1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Cyprus: Racist attacks stun migrant community

Florian Schmitz in Limassol
September 18, 2023

After a recent spate of unprecedented attacks on migrants, criticism of the Cypriot government and authorities is growing.

Shattered glass in a shop window
Shops and restaurants were attacked and vandalized in a spate of anti-migrant violence in Limassol in early SeptemberImage: Kostas Pikoulas/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa

Mohammed Elbasaraty has already replaced most of the panes of glass that were broken in the attack on his restaurant on September 1. But one large, jagged piece of glass by the entrance is a stark reminder of the night of violence that has raised many questions for the people of Limassol — including Elbasaraty.

The Egyptian immigrant has lived in Cyprus for 10 years. He started as a student in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, but then dropped out of college and opened an Egyptian takeaway in Limassol, the second largest city in the country on the island's south coast.

Life in Cyprus is actually very good and peaceful, says Elbasaraty, at least until Friday, September 1.

Mohammed Elbasaraty in his restaurant, Limassol, Cyprus, September 14, 2023
Mohammed Elbasaraty's Egyptian restaurant in Limassol was vandalized and set on fire by masked right-wing extremists in the attack on September 1Image: Florian Schmitz/DW

That evening, a march organized by right-wing extremists escalated and turned violent. A mob of several hundred masked protesters marched through the streets of Limassol, shouting racist slogans, vandalizing shops and restaurants and attacking people.

"A neighbor warned me that they would come and beat me up, but I didn't want to go," recalls the 38-year-old. Inside his restaurant, he could hear the mob throwing stones and smashing his windows.

"I thought it would be easy to repair, but then I smelled smoke, went out and saw that everything was on fire. They had thrown three or four Molotov cocktails into my restaurant," he says quietly, showing the video footage on his phone.

Not the first case of anti-migrant violence

The weekend before the violence broke out in Limassol, there were violent clashes between Syrian asylum-seekers and locals in Chloraka, a village about 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Limassol.

After the attack, Elbasaraty says authorities contacted him. They assured him he could repair everything and would get the money back. Since the attacks, however, the number of people coming to his restaurant has plummeted.

Cyprus president condemns anti-immigrant violence

Elbasaraty says he felt most disappointed by the police, who did very little during the riot.

"The police just stood around," he says, "with four or five cars."

Ultra-right discourse

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides condemned the violence and spoke of "undignified scenes." The police force admitted that mistakes had been made.

Social anthropologist Yiannis Papadakis, professor at the University of Cyprus, says that this is not enough. He is adamant that the state declare openly what this is all about, namely the way Cyprus deals with migrants.

"Our president doesn't talk about migrants' problems, nor does he talk about racist violence or the extreme right wing. On the contrary, there are denials that this was organized violence, even though it was very clearly organized."

Police officers in riot gear watch as anti-fascist protesters demonstrate in Limassol, Cyprus, September 2, 2023
The evening after violent anti-migrant attacks in the city, people took to the streets of Limassol to protest fascism and right-wing extremismImage: Kostas Pikoulas/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Political scientist Antonis Ellinas agrees. "This was the culmination of a political discourse that has really become more dominant in recent years by the presence of the far-right party ELAM," he tells DW.

High migration to Cyprus in recent years

Foreigners make up over 20% of the population of Cyprus, which is well above the EU average. During the financial crisis of 2013, the government of Cyprus began offering foreign investors attractive visa deals that granted residence permits to those who invested large sums of money.

This led to the construction of shiny new high-rise buildings that now house investment bankers, real estate companies and tech enterprises whose revenues run into the billions.

Superrich immigrants from countries like Russia, Ukraine or Israel have settled in Cyprus, driving up real estate prices and making rents in cities like Limassol unaffordable for even the stable middle classes.

'Good' foreigner, 'bad' foreigner

But the hate that spilled over during the racist attacks two weeks ago was directed at a different group of foreigners.

A person in a crowd holds up a sign reading 'Will trade racists for refugees' during an anti-fascist protest, Limassol, Cyprus, September 2, 2023
People held up signs protesting racism in Cyprus during a demonstration on the evening after the attacksImage: Kostas Pikoulas/ZUMA Press Wire/picture-alliance

According to the Cypriot Interior Ministry, refugees and migrants comprise 6% of the population. No other EU country receives as many applications for asylum per head of population as Cyprus.

Many refugees enter the southern part of the divided island by crossing the Green Line, the buffer zone policed by UN peacekeepers between the Turkish-occupied north of the island and the south. Others arrive on boats from Syria and Lebanon.

Right-wing rhetoric used to attract voters

Papadakis says that it is not least politicians who are responsible for the fact that these migrants have recently faced such blatant racism. For years, he says, politicians have been using right-wing rhetoric to attract voters.

"The former foreign minister even used the term 'apilas' for migration," he tells DW. "This word is used here to describe the barbarity of the Turkish invasion." For Greek-speaking Cypriots, there is nothing more threatening than this.

Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, resulting in the island's division and the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of people.

Rise in xenophobia

Antonis Ellinas researches how both political and civil players behave towards ultra-right parties and how right-wing political parties are trying to gain a foothold at the local level. He says that racist stereotypes and xenophobia have increasingly made inroads into Cypriot society in recent years.

Antonis Ellinas, Limassol, Cyprus, September 14, 2023
Political scientist Antonis Ellinas says that racist stereotypes and xenophobia have become more prevalent in Cypriot society in recent yearsImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

The presence of the ultra-right on the political landscape creates a dilemma for center-right parties when it comes to maintaining popular support. "The voters of ultra-right parties are not entirely different to the voters of center-right parties," Ellinas tells DW.

Linking migration to the trauma of invasion

"The government has realized that public opinion is negative towards migration. The far-right party in Cyprus has managed to link migration to the trauma of the Turkish invasion. That has complicated dealing with the racism, because the far-right claims that Turkey is sending all these migrants," says Ellinas.

He went on to say that although there is no proof of this in Cyprus, most refugees enter the southern part of the island from the Turkish-occupied north.

Ellinas adds that the country's previous government, in particular, did not do enough to distance itself from this rhetoric and that the same can be said of the current government. Above all, he tells DW, Cyprus lacks a system that would facilitate the sustainable integration of migrants into society.

Social anthropologist Yiannis Papadakis is sure this was the first such act of political violence on the island for decades.

The incredulity is still etched on his face as he looks along the seafront promenade where the mob marauded just over two weeks ago. "This is where all the people come together," he says. "It's actually the most democratic place in the city."

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece