A TOUGH BATTLE FOR NGOS(Cyprus)
2/2/2008- It’s been a bad week for NGOs in Cyprus, with news of women’s support centre Apanemi’s prosecution coming on the heels of last Sunday’s arrest of the Doros Polycarpou, the head of Action for Equality Support and Antiracism in Cyprus (KISA). Polycarpou was arrested for playing music without a licence at a protest outside the Interior Ministry by the families of asylum seekers indefinitely detained by the state. Plainclothes police officers were also accused of beating protesters as the demo degenerated into scuffles. So what is the state’s attitude to NGOs? According to KISA, the picture is bleak and the help offered by the state minimal. Polycarpou offers his analysis of the situation. “For one, Cyprus has a peculiarity,” Polycarpou explained. “NGOs that were founded after 1974 were founded with the support of the state and occupied with issues that had to do with problems that arose after 1974.” Another issue, he pointed out, is that Cyprus society is very set in its broader action through the island’s political parties. “We lead a very political life, which isn’t necessarily negative; it’s just a fact. “These are two factors that make it objectively difficult to develop a civil society in Cyprus.” However, these difficulties, according to Polycarpou, are intensified by the subjective factor. “We were founded in 1998 and were possibly the first NGO with the character of an independent, non-governmental organisation that is occupied in specific matters. Its stance – whichever party is in power – is determined through its actions and not its political preferences.” It was also the first time that an organisation such as KISA was not just acting as an assistant to the state.
“NGOs in Cyprus were seen as a helper to the state, to exercise its social policy, deal with the problems of drugs, domestic violence etc. “KISA was an organisation that had two roles – and to the outside it looks like a contradicting role – on the one hand it co-operates with the state to deal with problems, and on the other, it has a critical stance regarding the effectiveness of the measures proposed by the government.” He added: “This was something new and the government had not evaluated these factors properly, resulting in this situation today; the state has not yet managed to create a constructive and respectful stance towards NGOs.” According to Polycarpou, the state’s negative stance towards KISA began when it was founded, with the Interior Minister at the time “more or less making it seem that we were hypersensitive and making various accusations against us”. This wasn’t helped by the attitude of state services, especially the police, towards KISA. “This was because they were under constant pressure and criticism from us over how they were doing their job.” But if there is one thing KISA recognises, it’s that in the past 10 years the police have made far greater progress than any other state service, and this is due to the fact that they have received the most criticism when it comes to migrant policies. “But instead of seeing this as something positive, they take this defensive stance and more or less see you as the enemy because you are criticising them for the things that are going wrong,” said Polycarpou. He wondered, “If the political leadership cannot understand this role, how can the police? “And yet if we look at these reports that the Cyprus Republic prepares for the outside, we will see a very good and close relationship between the state and NGOs,” he said.
“Many times we have noticed in state reports, for racism for example, the projection of KISA’s actions in order to project to the outside that there are NGOs that work on these matters in Cyprus and execute a positive job.” So what is the situation today? “First of all, the government is not supporting us with its statements. Even if they disagree with an NGO, they have a duty as a state to stress the significance of co-operation and stress their respect towards NGOs. It is not acceptable for the state to undermine NGOs, even if they don’t totally agree with its actions,” said Polycarpou. “The state needs to support us politically so we can execute our role in society.” As for the criminalisation KISA has been subjected to, Polycarpou says: “Should I list all the cases we have had against us? The attacks; personal attacks. It is not just the organisation that is under target. It is also its members. Each one of us can list two and three examples where they were subjected to persecution, either at their workplace if they are a civil servant, or elsewhere because they are a KISA activist.” The state, he says, offers very little help. “It has been 10 years now and they still haven’t given us a building to offer these services. We have plastic buckets to gather the water when it rains as it floods the building out,” he said. Furthermore, the state refused KISA’s application for funds to offer legal advice to political asylum seekers – a practice that has been going on for the past five years – as the request was half an hour late being submitted. “They preferred for asylum seekers not to have legal aid, instead of accepting our form half an hour late. And this delay was because I was abroad and the Board member that was responsible for submitting it happened to have a crisis with his back and the doctor had to give him an injection before he could take the form. And they didn’t accept it. “So we have this financial strangulation.”
Polycarpou, like Apanemi head Julia Kalimeri, believes KISA has been subjected to persecution and unfair treatment. “A policeman of the state’s secret services KYP, which are occupied with matters of national safety, used to visit migrants and migrant organisations and offer them money to distance themselves from KISA. For this we have testimonies and it has been proven, they can’t deny it,” Polycarpou claimed. “I think [one of the reasons why NGOs come across such resistance from the state] is because the government has this attitude that whoever doesn’t agree with us is an enemy. The second is that they want migrants in our country to be without a voice. If KISA stopped doing what it did, who would be a voice for the migrants in Cyprus?”
No funds from the state
According to Polycarpou, KISA has received almost no support from the state since it was founded. “We had some support, around £8,000 from the Labour Department.” As he explained, what is costly is maintaining permanent staff in KISA’s two centres in Nicosia and Limassol, something for which they have repeatedly asked the state for help. “We have even asked the state to provide these services so we can occupy ourselves with other matters. But we can’t close our doors on the immigrants and refugees, as they will have nowhere to turn.” KISA is now internally trying to figure out how to detach itself from the state. “We are tired of depending on the state. Many of our members have taken out personal loans in order to support this organisation. But this must have a limit. This is not right. But what other solution do we have?”
© Cyprus Mail