On Tuesday, 16 June, some two hundred British nationals received the good news that their permanent residency status was confirmed, allowing them to finally return to their homes in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC).
The news from the Turkish Cypriot authorities was sent by email yesterday afternoon, bringing joy and relief to dozens of expatriates who have been stranded abroad for the past three months due to lockdown measures imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the affected people is Denise Philips, a presenter for TRNC state broadcaster BRT, who has been living in North Cyprus for forty years. She told T-VINE:
“It means everything to us [expats] that the TRNC is making arrangements for us to come home and the uncertainty that we have lived with since 11thMarch is coming to an end.
“I am so proud of how North Cyprus contained the pandemic and kept her people safe. I’ve missed the sea, the sky and the smell and sounds of my home country, and just can’t wait to get back to North Cyprus as soon as possible now.”
The good news was also warmly welcomed by Catherine Hayes who came to the UK to look after a friend who had a life-saving cancer operation, and then found herself unable to return home. She and similarly trapped expats formed a support group to share information and lobby the authorities to let them return to the TRNC.
Ms Hayes said: “Now we have had approval to travel back to our homes in TRNC, we are all excited and looking forward to being back on Cyprus soil.
“I personally have missed my home, sister, friends and our family of furry creatures so much. It will be so nice to socialise again after spending 14 weeks in virtual isolation. Thank you to everyone who has made it possible for our return,” she added.
The stranded expats had been visiting friends and relatives in Britain when the TRNC went into sudden lockdown on 12 March. With limited health facilities in North Cyprus, the authorities felt obliged to act swiftly and did so four days after the country’s first diagnosed case of Covid-19, of a German tourist who had arrived on 8 March.
The lockdown saw the Turkish Cypriot government impose a ban on visitors from high risk countries, but left the door open to its own citizens and foreigners with residency permits. On 17 March, the TRNC closed its air space to international travel and two days later, the authorities unexpectedly imposed a ban on all non-TRNC citizens entering the country, including those with residency.
BRT presenter Denise Phillips: “I’ve missed the sea, the sky and the smell and sounds of my home country, and just can’t wait to get back to North Cyprus as soon as possible now.”
British expatriates, the vast majority over sixty, suddenly found themselves stranded in the UK, cut off from their homes and in some cases, their partners. They were forced to live off the charity of friends and relatives, who put them up as they patiently waited for the TRNC to re-open to the world.
The TRNC was the first country in the world to flatten its coronavirus curve, eliminating all cases, allowing the government to ease lockdown measures in May. One of its key announcements was that TRNC citizens stranded abroad could return home from 1 June.
The expats, whose plight was first highlighted by the Council of Turkish Cypriot Associations in Britain (CTCA UK) back in April, appealed to the TRNC government to be readmitted to North Cyprus on the same date. Initially, it appeared their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.
Letters signed by 110 expats outlining the “immense difficulties” they faced were sent to the TRNC Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay and the Prime Minister Ersin Tatar.
On 22 May, Dr. Özersay hinted in a live interview on BRT that their return home was at hand when he said the government was looking to allow them “into the country on a date close to 1 June.”
After weeks of waiting, on 29 May the expats got the news they were desperate for, that the Council of Ministers had approved entry into the country from 8 June for all with work, student or residency permits.
The challenge was then on to prove they were actual residents of the TRNC, and not just visitors, a situation complicated by the fact that most had permanent homes in North Cyprus, but no formal government document granting residency. Many expats had instead relied on a ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ struck by the British Residents Society many years ago that allowed residency for home owners.
Other expats stranded in Britain had residency permits, which had lapsed, or they were in the middle of applying for them when the coronavirus hit. The Ministry of Interior announced at the time that all such works were on hold.
Such was the anxiety levels of the expats who feared they could not prove their residency status that Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay felt obliged to personally take charge of the matter.
He attended a meeting with Horst Gutowski, chairman of The Foreign Residents in the TRNC (TFR), and TFR Secretary Caroline Houghton on 2 June. Afterwards, Ms Houghton told T-VINE that the Minister had been “extremely sympathetic to the plight of the expats”, reassuring them that the TRNC authorities would be “as flexible as they can” and that “all genuine cases would be able to enter the TRNC.”
TFR set about gathering vital details of those stranded abroad, from passport details and residency permits to proof of property ownership, which were then passed on to the TRNC Foreign Ministry to process in conjunction with their colleagues at the Ministry of Interior.
A nervous wait ensued, until on 16 June the TFR received the government’s responses on the applications. Virtually everyone had been approved.
The expats are now liaising with tour operator Cyprus Paradise for a repatriation flight home, while also waiting for the government to confirm the booking process. A spokesperson for the tour operator said they hoped to announce details of the repatriation flight for expats in the next 24 hours.
Main image, top, of TRNC Foreign Ministry Kudret Özersay (right) meets TFR chair Horst Gutowski and secretary Caroline Houghton at the TRNC Foreign Ministry, 2 June 2020. Photo © TRNC Foreign Ministry