Cyprus internment camps
Cyprus internment camps were camps run by the British government for internment of Jews who had immigrated or attempted to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine in violation of British policy. There were a total of 12 camps, which operated from August 1946 to January 1949, and in total held 53,510 people.
In the White Paper of 1939, the British government decided that future Jewish immigration to Palestine would be limited to 75,000 over the next five years, with further immigration subject to Arab consent. At the end of World War II, there were still 10,938 immigration certificates remaining but the five years had expired. The British government agreed to continue issuing 1,500 certificates per month, but the influx of Jews, especially from the displaced person camps in Europe, well exceeded that number. It was decided in August 1946 to hold many of the illegal immigrants on Cyprus. Previous places of detention had included Atlit detainee camp in Palestine, and a camp in the Mauritius. A few thousand refugees, mostly Greeks but also a "considerable number" of Jews from the Balkans, had reached Cyprus during the war years.
At its peak there were nine camps in Cyprus, located at two sites about 50km apart. They were Caraolos, north of Famagusta, and Dekhelia, outside of Larnaca. The first camp, at Caraolos, had been used from 1916 to 1923 for Turkish prisoners of war.
The majority of Cyprus detainees were intercepted before reaching Palestine, usually by boat. Some were on vessels that had successfully run the British blockade, but were caught in Palestine. Most of them were Holocaust survivors, about 60% from the displaced person camps and others from the Balkans and other Eastern European countries. A very small group of Moroccan Jews was also in the camps. The prisoners were mostly young, 80% between 13 and 35, and included over 6,000 orphan children. About 2,000 children were born in the camps. The births took place in the Jewish wing of the British Military Hospital in Nicosia. Some 400 Jews died in the camps, and were buried in Margoa cemetery.
A number of escape attempts took place while the camps were active. The most significant was in August 1948, when an estimated 100 inmates escaped a detention camp via a secret tunnel the British believed had been dug over a period of six months. The British believed that the escapees were being met by Jewish representatives in Cyprus, and "selected male specialists" among the refugees were being put on small boats capable of reaching Israel in 24 hours, which were being brought to Cyprus at night. Some 29 refugees were arrested over the incident and given prison sentences ranging from four to nine months. One man managed to escape while being transported from court to prison. In January 1949, as the British began deporting the final batch of inmates to Israel, an unspecified number of Jews who had escaped the camps and had remained at large in Cyprus turned themselves in so they could be sent to Israel.
From November 1946 to the time of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in May 1948, Cyprus detainees were allowed into Palestine at a rate of 750 people per month. During 1947-48, special quotas were given to pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the elderly. Released Cyprus detainees amounted to 67% of all immigrants to Palestine during that period. Following Israeli independence, the British began deporting detainees to Israel at a rate of 1,500 per month. They amounted to 40% of all immigration to Israel during the war months of May-September 1948. The British kept about 11,000 detainees, mainly men of military age, imprisoned throughout most of the war. On January 24, 1949, the British began sending these detainees to Israel, with the last of them departing for Israel on February 11, 1949.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the "Joint") provided most of the detainees' needs, including welfare and medical aid, two nurseries, and extra food rations. The Jewish Agency sent teachers and social workers from Palestine but refused to give direct aid to the detainees on the grounds that it would grant legitimacy to the camps.
Conditions in the camps were very harsh, with poor sanitation, over-crowding, lack of privacy, and shortage of clean water being the main complaints. The local Joint director Morris Laub considered that the German prisoners of war housed in adjacent camps were treated better.
In popular media
The 1960 film Exodus, adapted from the book of the same name by Leon Uris, starts with the arrival of Jews in a camp. The presence of Palestine volunteers is also shown.
The book series "Promise of Zion" by Robert Elmer references the camps as the main character avoids being captured with other Jews on board a ship, and again when he returns to Cyprus in search of his mother. The camps' living condition are described in more detail here.
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- [Archivist tracks down the 'lost babies' of Cyprus' Jewish refugee camps] - Haaretz
- Tucker, Spencer C.: The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History (2008)
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- M. Laub Last Barrier to Freedom page 25
- Source: N. Bogner, The Deportation Island: Jewish Illegal Immigrant Camps on Cyprus 1946-1948, Tel-Aviv 1991 in Hebrew.
- Source: D. Schaary, The Cyprus Detention Camps for Jewish "Illegal" Immigrants to Palestine 1946-1949, Jerusalem 1981 in Hebrew.
- Source: M. Laub, Last Barrier to Freedom, Internment of Jewish Holocaust Survivors on Cyprus 1946-1949, Berkeley 1985
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- Searching for memories in the soil: Cyprus Mail, Nathan Morley (2011)
- Cyprus collection highlights from the JDC Archives