End of Conflict and Weaponization of Refugees in Cyprus



As of today, Cyprus remains divided in two by the 1974 partition. Yet, as the conflict abates, one would expect the UN Buffer Zone to slowly be erased. However, as Olga Demetriou describes in this text, the demilitarized area is now instrumental in the weaponization of exiled people by the Turkish and Cypriot governments, as well as the European Union.

In the world of conflict studies, Cyprus presents (more than it answers) an interesting question: how do we know when a conflict is over?

We are today just short of 50 years since the 1974 war that divided the island. That war laid rest to nationalist Greek-Cypriot claims for unification with Greece when a short-lived coup instigated by Athens (itself under military dictatorship at the time) ended with the island’s invasion by Turkey, all within a short five days. Turkey has since stationed troops in the northern half of the island and has overseen the transition to a Turkish-Cypriot self-administered region, claiming statehood (and failing, at the level of the UN) since 1983. The division line, running from the eastern coast to the western, extended separation fences set up a decade earlier across the island. At that earlier point in the 1960s, the post-independence power-sharing constitution broke down, Turkish-Cypriots withdrawing, or being ousted (depending on one’s view) from government and into militia-administered enclaves seeking protection from other, Greek-Cypriot militias that abducted and disappeared their co-ethnics.

This dense concentration of violent events has been petering out as activities shifted to the plane of political negotiations, amounting to many failed rounds that yielded many suggestions and no agreement. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), which administrates this Buffer Zone and has been mediating since the 1960s, is now the third oldest mission in a largely safe environment without fatalities.

The Buffer Zone itself is subject to dispute, the exact contours of the ceasefire line never formally having been agreed on.

Once tightly policed and militarized, Korea-like checkpoints on the Buffer Zone are now easy to cross; their opening in 2003 was catalyzed by the Republic’s admittance to the European Union and Turkish-Cypriot mobilizations to reunify the island and join the EU— although these aspirations were ultimately quashed when Greek-Cypriots rejected a peace plan at referendum in 2004. Over the last couple of decades, military posts in downtown Nicosia have been unmanned, fields in rural areas demined, requisitioned plots returned to owners for building, grazing, and cultivating. Villages on opposite sides of the divide have collaborated in lobbying, with success, to open further checkpoints. Turkish and Greek Cypriots can now travel, visit, work, live, shop, and go to school across the Buffer Zone. Politics and economic factors largely dictate these activities: more work in the southern part, cheaper goods and fuel in the northern, institutionalized suspicion of Turkish-Cypriots and their claims in the Republic, entrenched acceptance of the unequal status that citizenship carries across ethnic pronouns.

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The UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia. / Photo by Olga Demetriou (September 2016).

One way to know a conflict is over is when these things become normalized and are no longer part of the public debate. As argued by other researchers, the last elections were the first where the conflict did not feature as a prominent issue.


But if the Buffer Zone seems now peaceful, it is nevertheless the site of other tensions. In this now demilitarized zone where people tend their flocks and take their dogs for walks, fences have recently been re-installed. People have been arrested. Children have become separated from their parents and gotten lost. Tents have sprung up. Binoculars, thermal cameras, and drones are being amassed to fight off a new threat: refugees crossing from northern Cyprus (irregular migrants crossing the other way are of little concern). Another way to know a conflict is over is when the military apparatus and its discursive justification move onto new targets.

In March 2021, the Republic’s Ministry of Interior installed barbed wire along the Buffer Zone west of Nicosia, citing increased crossings and the overcrowding of the only temporary reception facility on the island—the 600-person capacity of which has regularly been exceeded three-fold over the last two years.

This is a move that flouts confidence-building efforts, changes the status quo, and undermines Greek-Cypriot policy that insists the Buffer Zone is not a state border, should not become one, and should not exist.

It also inverts Greek-Cypriot discourse that has presented the barbed wire as the arch-symbol of the nation’s trauma and the Turkish side as the aggressor who caused it.

The move received variable levels of public and informal criticism from the UN, the EU Commission, and mocked by anti-fascist groups and the far right alike. A year later, in February 2022, the Minister escorted first the FRONTEX chief and then the EU Commissioner on migration to sections of the Buffer Zone and the overcrowded temporary reception facility to illustrate the problem. The Republic secured promises for help in border surveillance via cameras and drones, in effecting deportations—FRONTEX assisted in 104 such deportations in 2021—and on increased checks on Turkey’s southern coast and Turkish airports, from which the only flights to northern Cyprus take off. The last two are practices that the Republic cannot engage in, as it has no diplomatic relations with Turkey because of the conflict.

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The sign clarifies that the separation indicated by the barbed wire is not the ceasefire line (CFL). / Photo by Olga Demetriou (September 2016).

During the visits, the unmanned fields on the eastern sections of the Buffer Zone were described as an “open wound.” They were the very same fields where just a week earlier, a three-year-old girl had disappeared as she tried to clandestinely cross with her parents and twin sister. She was later found in the temporary reception center, having been picked up and escorted there by another woman in the group and eventually returned to her parents in the northern part. It is only when the plight of separated parents as they cross unknown fields has been erased that such places can be described as “open wounds” that pain the authorities, who seek to arrest people. In response to this pain, the visiting Commissioner cited collaboration with Belarus over the violent events that unfolded on its border with Poland in December 2021, saying he would seek to emulate the success of that collaboration in mediating with Turkey over crossings in Cyprus.

In this new mediation process that the EU is now undertaking on Cyprus’ behalf, the discursive contours of the new conflict are thus no longer Cyprus-specific, but European. The overarching discourse here is about the weaponization of refugees. The Belorussian crossings last December was described by the EU President as a “hybrid attack, not a migration crisis.” The 20 or so deaths that resulted were also erased. A year earlier, in March 2020, Von der Leyen had labeled Greece the “shield” of Europe, as the country deployed armed military to the border with Turkey, after the Turkish president bussed refugees there and encouraged them to cross into Evros. Two people were shot dead then. The process through which borders remilitarize and become lethal involves an apparatus that is material, financial, and discursive. Cameras, equipment, security officers, migration experts, and detention infrastructures (costing a FRONTEX budget of €1bn for 2019-2020 and AMIF funds of €880m for 2021-2022) seem more adequate as a response as a response than to mobilize infrastructure to offer a refuge to people. The EU uses refugees to fight its enemies, but kills them in the process.

The Republic has similarly been arguing for the last two decades (i.e. ever since it introduced policy and laws on migration and refugee protection) that irregular migrants are a security threat because they are sent by Turkey via northern Cyprus. Turkey, the argument went, wants to flood Cyprus with “foreigners” (Muslims, at that), to “create instability.” On the face of it, not much has changed in the past 20 years, except that the charge has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If 20 years ago irregular crossings were less organized, now they are far more so, and not only on the part of smugglers—the stakes are now much higher, and of a European magnitude—and Turkish authorities, who lead the global statistics on refugee reception by hosting 3.6m refugees, are now flaunting such weaponization. On the eve of the 2016 six-billion-euro EU-Turkey deal, Turkish president Erdoğan had mentioned bussing refugees to the Greek and Bulgarian borders. It took him 4 years to implement the threat. Belarus is an inappropriate example for the EU, not because it has not weaponized refugees, but because it learnt from Turkey how to do it; and, most importantly, that it works.

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An iconic presentation of the barbed wire in Cyprus as a site of trauma. This original print from the etching used on stamps since 1974 is hanging on the wall at the Politburo of the Communist Party. / Photo by Olga Demetriou (April 2022).

Weaponizing refugees turns people into instruments of other peoples’ wars. Dehumanizing them allows them to be attacked, tortured, and killed. One effect of the EU-Turkey deal for Cyprus is that it has seen irregular arrivals and refugee applications rise since 2016, as the Republic does not implement the deal, i.e. does not return people to Turkey, due to the freeze on diplomatic contacts over the Cyprus conflict. Instead, the Republic’s coast guard pushes boats (often originating from Lebanon) back at sea, a practice for which it has been criticized by the Council of Europe and multiple other organizations. Since 2020, 17 such push backs have been recorded, resulting in 15 people missing and three deaths.

On land, people who are refused entry can remain stranded in the Buffer Zone.

The Home for Cooperation, a hub for reconciliation activities in central Nicosia, housed in a restored building between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot checkpoints, knows this well. Last summer, Grace, a young Cameroonian woman, camped on its premises along with two other refugees from Cameroon. Having jumped from the Venetian walls in northern Nicosia to the moat underneath, located in the Buffer Zone, the group was arrested by UNFICYP and escorted to the nearby Greek-Cypriot checkpoint, where police refused them asylum applications. They effectively pushed them back into the Buffer Zone, where they remained stranded, unable to re-enter northern Cyprus for fear of arrest. From April to December 2021, they lived in two small nylon tents pitched in the backyard of the Home for Cooperation, supported through food donations by UNHCR and various embassies and allowed access to basic washing facilities by staff at the Home. Throughout this time, diplomatic advocacy on their behalf had been met with the unflinching response that taking in their applications would “open the floodgates” to others. One of the three eventually escaped and lodged an application after managing to reach the temporary reception center. Grace, by contrast, was still in her tent when the Pope visited Cyprus in December 2021, and offered relocation to Italy to a select list of 50 refugees; Grace and her other friend were on it. At the reception center, their friend’s application had been refused.

As they celebrated a new beginning over the Christmas period in Italy, the temporary reception center in Cyprus became the site of protests by locals who wanted it gone. There have been further protests and migrant solidarity marches since then, especially after the security of unaccompanied minors in the center came under scrutiny. Refugees are now rendered targets not only of the security apparatus but of local communities too.

The worst thing about a conflict being over is that it breeds new ones. ■