Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Partition policy deepened by Covid 19

Esra Aygin

It is a source of concern not only for the communities on the island, but also for the international community that there is no consultation, plan or discussion regarding the opening of the crossing points, which have been closed supposedly due to the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Last week, the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces on the island stated that it stands ready to assist the sides on the lifting of the restrictions at the crossing points. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in response to a letter by Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said that he expects the two leaders to agree on certain arrangements on the opening of the crossing points as soon as the health situation is stabilized. The European Commission, which has called on the opening of all borders in Europe, is also watching closely the policies of the sides regarding the crossing points. 

The Greek Cypriot side, on 28 February, when not a single Covid 19 case had yet been detected, unilaterally closed four of the nine crossing points in Cyprus. The fact that the other five crossing points remained open, that there were no other travel restrictions, that there were no measures at airports and seaports, and the fact that the Limassol Carnival was allowed to go on on 1 March made it impossible to justify or defend the legitimacy of the closure of the four crossing points. 

A couple of days later, the Turkish Cypriot side, ignoring calls from peace activists and reasonable politicians for cooperation and coordination, unilaterally closed all of the crossing points. 

In fact, the Covid 19 pandemic provided a very convenient excuse for those, who want the crossing points closed. At the moment, although many restrictions are being eased, there is no plan, cooperation or coordination for the opening of the crossing points. The policy being implemented at the moment on both sides of the island is the policy of those, who do not want the crossing points to open, and who prefer the situation to stay like this. The Covid 19 crisis is being used to deepen the division of the island. 

The signals of this policy were rife in the Greek Cypriot side even before the Covid 19 pandemic. Since the end of last year, there has been an intensive propaganda that a high number of refugees are crossing from the north the south. Official data regarding the immigrants were not shared, but it was argued that Turkey is deliberately sending immigrants to the south and that their numbers are constantly increasing. Some opinion leaders, politicians and political parties were demanding to close the crossing points as a response. 

According to figures by civil society organisations and independent researchers however, there had been a steady decrease in the number of immigrants crossing from the north to the south since December 2019. Nevertheless, a number of Greek Cypriot ministers adopted ELAM’s proposal to close the crossing points and seriously discussed the issue with Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades.  

At the moment, there are health experts and politicians, who appear frequently on TV arguing that the figures from the north cannot be trusted, that there are uncontrolled entries continuously from Turkey to the north, and that under these circumstances it is impossible to open the crossing points. 

There are even some, who argue that crossing points are the reason why there is no solution on the island, that crossing points legitimise and normalise the situation on the island and prevent a solution, and therefore, they should remain closed. 

Another opinion is to keep the crossing points closed and destroy the north economically, therefore rendering it weak in negotiations. Among all these absurd arguments and voices, calls to open the crossing points remain very weak. 

The Greek Cypriot side, in response to calls to open the crossing points, is saying that they closed crossing points except two, and it is the Turkish Cypriot side that closed all the crossing points. However, the 14-day quarantine requirement means that in practice all the crossing points are closed. The Turkish Cypriot side could easily expose the Greek Cypriot side by declaring all crossing points open, but for some reason the north, which economically needs the people coming from the south does not seem to be in a hurry to open the crossing points either. Interestingly, there seems to be a tacit agreement between the two sides to keep the crossing points closed. This situation strengthens the right wing narrative and puts important issues such as confidence building measures or the resumption of negotiations in the back burner. 

In fact, this situation is an excellent public opinion exercise for Anastasiades, who, by now, is widely known to have permanent partition in his heart. It is a test of ‘what would happen?’ in a situation where there are no negotiations, all crossing points are closed and the north is sealed. The Green Line has turned into a border for months. A normalized border. And sadly, there is no significant reaction from the public. 

As it can be seen from the statements, the international community is not hiding that it is concerned that the issue of opening the crossing points will be abused for political reasons. It is indeed worrying that there is no plan to open the crossing points at a time when the virus has been brought under control on both sides. In the north there has been no new Covid 19 case for weeks. In the south, only a few cases are detected each day and these are probably people, who were in contact with positive cases. In other words, there is no pandemic in Cyprus that would legitimise the policy of keeping crossing points closed. 

Unfortunately, with the way the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot authorities reacted to the Covid 19 crisis, they both physically and politically deepened the division. It is obvious that there is need for a strong and coordinated pressure from the communities to have the crossing points opened again.