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Cyprus migrants face wave of attacks as hostility brews

Chu Thi Dao's shop in the Cypriot city of Limassol was attacked in an anti-migrant riot
— Limassol (Cyprus) (AFP)

Hours before the masked men came, brandishing Cypriot flags and molotov cocktails, hushed whispers of the imminent rampage travelled down the Limassol seafront strip home to many migrant-owned businesses.

Egyptian restaurant owners rushed to bring their water pipes indoors, and a Vietnamese vendor quickly cleared their street displays of greens and sugar cane stalks.

But they couldn't hide the distinct cultural heritage each of them has proudly embraced as they have built their livelihoods on the Mediterranean island.

Egyptian restaurateur Mohammed el-Basaraty, 38, recalled, "I was standing with a neighbour and she told me to leave... 'because if they see you, a foreigner, they will beat you', she said".

He stowed away at the back of the restaurant as the men smashed the windows of the business he had built with his life savings.

"We began to hear the sound of glass breaking... After that I smelled the smell of smoke and fire."

The attack early this month came amid a surge in violence against migrants in Cyprus, which last year recorded the European Union's highest proportion of first-time asylum seekers relative to population.

Experts blame the increased mainstreaming of xenophobia in Cypriot politics and media, fuelled by the spread of disinformation and the mismanagement of the large number of people trying to reach Europe.

Just days earlier, locals near the western city of Paphos had launched a similar attack on migrants after years of friction with the hundreds of mostly Syrians living in a condemned apartment complex.

Many businesses that were attacked are owned by people who had fled either unrest or dire economic conditions

Men with crowbars and sticks could be seen in videos shared on social media, shouting "out, out" as they marched through the streets. Twenty-one people were arrested, including 12 Syrians.

Police had earlier raided the building to clear it of its residents after allegations of electricity theft spread on social media.

Despite that precedent, as well as a heavy police presence ahead of the Limassol protest, residents say little was done to intervene.

"They were more than 600 people," said Adel Hassan, 76, a local resident. "How many did the police arrest? Just 13?"

Police did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment, but police chief Stelios Papatheodorou acknowledged before parliament that the response was "slow".

- 'Pogroms' -

Some observers have voiced suspicions that hidden under the black balaclavas were members of the extreme right-wing party Elam, a group initially formed out of Greece's now-outlawed neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

Elam did not respond to AFP's request for comment, but the group has repeatedly denied involvement in the violence.

Their staunch anti-immigration stance has helped them gain followers, with leader Christos Christou winning six percent of the vote in February's presidential election.

But Giorgos Charalambous, a professor focused on European party politics and mobilisation at the University of Nicosia, said the violence could also be attributed to smaller far-right groups that accuse Elam of becoming too soft on immigration since achieving mainstream success.

Activists march in solidarity with migrants in the Cypriot capital Nicosia following a string of attacks

Charalambous says overall "hate speech" has become normalised across the political spectrum, creating an atmosphere conducive to the attacks that he described as "pogroms".

"Individuals and politicians that spread fake news and racist rhetoric about immigration also come from more mainstream centre-right parties," he told AFP.

Cyprus has been at the frontlines of large-scale migrant arrivals in recent years, which have seen the government take harsher steps, including increased pushbacks, according to the Cyprus Refugee Council.

The UN refugee agency last month expressed concern after more than 100 Syrians were deported to Lebanon without adequate screening of their asylum applications.

Such steps, buffeted by the crackdown near Paphos, may have emboldened far-right activists to turn their long-standing grievances into action, observers said.

- 'Sense of safety' -

The violence has "never escalated to this, although I can't say that we haven't seen it coming," said Corina Drousitiou of the Cyprus Refugee Council.

She largely blamed the growing anti-migrant sentiment on inadequate measures by the authorities, particularly the previous government, also pointing to "the language used in official statements... which was quite evidently xenophobic".

Years of friction around a condemned apartment complex near Paphos in Cyprus were followed by anti-migrant attacks

Responding to a request for comment, the interior ministry spokesperson in the current government, which was formed in March, blamed the unrest on "accumulated problems that were exploited by anonymous accounts on social media platforms".

"In no case did the official side express any racist rhetoric," Elena Fysentzou told AFP.

For many foreigners on the island, the damage is already done.

"Things have changed. There isn't the sense of safety that we used to feel," Sayed Samir, the owner of Mr Habibi, one of the ransacked restaurants, told AFP.

It took Chu Thi Dao years of hard work to scrape together enough money to open her convenience store overlooking the Limassol waterfront.

"She wanted a better life for her children," her 17-year-old daughter, Flora, told AFP.

A video of the 35-year-old Vietnamese woman crying at her shop after the attack quickly went viral across the island, drawing solidarity and support from the community and government.

Like the Vietnamese shop, the majority of the businesses that were attacked are owned by people who had fled either unrest or dire economic conditions to settle in Cyprus years ago.

Towards the end of the conversation, Flora's eyes start to glaze over with tears. "I want to stay here and live with my mom and family," the teenager said, struggling with the notion that this dream may now be shattered.