Two Bangladeshi migrants were desperately waiting at the main gate leading to the Pournara migrant reception camp outside Nicosia, the capital of the Republic of Cyprus, last week, hoping to gain entry into the already-overcrowded camp.
The two men — in their 20s — looked exhausted and afraid. One of them, 24-year-old Salim Hossain, told DW that the authorities denied them entry into the camp due to a lack of documents.
"We don't have any passports. A Bangladeshi human trafficker has taken them from us in North Cyprus before sending us to the southern part of the island," Hossain said.
The Pournara reception centre for asylum-seekers is the largest refugee camp in Cyprus.
The camp is designed to accommodate about 1,000 people, but more than double the number is currently housed there, including some 200 Bangladeshis. Many have complained of serious problems, including chronic overcrowding, woeful bathroom facilities, and meagre food and water rations.
During a recent visit to the camp, Cyprus President Nikos Anastasiades described the conditions as "tragic."
Hossain and his co-traveller, Enamul Haque, said they started their journey from Dhaka on 6 June, hoping to work at an apple farm in Northern Cyprus. Each had to pay about €7,000 ($7,360) to a local human trafficker, who has contacts with other traffickers in Europe, for the trip via Dubai.
Cyprus was split in two in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup on the island aimed at union with Greece. Both sides are divided by a 180-kilometre-long (120-mile long) UN buffer zone. Only Turkey recognises the Turkish Cypriot government in the north, while the Greek Cypriot government in the south is recognized internationally.
Falling prey to human traffickers
As Bangladesh does not have diplomatic relations with the Republic of Northern Cyprus, it's not possible to travel directly from Dhaka to the region. Human smugglers arrange travel from Bangladesh to Northern Cyprus via a third country.
"We flew from Dhaka to Dubai on a tourist visa. After spending two nights there, the traffickers told us to fly to Northern Cyprus via Turkey. We had to change our flights three times, and, in every step, some Bangladeshi agents helped us make the trip possible," Hossain said.
In Northern Cyprus, they were offered jobs at a construction company that works on a project aimed at modernising the Ercan International Airport in North Nicosia.
Tarik Kahraman, an employee at the firm, told DW that the two Bangladeshi nationals, along with another Pakistani worker, came to work for the company but went missing a few days ago.
"We have been searching for them. The workers took their passports from us to open bank accounts but never returned to work afterwards," he said. ''Many Bangladeshi workers work on our project," he added. "We bring them to the country via Bangladeshi agents who live in North Cyprus."
But Hossain's account of what happened after their arrival in North Nicosia was different.
Instead of offering us the promised work at an apple farm, Hossain said, "we were kept in a house with some other Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants before being smuggled to the southern part of Cyprus in a car through the buffer zone at night."
The migrants didn't reveal the name of their traffickers out of fears of reprisals.
More and more asylum applications from Bangladesh
According to the Cypriot government, about 90% of migrants enter via Turkey and the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north through a loosely regulated student visa system. Thousands of people then cross the UN buffer zone to seek asylum in the Greek Cypriot south.
According to the government, about 10,000 people claimed asylum in the south in the first five months of the year, a doubling from the same period in 2021. Asylum-seekers now make up about 5% of Cyprus' 9,15,000-strong population in the south — a record figure across the EU.
Bangladesh ranks among the top 10 countries whose citizens have sought asylum in the country. Last year, over 600 Bangladeshis applied for asylum and so far, this year, over 800 applications have been filed.
Almost all of these applications get rejected as Bangladesh is considered a safe country of origin, meaning that people from there are not eligible for international protection in general.
Filing for asylum to work in Cyprus
Many Bangladeshi migrants are aware that their asylum applications don't stand a chance. But they still apply for the status as asylum applicants are allowed to work while their applications are being processed.
"An asylum-seeker can work for several years while their application is being processed. Once an application is rejected, they can repeatedly appeal against it. It allows them to keep working in the EU country for a long time, some five to seven years, with the status of an asylum-seeker," a Bangladeshi-Cypriot migrant observer, who asked not to be named, told DW.
DW has spoken with several Bangladeshis living in cities like Kyrenia and North Nicosia who say they are working as "agents" of local universities and companies. They explained how hundreds of Bangladeshi youth are being lured to the region with promises of lucrative jobs and a better life.
After arriving in Northern Cyprus, however, they understand the reality of the situation and realise the false promises. But, having already spent thousands of euros by this point, they find themselves in a tough spot and view an asylum application in the south as the only viable way out of their predicament.
DW's queries to the Northern Cyprus government on human trafficking issues went unanswered.
Legally migrating to Cyprus
The Republic of Cyprus says it offers legal ways for students and workers to come to the country and suggested that migrants use these possibilities to avoid falling prey to human traffickers.
"Students can come here to study, and the process is the same as in the US and other Western countries. They can apply directly," Andreas Varnava, director of a refugee camp in Cyprus, told DW.
"It's also the same for people who want to come to work in different sectors in Cyprus," Varnava said. "Some recruiters help companies hire workers from abroad. You don't need to pay human traffickers to come to Cyprus."
Ruben Pavlou Kalaydjian, Bangladesh's honorary consul in Cyprus, also echoed a similar opinion. "Five to seven hundred workers from Bangladesh legally come to Cyprus every year to work in different sectors. One should take this opportunity instead of taking any illegal route to the island state," he told DW.
For Hossain and Haque, the future looks grim. Their traffickers, who charged thousands of euros, have left them at the refugee camp in Nicosia.
"We can't return anymore. We decided to embrace our destiny," Haque said.
Arafatul Islam is a multimedia journalist at DW. He mostly covers topics related to Bangladesh and South Asia.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Deutsche Welle, and is published by special syndication arrangement.