A draft bill is currently being discussed to allow relatives of Greek-Cypriot internally displaced persons to inherit homes in refugee estates. These estates were constructed by the State in the aftermath of the 1974 Turkish invasion. I am absolutely against this initiative, realising that this is a grossly unpopular opinion. I shall advance my argument below but first I would like to acknowledge that many, if not most, of the title deeds of refugee estates have already been transferred to refugees and, upon inheritance, to their relatives. My objection covers both instances.
My starting point is to define the nature of the action in play, namely the transference of title deeds to people internally displaced in 1974. The houses have been constructed with funds secured by the state – largely through foreign aid – and are thus public property. The bill in question, as well as the law passed in 2006, effectively facilitate the transference of state property to private individuals. The transference of these properties is not subject to any income criteria and is, instead, presented as a minimum token to ameliorate part of the injustice caused by the Turkish invasion.
I don’t think that the state can legitimately compensate anyone for an injustice it did not itself cause. Such claims for compensation can only be legitimately levelled against Turkey who is the perpetrator of the injustice suffered by Cypriots. If we accept this foundational premise, then the transference of state property to private individuals can only be legitimised on the grounds of welfare assistance.
There is hardly anyone to dispute the fact that in 1974 people lost, to varying degrees, their homes and livelihoods, and as such have been rendered in a disadvantageous position. There is also consensus that some displaced people and their descendants never managed to climb the socioeconomic ladder and remained stuck in the post-1974 status quo, which is a by-product of the forceful division of the island and the loss they incurred. It thus emerges that the State bears some responsibility in having failed to give displaced people the opportunities for socioeconomic advancement availed to others. This much is evident from the comparison of the two groups, which controls for individual variations (I strongly believe that the best way to assess access to equal opportunities is by evaluating the long-term outcomes of each group).
Having established that the transference of public property to private individuals is, in this case, legitimate only as a form of welfare assistance, and having explained that displaced persons and their descendants may have valid claims for welfare support, the next step is to consider what conditions would satisfy granting this type of state aid. To do that we need to clarify the role of the state vis-a-vis the welfare claims of its citizens. The state is defined by its limited resources. To this end, the only meaningful protection it can avail has the form of a safety net; essentially supporting those at risk of homelessness and destitution, the most vulnerable in the society. In this regard, the State is failing in providing a safety-net, as evident by the prevalence of in-work poverty as well as the emergence of homelessness.
Internally displaced persons and their descendants are thus in direct competition with other potentially vulnerable members of the society. They are in direct competition with them because the vulnerability markets assessed for welfare assistance are the same for all groups: whether they are at risk of homelessness, destitution or extreme poverty. In this formulation, and bearing in mind the almost 50 years ensued since the 1974 Turkish invasion, it is not the displacement that is the principal vulnerability marker but rather the current circumstances of these people.
Where does that leave us? First, with the realisation that the state should generally not avail resources that would undermine its already limited abilities to provide a safety-net. It should thus not forego of the ownership of refugee estates. Secondly, that some refugees and their descendants are in need of welfare support, some in the form of housing, which raises legitimate claims for state assistance, but only insofar as the need remains relevant. Central in this determination is the application of a means and merits test to determine the vulnerability and corresponding needs of claimants, which should in turn determine their eligibility for welfare support. The fact that someone experienced displacement should not prima facie entitle them to welfare support, at least not without an assessment of their current status and needs. The displacement element should be factored in the determination but should not be the primary factor.
In short, any support to displaced people and their dependents should be subject to a needs assessment which should factor in the element of displacement. Publicly funded housing should remain under the ownership of the state in order to maintain its current ability to provide a safety-net for those most vulnerable in the society.