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In North Cyprus, universities are “promoting” goals to overseas college students

“I was thinking of coming to Cyprus, not North Cyprus.” More than 50,000 foreign students are enrolled in universities in this small isolated area, recognized by Turkey alone, a godsend for the local economy but also a trap for some who thought they had set foot in Europe.

“When I arrived I realized I wasn’t in Europe,” a Nigerian student told AFP on condition of anonymity. “Here everything is displayed in Turkish lira.”

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been divided since the Turkish army invaded the north in 1974 in response to a coup d’état by Cypriot-Greek nationalists.

The south, a member of the European Union, is inhabited by Greek Cypriots and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), unrecognized by the international community, by Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers.

Under an international embargo, cut off from the rest of the island by a UN-controlled ceasefire line and bordered by barbed wire, Northern Cyprus is suffering from the economic crisis hitting Turkey and is relying on its 21 Ankara-recognized universities to attract foreign students coming from require them to pay their tuition in euros or dollars.

This sector accounts for “about 35% of the territory’s GDP,” Education Minister Nazim Cavusoglu told AFP. “More than tourism.”

In 2021-2022, of the 108,588 students enrolled in universities in the north, 51,280 were foreign and mostly African. In particular, they came from Nigeria (17,406), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (3,177), Cameroon (2,693) and Pakistan (2,432).

– “A trick” –

To attract these students, universities use agents who are particularly active on social networks, for commissions ranging from 300 to 1,000 euros per newcomer.

But according to local and international NGOs, many of these agents “abuse” the students by not mentioning that the island is divided.

Rictus Franck Ngongang, a 28-year-old business student from Cameroon, recalls the “shock” he experienced upon arriving in Northern Cyprus in 2019: “I paid my agent 300 euros for a room but I ended up with 10 others Students in a two-bedroom apartment.”

“They sell us dreams,” he blurts out.

In 2022, realizing he wasn’t the only one being fooled, he formed an association to “guide” students.

The latter arrive on the island via Turkey, attracted by the speed of procedures and the lack of a visa in most cases. Rictus Franck Ngongang says he was seduced by the “magic” of this scenario.

The other attraction is the promise of “scholarships” that are said to cover up to 75% of tuition fees. But “it’s just a trick,” admitted a university official in North Cyprus, who asked for anonymity and admitted bogus discounts.

Salih Sarpten, an education researcher in Northern Cyprus, laments that “universities are only for profit” and the quality of education is being compromised. “Students have become customers,” he says.

He also denounces the arrival of students on the island “looking for a shortcut to Europe”.

According to Mr. Cavusoglu, between 10,000 and 15,000 foreigners drop out of school or never set foot on campus each year.

In a narrow alley in the northern part of Nicosia’s old town, Europe’s last divided capital, an Ottoman building houses the American University of Cyprus (AUC), founded in 2015 and contrary to its name, has no US accreditation.

Inside, a dozen African students are studying Turkish while the call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque.

Of the 400 students enrolled this year, 200 are foreigners, but 100 are “inactive,” says Hazan Sherifli, an AUC official.

– Human Trafficking Risk –

“Some students have run into financial difficulties, job opportunities are almost non-existent and eventually end up in the hands of criminals,” warns a report by the Center for Migration and Human Rights, a Turkish Cypriot NGO.

“This situation opens the door to human trafficking,” the document continues, claiming that dozens of students were “forced into prostitution.”

“We live in fear every day,” says the Nigerian student, who fears being identified and deported because his residence permit has expired due to lack of funds to study.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), smugglers in northern Cyprus pose as university agents and “offer their services to potential asylum seekers”. Two-thirds of illegal migrants in the south came from the north, according to UNHCR.

Cyprus has the highest ratio of asylum seekers to its population in the European Union. According to UNHCR, 16,705 migrants applied for asylum there between January and September, including 2,522 Nigerians. A record.

Faced with this situation, Nigeria recently warned its population against “unscrupulous elements presenting themselves as agents promising new horizons” in northern Cyprus.

Sitting in his office under a portrait of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mr Cavusoglu assures that “a new law on agent accountability will be put before Parliament next year” which will provide for sanctions in case of abuse.

For Ibraham Isaac, a Nigerian agent, the sector certainly needs to be regulated, but “if the students can’t afford to come, I tell them honestly, don’t come”.

Rictus Franck Ngongang, meanwhile, dreams of one day returning to Cameroon in hopes of establishing an African university exchange program like the European Erasmus programme.

“We are students, not asylum seekers,” he says. “Europe must no longer be a goal at any price.”

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