Families split as parents detained
By Poly Pantelides
TWO top state officials are investigating several cases involving children whose parents have been illegally detained under threat of deportation by the migration department.
Ombudswoman, Eliza Savvidou, and the Child Commissioner, Leda Koursoumba, have highlighted a number of shocking cases in which the migration department have left teenagers to fend for themselves after detaining both parents, or have deprived children of at least one parent on charges of marriage of convenience based on false or flimsy evidence.
“We are observing a growing harshness of attitude by the migration department that is possibly related to the xenophobic climate that is being developed in Cyprus,” Savvidou told the Sunday Mail this week.
Complaints over alleged mistreatment by the migration department have been on the increase in the past year, she said. Just last year, her office received almost 300 complaints over the migration department alone.
One case involves a three-year-old girl who has been deprived of her Bulgarian mother and Pakistani father because the migration department claims the couple’s marriage is one of convenience. However a DNA test has proven paternity, while the migration department claimed the woman was pregnant when she got married, even though her daughter was born eleven months after their marriage.
Following an August news report in daily newspaper Simerini, the Child Commissioner wrote to the interior ministry and police over the seeming violations of child protection laws, while the Ombudswoman asked for the mother’s immediate release. Three months later, Zoya Mitova Margaritova remains in detention. Muhammad Zeshan Nadeem, her husband and proven father of their daughter Laiba, was arrested last week.
Savvidou said the migration department could not justify claims of a marriage of convenience when a DNA test proved fatherhood and has sent yet another letter this week asking for the parents’ immediate release. The Child Commissioner’s office has also written again to authorities.
Another case involves a 15-year-old living alone because her Chinese parents are held in the holding facility in Menoyia for immigrants awaiting deportation. Her story was one of the examples raised of alleged abuse of power during a discussion this week attended by Savvidou.
Those present were told the girl was unwilling to take up on the welfare department’s offer of a home and lives alone in her family’s apartment, according to founder of non-governmental organisation Cyprus Stop Trafficking, Androulla Christofidou-Henriques.
In an open letter to the head of migration Anny Shakallis, who did not take up the invitation to attend to the event, she wrote: “I find it very hard that a mother could make such a harsh choice, to deprive a child of its [own] mother,” Christofidou-Henriques said.
Savvidou said authorities could have chosen different arrangements to keep the family intact or at least to let the mother free after confiscating her travel documents and asking her to regularly report to police.
Carmella and Fadel Hijazie
“It makes no sense to keep [the mother] in prison and leave the child alone to roam the streets. They must understand their responsibilities, if something happens it will be the Cypriot Republic that will be accountable,” she said.
In another case, a young couple have approached the Sunday Mail because the husband, a Lebanese married to a British woman, has been held in Menoyia since March, kept away from his young children as he also awaits deportation. Fadel and Carmella Hijazie have been living in Cyprus for six years and have two boys, three-year-old Alex and eight-month-old Luca. Carmella’s parents own property in Cyprus (Carmella has Greek Cypriot roots), and Fadel has been paying social insurance contributions. But Fadel has been away from his family for over seven months and was detained just a month after his youngest son was born. Their lawyer Andreas Pelecanos said the relevant authorities have not explained their decisions to detain and deport Fadel.
His Supreme Court appeal keeps getting postponed while he waits in detention. The latest court date is for December.
“Basically he is a foreigner and they want him out irrespective of the fact he has a European wife with two children,” Carmella said. “So has this country completely gone to the dogs that they are now looking to separate perfectly happy and healthy families?”
The law says depriving children of their parents, and detaining people for deportation should be a measure of last resort. But even the courts are sometimes too slow to act.
For example, in late October a Pakistani man and father of a half-Cypriot child was deported because the Supreme Court would not issue a same-day interim order to stop authorities from deporting him, his lawyer Michalis Paraskevas said. Instead, the judge set a November 5 case to hear the case, too late for the four-year-old child and his father.
“In this, the judge was complicit in depriving a child of his father,” Paraskevas said, adding that Supreme Court judges tended to be very tolerant of the “migration department’s arbitrary policies”.
The length of detention for purposes of deportation should be up to six months, although the Sunday Mail has previously reported on cases of lengthy detention, such as the 47-year-old Iranian scientist who was held for over nine months. According to human rights’ laws, the courts should process such cases as quick as possible.
Paraskevas, who is also the lawyer of the parents of three-year-old Laiba, is not the only one who has been issuing warnings.
Pelecanos, Fadel and Carmella’s lawyer, said arrest and deportation orders tend to be arbitrary. The orders take
Carmella and her sons Alex and Luca
a person’s freedom away, sever family ties, and take people’s jobs away, he said. Authorities also break the law by delaying processing the cases in the Supreme Court. And because the Supreme Court only looks at the administrative nature of the issue, i.e. the legality of a previous order, the migration department simply issues a new order, “so they don’t have to release successful applicants, who grow weary waiting for a new hearing, again while in detention,” Pelecanos said.
Despite repeated phonecalls Anny Shakallis did not respond to a request for comment.
How migration breaks the law
The migration department and the interior ministry that signs off its department’s decisions, tend to contravene a vast array of European directives, human rights directives, and case law, all meant to protect people and families.
One such contravention relates to “attributing an assumption of marriage of convenience to every mixed marriage” where one partner has not sorted their migration papers yet, an Ombudswoman report from February said.
The report said EU case law directly opposed a sweeping approach in such matters, such as the one the migration department adopts. The same report refers to a Supreme Court decision talking of the “legalistic way” in which migration department treated one third country national. He had been waiting for a year for a necessary document certifying he had not been married before, so he could marry his partner, a naturalised Cypriot.
Instead, when he got randomly arrested, he was immediately handed with a deportation order. The court said the department did not act in good faith, did not act within reasonable timeframes and took advantage of an irrelevant set of events. The court called migration to respect the rights of people, as enshrined in the country’s constitution and European laws. Meanwhile, the European Commission reminded its member states in 2011 they should not be conducting systematic checks on marriages of convenience, but could only investigate “isolated cases where there are well-founded suspicions of abuse [of the law]”.
Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou said they understand the need to deal with real cases of marriages of convenience. But she added that even when the data does not point to a marriage of convenience, there were instances of Cypriots married to a foreigner, whether EU citizens or otherwise, who were put under “huge inconveniences” of the like of knocking on people’s door to check if they live together, checking their personal items, and asking intimate questions about their sex life.
“There’s a sort of sweep operation going on, if I may use that term,” she said.
The migration department often delays responding to the Ombudswoman’s investigations, sometimes needing five reminders before getting back, and even then, responses are not always adequate, Savvidou said.
Other policies, such as forcing mixed race couples to prove paternity via DNA tests are not based on any laws, Savvidou has said in her annual report.
In her own annual reports Child Commissioner Leda Koursoumba has highlighted the absence by the state of a comprehensive policy on migration, and even a “refusal” by the relevant authorities to implement what is meant to be binding by law.
“There have been cases where both parents of children were detained for the purpose of deportation,” Koursoumba said in her annual report. In her 2011 report she also mentioned complaints by families whose main breadwinner was detained for deportation, leaving the family vulnerable without a financial income.
Koursoumba has called the state – from which the migration department’s policies are ultimately derived – for a comprehensive policy so that matters involving children are regulated with clarity and in accordance to children’s rights.
Our View: Migration has had a licence to abuse its powers for too long
THE MIGRATION Department has always been a law unto itself. With discretionary powers it exercises as a matter of routine, rather than in exceptional cases, it operates as like a government department of a totalitarian regime, in which no individual rights were recognised and rule of law was an irrelevance. Concepts like accountability and transparency are unheard of as everyone, from the director down to the last official, can take the most outrageous decision with impunity.
Several of the Department’s abuses were highlighted in a report in the last issue of the Sunday Mail, which quoted the Ombudswoman, Eliza Savvidou as saying that complaints against migration officials had been on the increase in the past year. Savvidou said: “We are observing a growing harshness of attitude by the migration department that is possibly related to the xenophobic climate that is being developed in Cyprus.” The Ombudswoman also mentioned how the department often failed to respond to requests for information relating to cases and when it did, this was inadequate.
In the cases reported by the Sunday Mail, the main charge made by the department against foreigners was that they had entered a ‘marriage of convenience’. A Lebanese man has been held at the Menoyia centre for seven months, awaiting deportation, on the grounds that he had entered a marriage of convenience with an EU citizen. The couple have two young children (aged 3 and 8 months) but the migration department has decreed that he was in a marriage of convenience and had to be deported.
In another case, a Pakistani man who had a child with a Bulgarian woman and proved he was the father by DNA test, was arrested for deportation because he had entered a marriage of convenience according to migration. That married couples with children are accused of entering a marriage of convenience, is an illustration of how migration officers abuse their powers.
Savvidou said the migration officials would go to people’s homes to check if they lived together, examine their personal items and ask questions about their sex life to establish if they were in a marriage of convenience. Nobody is saying there are no marriages of convenience, aimed at fooling the authorities, but the migration department cannot act indiscriminately, bringing such accusations against whomever it chooses, including couples with families. Do people have ‘children of convenience’ as well?
The problem is that the Department has had a licence to abuse its powers for too long. For more than a decade it has had the same director, who has come to believe – with ample justification as nobody ever challenges her autocratic behaviour – that she can do as she pleases. This attitude is the ethos of the migration department and there will be no change unless the director is replaced and its powers restricted.
Fighting the system
Far from having his eyes glaze over when meeting a lawyer specialising in ill treated migrants THEO PANAYIDES meets an energetic anarchist
A few hours after meeting Michalis Paraskevas, I realise it’s impossible to explain to friends and colleagues why I’m so impressed with him. It’s a sad fact of life that people’s eyes glaze over when they hear words like ‘migrants’ and ‘human rights’, and that’s what 36-year-old Michalis does – he’s a lawyer specialising in cases of ill-treated migrants. It didn’t sound like the most exciting interview, at least on paper. I fully expected to be nodding piously while being lectured on how we can all Do Better – but instead I got rage, charisma and waves of furious energy. You wouldn’t think a small, second-floor office on a quiet Nicosia side-street could contain so much energy.
He spits out statute, precedent and relevant statistics with impressive felicity. “I know the law. I know their system – OK?” he explains, ‘they’ being the banks, vested interests and “media of mass deception” behind the system. That “OK?” is one of his repeated phrases (carrying a slight edge, as if to say ‘You got a problem with that?’, an impression reinforced by his savage crew-cut and prominent features), another being “re koumbare”, the Cypriot version of ‘mate’. But it’s not just what Michalis says that makes an impact – it’s also the way his green eyes flash, or the way he’ll rock back and forth in his chair as if about to explode, or the way he’ll bang a fist down on his desk to underline a point, or the way he’ll raise his arms, as if offering himself to an invisible firing squad, when he says something like “I’m an anarchist! Yes, I-am-an-anarchist! But I don’t mean Molotov cocktails and shit like that – OK?”.
Above all, perhaps, it’s the way his mobile phone keeps ringing – eight or nine times in the 90 minutes I spend in his office (there are no secretaries or other lawyers; he’s completely alone, maybe because helping migrants isn’t exactly lucrative work). Most of the calls relate to ongoing cases, though one is from his older brother Marios, who’s just arrived from Greece; there’s also a younger brother who – like Michalis – studied Law in Thessaloniki, the Greek influence being very strong because that’s the kind of family he grew up in, a nationalist family that flew the Greek flag and was proud of it (his dad was a teacher, his mother a school administrator). “My childhood influences were ‘Greece, Cyprus, Enosis’,” he recalls – and he’s outgrown that phase but retains a certain nostalgia: he runs a blog at osr55.wordpress.com (there’s also a YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/osr555, where he uploads videos on a regular basis), the ‘55’ standing, symbolically, for 1955, the year of EOKA. And the ‘osr’? That stands for ‘Only Solution, Revolution’.
It’s easy to scoff at such fiery posturing – but Michalis is one step ahead of the scoffers. “That’s automatism,” he points out when he talks of anarchist communities in Catalonia in 1936 and I wonder (as most people would) if that can really work in the long term. “What you just did there is an automatic response, which we’ve been taught by our family, the schools, the media of mass deception. An automatic response. Automatically, as soon as you hear something like that, you’re like ‘Oh, but human nature…’ and crap like that”. Anarchism can work, he believes, citing not just Catalans but Native American tribes – anarchism in the strict sense of living without a central authority. One of his dreams, which he and his wife are slowly putting into practice, is to build a house that’s entirely “autonomous”, with its own solar power, generators and a plot of land to grow vegetables and raise chickens; “So I won’t need anyone, neither governments nor corporations”.
But the real reason why it’s hard to scoff at Michalis’ revolutionary talk is because he’s not spouting these ideals from the comfort of a desk job or trust fund: he’s in the trenches, fighting the system – so he says – every day and twice on the weekend. He mentions lots of cases in the course of our 90 minutes, most of them punctuated with indignant cries of “they’re crazy, re koumbare!”. The case of the Iranian migrant who spent 55 months in jail while his case was pending. The case of Senthil Thevathas, a former Tamil rebel deported back to Sri Lanka (where he’s now hiding out, trying to avoid execution) – even though the Supreme Court specifically ordered that Thevathas shouldn’t be deported till his case had been examined, an order that was simply ignored by the Department of Migration. The case of a Syrian mother and her 12-year-old child, who only wanted to go to Sweden – and tried to leave Cyprus with a fake passport, which admittedly was wrong, but Migration’s response was to arrest her, leave the child to fend for itself, and order her deported back to war-torn Syria!
immigrants in nicosia
Migration is clearly his nemesis; the Department, says Michalis scathingly, “operates like a common racist”. Most of what he says about department head Anny Shakalli is unfortunately libellous, though he doesn’t care: “Let her sue me, no problem” (he’s already been hauled before disciplinary boards twice, and won his case on both occasions). The stories he tells offer few fist-pumping triumphs; mostly they involve applications for habeas corpus being dismissed, judges being apathetic (or worse), Michalis ranting and raving at heartless officials – all while migrants rot in jail and weep copiously. “Why are you treating us this way?” he recalls the Syrian woman asking, and shakes his head: “I was ashamed. I was ashamed of my country.”
But after all, I venture, there’s a crisis now. We don’t have room for migrants.
“That’s ridiculous!” he snaps back. “First of all, there’s a war in Syria. You think they know Cyprus, and they’re coming here for the halloumi? Most Syrians – maybe 99.9 per cent – want to go to Sweden or Germany. They don’t want to stay in this stinking place!”.
What’s his opinion of Cypriots generally?
“They’re skatopsyshi,” he replies vehemently, meaning they have ‘shit for souls’. “We’re among the most skatopsyshi nations. This society is rotten to the core, there’s no sense of solidarity – you can see that by how they treat the weakest. This society, when they see a weak person lying on the ground, they’ll go and kick them when they’re down. That’s all I have to say”.
The phone rings again. It’s one of his current cases (he has about 80 ongoing cases, which explains why he’s usually in the office from early morning) – an EU citizen married to an Asian man. They have a three-year-old child, with a legally-issued birth certificate naming the man as the father – but the authorities now claim it’s a marriage of convenience, and when the woman went to find out why she wasn’t allowed to work “our friends the stinking cops, the dirtbags, arrested her right in front of her child. Even though you aren’t allowed to jail a mother even for a criminal offence, only for drugs. And she’s a European citizen!” The woman’s been in jail since August 6 (it’s now September 20) – and indeed they’d been planning to deport her that same day, leaving the child behind. “They’re such liars, re koumbare, they’re such liars. I mean, they claim the man isn’t the father – so what, you’re going to leave the child with a stranger?” Michalis intervened, and blocked the deportation – but this morning, right before our interview, had an application for an interim order dismissed by a judge.
“Yes, hi,” he says on the phone now. His English isn’t perfect, and the woman is clearly distraught. “I’m – yes, Michalis, your lawyer, yes…”
A long pause. He listens.
“Listen, listen to me,” he says at last. “Today the judge, unfortunately, they reject the application. We have to make another application. But this will take at least one month…”
Another long pause.
“Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me. I understand. Don’t – listen – when they call you, don’t talk with these people. Don’t talk to them. Tell them ‘call my lawyer’. You understand what I’m telling you?”
Another pause. He raises his voice, as if to drown out her wailing.
“Don’t talk – listen – listen to me very carefully, what I’m gonna tell you. When these people call you, and they say that is from the Immigration, tell them ‘I have a lawyer. Don’t talk with me, talk to my lawyer’. And turn off the telephone. OK? I will make another application on Monday, and we will see what happens…”
He goes on for a few more minutes, ending with a promise to visit her later today at the detention centre where she’s being held “in the middle of nowhere”. It must take its toll, dealing with such cases day after day, trying to calm the distraught and desperate – but Michalis Paraskevas wouldn’t be half as impressive if he were simply doing good work, or even if his anger were a bitter, unhappy kind of anger. What’s great, and invigorating, is the way his anger is creative. It nurtures and sustains him, and goes hand-in-hand – despite everything – with dreams of a better future.
“I have no delusions on what I can offer,” he admits. “Anyone who thinks world revolution is going to start from Cyprus is out of his mind”. But he is nonetheless an anarchist – or a “libertarian socialist,” as he likes to call it – trying to be what 19th-century writer Peter Kropotkin called a “revolutionary spirit” (Kropotkin is one of his influences, along with Bakunin, Malateste and Berkman; he found their texts online, the internet being the new revolutionary frontier). “Nothing is ever lost,” he asserts. “Every struggle leaves something behind”. Even when it feels like he’s banging his head against a brick wall, he can make a tiny difference, or inspire some younger person. “Another world is possible,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it’s coming tomorrow, nor the day after. Maybe I won’t even be alive.” But the hope – the conviction – is there.
Michalis is an athlete. That’s important to note: he’s been cycling all his life, was a Cyprus champion in his teens, won the silver for the whole of Northern Greece during his college years. He talks like an athlete, as when speaking of a televised debate he had with MP Zacharias Koulias: “I demolished him in five minutes!” he says gleefully. “With arguments,” he adds, as if he and Koulias might’ve arm-wrestled instead, or raced their bikes. When he thinks about his life – his work, his beliefs, the seemingly inviolable System – I suspect he thinks like an athlete: it’s all about stamina and determination, and refusing to give up till you’ve wheeled across the finish line.
“Everyone makes their choices in this life,” says Michalis firmly. He cites Pavlos Fyssas, the Greek leftist killed by Golden Dawn supporters in Greece recently; not that he himself wants to die, he adds quickly, but that’s what you do, “you do what you believe in and hope for the best… Today we’re alive, tomorrow we’re not. It goes without saying that I have plans for the future, I want to start a family – but everyone makes their choices. If you want to be a slave, and a worm, and to crawl, then go ahead and do it, my friend – but I don’t accept that. OK? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and let them do what they want to me.”
Some may despise him, and that’s okay too: “You see how I am as a person: you either like me or you don’t like me!” But the point is revolution, and “revolution begins in the mind,” he says earnestly. “I chose to be in society. I’m in the system – I’m a lawyer, obviously – and I’m fighting within this system.
“You know what the easiest thing in the world is, Theo? To wear torn clothes, and grow my hair Rasta-style, and go get my fix” – he makes the universal gesture for puffing on a joint – and say ‘I’m an anarchist’. No, my friend, that’s not being an anarchist. An anarchist is a fighting man, who’s fighting for a better society”. Like I said, impressive.