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NICOSIA: Cyprus’s frozen conflict is providing fertile ground for human traffickers with cases at “alarming” levels in the EU member state, and the breakaway north considered as bad as Afghanistan.

“I love her, but at the same time she reminds me about my past,” said one Cameroonian trafficking survivor, referring to her young daughter.

“There was so much abuse during those months,” added the woman in her 20s, who said she was rescued by a client from her ordeal.

“I didn’t die ... and God saved me, so I know that He has a plan for my life,” she told an NGO working with survivors which requested anonymity to protect her identity.

Last year the US State Department downgraded Cyprus in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report from Tier 1, the highest ranking, to Tier 2, citing problems including protracted court proceedings and a lack of convictions.

While the report does not formally rank the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only recognised by Ankara, it says the territory would be in Tier 3 with the worst offenders including Afghanistan and North Korea if it did.

Cyprus has been split since 1974, after Turkey invaded in response to a Greek-sponsored coup.

And the lack of progress in resolving the conflict shifts attention and resources away from issues like human trafficking, said Nasia Hadjigeorgiou, assistant professor in transitional justice and human rights from the University of Central Lancashire Cyprus.

The stalemate also means there is no collaboration between law enforcement on the two sides, Hadjigeorgiou said.

So human trafficking across the island as a whole is “literally not being dealt with,” she said.

In the north, traffickers are abusing student visa regulations, said Fezile Osum from the north’s Human Rights Platform, calling the situation a “red alarm”.

The organisation manages an anti-trafficking hotline that has identified 12 victims — all of sex trafficking — since late last year.

In some cases, young women from African countries are brought in as students but when they arrive “they are locked in private apartments and forced into (commercial) sex”, Osum said.

That’s on top of trafficking cases from nightclubs, where women on “barmaid” and “hostess” visas must get regular STD checks despite organised prostitution being illegal in the territory, she added.

One survivor said clubs sometimes used blackmail and drugs to control trafficked women, Osum said.

The north criminalised human trafficking for the first time in 2020, but Osum said no convictions had yet been recorded.

She knew of one victim who had reported her ordeal to police in the south, only to be told, “this happened in the north... how can we collect evidence that you were actually trafficked?”

Turkish Cypriot politician Dogus Derya said the territory’s unrecognised status meant it was unable to cooperate with international bodies to fight organised crime.

The north “can be seen as an area of ‘impunity’ for human traffickers”, she said.

A 2020 European Commission report, referencing 2017-2018 data, said Cyprus eclipsed all other EU countries for the number of identified or presumed victims of human trafficking relative to its population, with 168 per million people. Britain trailed in second place with 91.

“When they come, they don’t have hope for the future,” said Paraskevi Tzeou, board member of Cyprus Stop Trafficking, referring to survivors who seek help at the organisation’s women’s shelter in the south.

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