay towards their rent. This money is meant to pay water and electricity, which means that most of these people don’t have water or electricity because they can’t afford it,” adds Chrysanthou.