The Constitution of Cyprus, which was drawn up in 1960 after the country gained independence for the first time in its history, divided the Cypriot population into two communities and cemented a rigorous bi-communalism between the Greek and Turkish populations on the island. Greek and Turkish were designated as official languages, but after the 1974 division of the country, bi-lingualism in practice ended. Members of the Turkish Cypriot community who stayed in the government-controlled area have not been able to exercise their language rights fully as provided in the Constitution. At the time of independence, members of the island's recognized three religious minorities, the Armenian Orthodox, Maronite Catholics and Roman Catholics (Latin), had to opt to join one of the two communities for voting purposes and all three chose to belong to the Greek Cypriot community.
These three minority groups were designated as national minorities under the FCNM, which entered into force in 1998. In its third periodic report on the application of the FCNM submitted in April 2009, Cyprus reflected on the Advisory Committee's opinion regarding the obligation of affiliation to either the Greek or the Turkish Cypriot community imposed on national minorities. It stated that any changes would require constitutional amendment, which 'would be politically incorrect, if not practically impossible' in the sensitive political climate of the country.
In September 2009, the Committee of Ministers of the CoE adopted a series of recommendations regarding the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which Cyprus ratified in 2002. Under the Charter, Armenian and Cypriot Maronite Arabic are acknowledged as minority languages. After reviewing the state of minority languages in 2009 the CoE recommended the development of a structured policy for the promotion of Armenian and Cypriot Maronite Arabic, including targeted financial support and teacher training initiatives. Some members of the Roma community speak a mix of Turkish and Kurbetcha, which is not acknowledged as a regional or minority language, however. And the CoE notes that Turkish is in a very similar situation in government-controlled areas, despite its status as being one of the official languages of the country
The strict bi-communal institutional structure has been criticized by human rights groups advocating for the rights of minorities and migrants living on the island, such as the Nicosia-based KISA – Action for Equality, Support, Anti-racism. They argue that it fails to address the needs of the country's minorities and migrants. As KISA argues, the division of the island in 1974 further alienated the two main communities and consolidated the conviction that ethnic or religious difference is a potential threat. Minorities who had opted for the Greek Cypriot community continue to live in the Turkish part of the island.
A long-standing country of emigration, Cyprus has experienced a rapid transformation into a host country for immigrants. This is due to a number of factors, including the easing of restrictions on crossing the Green Line dividing the northern and southern parts of the country, as well as accession to the EU in 2004. KISA and the 2009 European Social Watch Report on Migrants point out that migration to Cyprus is widely viewed as a temporary phenomenon – that the country is seen as a transit stop for most third-country nationals on their journeys towards other European countries. Hence, migration policies tend to put less emphasis on integrating the growing migrant population, many of whom have settled in Cyprus. Migrants can only stay if they are enrolled in higher education or are working. This leaves many migrants vulnerable to exploitative working conditions.
The Migrant Cities study by PRIO Cyprus (the International Peace Research Institution) shows Cypriot society reacting to the presence of migrants with both incidents of racism and xenophobia, and a wider lack of interest, 'a small, extreme, racist minority ... is opposed to the presence of migrants ... [but] the majority simply does not care about the experience, conditions, problems, or joys of migrants in Cyprus and this perpetuates a situation of 'living apart' and not 'together',' said Olga Demetriou, a project leader at PRIO Cyprus at the launch of the report in 2009.
A police sweep operation carried out in September 2009 in search of illegal immigrants and those responsible for a violent clash between worshippers at the Omeriye mosque a month earlier led to a further deterioration of the relationship between Cypriots and the migrant population. The police were heavily criticized by members of ENAR-Cyprus and KISA for the raids in the old town of Nicosia, which started at 5 a.m. and involved 247 police officers. According to the Cyprus Mail, the police alleged that the operation, involving the blockage of six exit points from the old town and house searches, was intended to 'prevent crime, combat illegal immigration and restore the sense of security in the old town'. The raid ended with 150 migrants being taken to police stations for identification; there were 12 arrests in connection with the Omeriye mosque violence and 36 for illegal residence. A number of organizations staged a demonstration on 4 October 2009 to condemn the police operation, which they saw as discriminatory and not backed up by any statistical evidence regarding a supposed growth of criminal activity among migrants.
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