Cyprus has a large immigrant community ranging from the superrich to refugees fleeing war and poverty. After recent unprecedented attacks on migrants, criticism of the Cypriot government and authorities is growing.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.

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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.

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

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.

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.

Sociologist Yannis Papadakis 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."

Political scientist Antonis Ellinas agrees. "The riots in Limassol were the climax of a political discourse of the ultra-right-wing ELAM party in Cyprus, which has become increasingly dominant in recent years," 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. Until well after the financial crisis of 2013, the government of Cyprus offered 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.

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.

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

Linking migration to the trauma of invasion

"The government has noticed that public opinion on migration is negative. The ultra-right ELAM party in Cyprus has succeeded in connecting the issue of migration with the trauma of the Turkish invasion. This makes it more difficult to tackle racism because members of the ultra-right claim that Turkey is smuggling migrants into the south," 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.

Sociologist Yannis Papadakis is sure this was the first act of political violence on the island since Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

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."

Loucianos Lyritsas contributed to this report.

This article was originally published in German.

(The above story first appeared on LatestLY on Sep 18, 2023 08:30 PM IST. For more news and updates on politics, world, sports, entertainment and lifestyle, log on to our website