False promises, shady agents: How African students end up in trouble in N. Cyprus
Dreaming of a European diploma, and of eventually working in the European Union, many students – most of them African – spend thousands of dollars a year to study in universities in Northern Cyprus. Many of these students were reeled in by recruiters who get a hefty sum from these institutions. However, once the students actually get to Northern Cyprus, their dreams crumble. Some are barred from even entering the country. And things aren’t much better for those who do make it in, many of whom are surprised to learn that the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is not actually considered part of the EU. Our Observers told us about the dubious methods employed by a system that values profit above all else.
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"I applied and received my admission letter almost immediately,” says our first Observer, a young man from Sierra Leone whom we are calling Edward.
Excited, Edward arranged to travel to Northern Cyprus to begin his studies. But he met trouble soon after landing at Ercan International Airport on October 28, 2022: the border guards wouldn’t let him enter.
Edward tried everything to convince them. And, after all, he had a letter of admission signed by one of Northern Cyprus’ 21 universities, which is usually the only requirement for African students who want to enter. And yet, Edward’s passport was confiscated and he was forced to board the first plane back to his home country, with no explanation.
Our team spoke to a number of Observers, who said they were financially ruined by this scam. They told us about the nightmare experienced by hundreds of their peers on this island isolated from the rest of the world.
The island is split into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north and an internationally recognised republic in the south. The porous ceasefire line that divides the two states is a major entry point for migrants hoping to reach the EU. Cyprus has registered more than 12,000 irregular arrivals in 2021, straining resources on the island.
'It’s the only place where I could continue my studies abroad'
Kevin Gildas, originally from Cameroon, wanted to continue his studies:
Northern Cyprus was the only place where I could continue my studies abroad, I didn’t have any better options. My friends who had already studied there helped me to apply and I got an admission letter from Cyprus West University (CWU) immediately after I made a payment of $1,000 (€959) towards tuition.
When Gildas arrived in Northern Cyprus on September 26, 2022, everything seemed to be going smoothly at first. That changed quickly and Gildas was detained by Turkish Cypriot officials and then deported.
Back in Cameroon, Gildas got his admission letter certified by the Turkish embassy in Yaoundé, so that “the officials in Northern Cyprus wouldn’t have any excuse". Then, he tried again. But on October 28, when he arrived at Ercan Airport for the second time, he was once again turned back and deported back to Cameroon “with no explanation".
'When students arrive, they sometimes have to hand over their cellphones to customs officials'
Emmanuel Achiri is the co-founder of a non-governmental organisation called Voices of International Students (VOIS), which aims to protect and raise awareness about the rights of international students in Northern Cyprus:
We were told about these deportations. It’s not something new, it’s been happening for a long time. We also heard of similar things happening to students from Syria, Yemen and the Philippines.
When students arrive, they sometimes have to hand over their cellphones to customs officials. In order to enter Northern Cyprus, you also have to be carrying a certain amount of money (between $500 and $1,000), to prove you can cover your basic needs. You also have to have a return ticket.
Even so, it’s often difficult to understand why officials are sending these students back. Sometimes, the discovery of a telephone number registered in the southern part of the island is grounds enough for them to believe that the students want to immigrate there.
The smuggler-agents working for the universities
These Turkish Cypriot universities openly admit that in order to attract as many students as possible, thus increasing their revenue (payments only accepted in US dollars or euros), they call on a network of '"agents", many of whom are alumni from Africa.
These agents are tasked with convincing as many of their countrymen as possible to enroll in their alma mater. The agents get paid by both parties. The universities pay them a commission for each student who enrolls. And the students they recruit pay them a ”service fee”.
While some students do manage to study in Northern Cyprus thanks to these agents, many more face disappointment and deception once they arrive.
Many of the advertisements posted on social media are intentionally vague and even misleading. Agents promise future students that they will be admitted in “less than 48 hours”. They claim that students don’t need to speak English or obtain a visa in order to study at the “Cypriot” university they are promoting, without mentioning that it is actually located in Northern Cyprus, a breakaway state that is not part of the EU and only formally recognised by Turkey. Some of the most deceptive ads even feature the flag of the Republic of Cyprus, the internationally recognised EU member state located on the southern part of the island.
"Like everyone else, I arrived not knowing that, in reality, the island is divided into two countries," said one former student.
Another Observer, a Cameroonian who we are calling Omar, told us that he wanted to go to Northern Cyprus in order to get to the European part of the island.
To get an admission letter from Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU), I contacted an agency called Blue Ocean Travel Consulting and Tourism LTD, based in Famagouste and run by a man called Moussa Abdoulaye.
He says that he paid $300 (€288) to enroll and then bought a ticket to Northern Cyprus.
But once Omar arrived, his passport was confiscated at customs, with no explanation. Then, he was sent back to Cameroon.
Our team contacted EMU, the only state-run institute of higher education in Famagouste, which has nearly 20,000 students. Officials responded that if someone is prevented from entering Northern Cyprus, it is likely due to “having connections to the south of the island or wanting to go there to work".
However, going to the south of the island is exactly what one of these agents has been promising the students he recruits. Moussa Abdoulaye runs Blue Ocean Travel Consulting and Tourism LTD. He’s from Cameroon originally and attended Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU). He’s now employed as an official agent of the establishment.
Abdoulaye has accounts on several different social media platforms. In posts, he promises, in exchange for a certain sum, admission to universities in Northern Cyprus. He also offers “transportation services” towards the European part of the island for $2,100 (€2,020).
I was convinced that it wasn’t a scam because the agent was a former student of the university. Moreover, he was based in Cyprus and from the same country as me.
Our team contacted EMU to ask them about their relationship with these "agents". EMU responded that “it wasn’t ethical to ask for confidential information about our partnerships with agencies".
It’s common for people to travel from the north of the island to the south. Two-thirds of the 16,700 asylum seekers registered between January and September 2022 in the Republic of Cyprus crossed over from the northern part of the island, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
A market worth a billion dollars
Moussa Abdoulaye and his agency also have official partnerships with other universities.
Emmanuel Achiri from the NGO VOIS says:
All of the universities, without exception, have agents who work for them. The only difference is remuneration. Agents can get between $300 to $700 in commission for each student enrolled. It’s sort of a gift. The more students enrolled, the higher the remuneration.
In this territory, isolated from the rest of the world and under an international embargo, enrolling foreign students in their institutes of higher education has become critical to the survival of the local economy. It’s currently experiencing a boom – this market generates more than a billion dollars (€959 million) and represents "35% of GDP", according to Minister of Education Nazim Cavusoglu, quoted in an article on November 23, 2022 by AFP.
This revenue is largely generated by the fees paid by foreign students (108,588 enrolled for the year 2021-2022), who represent about a third of the population of Northern Cyprus. Most students are African, the majority hailing from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon.
The Nigerian government posted a warning on Twitter on October 17 about the “unscrupulous agents” who try to draw potential students to Northern Cyprus with false promises. Our team contacted authorities at Ercan Airport as well as the ambassadors of Cameroon and Sierra Leone in Turkey, but they did not respond to our request for interviews.
None of the students we spoke to have received a reimbursement from the universities or their “agents”.
Education considered costly and mediocre
Even the students who manage to make it to Northern Cyprus and attend classes are often bitter. One student who is part of an organisation that offers advice to international students in Northern Cyprus, told us:
The offerings of these universities are mediocre. Moreover, there is the language barrier. We pay much more to study in Northern Cyprus than in African universities, even if the quality of education is better. Even so, it’s still really far from what you’d find in Europe or other places across the globe. I know people who got a degree in Northern Cyprus who then found a job in Europe or the United States, but I don’t think it was thanks to the diplomas from these universities. It’s thanks to their own industry, or because they have contacts who can help them.
The tuition prices for universities in Northern Cyprus are particularly high, even for Turkish students. Annual fees can reach up to $5,000 (€4,800), depending on the program.
Northern Cyprus is only officially recognised as a country by Turkey. The universities get around this hurdle by seeking accreditation from the Turkish government.
“We don’t inspect the quality of education offered by the universities that award these diplomas. We just verify that the diplomas are recognised and accredited by their countries [in this case, Turkey]," says UK ENIC, the official agency that approves foreign diplomas and whose logo appears on the websites of most of these universities.
In an interview last August, Salih Sarpten, the representative for the Northern Cyprus Council of Education within the Turkish Ministry of Education, admitted that “the quality of the education at our universities has decreased because they accept almost all foreign students as long as they can pay the fees and with no other conditions".
"The universities, which are constantly competing against one another, generate a lot of profit from their network of agents. That’s why, even though they are aware of what their agents are doing, the universities do nothing to stop it," says Emmanuel Achiri.