Annetta Benzar is originally from Belarus but emigrated to Cyprus aged 4. She works in an international organisation but feels there is an implicit hierarchy of nationalities there. She herself is a Cypriot passport holder and, as such, was able to apply for her current job but she says that prior to her naturalisation, she would have faced great difficulty securing employment in Cyprus.
She explains that Cyprus opened its doors to third country nationals as a temporary measure in the 1990s to fill vacancies in fields such as domestic and physical labour, and that the perception remains to this day that immigrants do the jobs that locals do not want. As a result, immigrants and locals tend not to mix in the workplace.
Annetta perceives an ingrained prejudice towards “outsiders” in Cyprus, noting that the country prefers to align itself with Greece rather than the Middle-East, and that the restrictions that prevent foreigners from working in public-facing jobs result in the true diversity of the country being hidden from view.
She says that Cyprus is “very behind” compared to other European countries in terms of efforts to facilitate the integration of migrants, particularly children, into the local community and blames this on lack of government funding and training, and a generally negative attitude towards foreigners. Although she had expected that Greek Cypriots, with their recent experience of displacement, would be empathetic to the situation of migrants, she has found that this is generally not the case and that there is resentment about the distribution of financial support.
She feels that religion plays a role in dividing the locals and refugees, with Greek Cypriots and Russians connecting readily due to their Orthodoxy while Muslims tend to be mistrusted due to the association with Turkey. However, it is also the case, she says that many Russians are exploited with no recourse to the authorities for assistance due to their lack of language skills.
Annetta says that single male immigrants are perceived to be a threat, particularly those from Turkey who are blamed for the increase in criminal activity. Single females, on the other hand, are perceived to be vulnerable and motivated to marry to obtain a Cypriot passport. Meanwhile, families are seen as less of a threat but more of a drain on resources; as Annetta says, “If you're not counting your own money, you’re counting someone else's”.
The number of NGOs operating in Cyprus has increased, says Annetta, and they have made efforts to improve attitudes between locals and immigrants. However, this goal is not even on the agenda in terms of political rhetoric, with politicians capitalising on anti-immigration sentiment to attract the popular vote.
Annetta ends by noting that the migrant community in Cyprus should not be thought of as a monolithic entity as there are divisions and hierarchies between the nationalities that comprise it.