Emmanuel Achiri still gets upset when talking about the case of Veronique Kandem, the African student whose controversial arrest hit the headlines in north Cyprus last September.
Veronique, a student at the British Management School in north Nicosia, was arrested by police in Famagusta after she had shouted at her boss in a local pizza restaurant demanding her unpaid salary. She was charged with violent behaviour and being in north Cyprus without a valid visa.
Achiri, then president of the East-Mediterranean University (EMU) Cameroonian Students Association, learning about his countrywoman’s arrest, rushed to her assistance.
“By the time I saw her she had been in detention for several days without legal representation and had been told not to speak to anybody.”
Achiri contacted a sympathetic lawyer in Famagusta known for offering legal advice to foreign students pro bono who took on Veronique’s case and eventually secured her release. It turned out that the owner of the restaurant owed her 7,000 Turkish lira (about 1,700 euros) and that he had been refusing for months to pay her.
Moreover, her visa was valid and had not expired at the time of her arrest.
The reason she was so upset, Achiri recalls, was that she needed the money to pay her tuition fees “and be in a position to apply for her visa’s renewal”.
Now working on his PhD thesis at EMU after completing a Masters in international relations, Achiri tells the Sunday Mail that the way Veronique was treated by the Turkish Cypriot police came as no surprise to a foreign student community long accustomed to getting short shrift from the authorities when airing their grievances.
“We all think twice before going to police in north Cyprus. At best they don’t want to know what we are complaining about. They say, ‘My friend, it is not our problem’. At worst, as when a foreign student has a dispute with a local person, they will arrest the student. even if he or she is in the right.”
Ezinne Favour Ogwuegbe, a 21-year-old Nigerian also studying at the EMU, agrees with Achiri’s assessment. “We basically know it is better to keep away from police [here] because they are not going to listen to us,” she says.
A former deputy president of the EMU Nigerian Students Association, she is finishing her primary degree, six months ahead of schedule, and is now planning for her MA.
She tells the Sunday Mail of how one landlord, after forcing her and her friend to pay a whole year’s rent in advance threw them out of the apartment without refund because their other flatmates were late with their payment.
She feels lucky to have a place to stay as it is a common knowledge among international students in north Cyprus that no landlord wants Nigerian tenants.
“You see an ad and you call and they ask where are you from. Say you are a Nigerian and they either hang up or say ‘sorry, we don’t want Nigerians’. OK, I know some Nigerians have bad reputations but why do they generalise about all of us? This is really not fair.”
But such prejudice doesn’t apply solely to Nigerians. Syrians are also viewed with disfavour on grounds that they come from a conflict zone and might therefore be prone to violence.
Concern among foreign students about the high incidence of stereotyping and racial profiling in north Cyprus was made abundantly clear at a discussion panel, organised by the EMU Academic Staff Union (Dau-Sen) two weeks ago. Student bodies exchanged numerous stories of abuse, racism and discrimination.
“If there was a list of who is most discriminated against, the Africans, Sub-Saharan students especially, would top it,” one speaker claimed.
She recalled how students were once summoned to the university because jobs were available. The ensuing selection process was based on where the students came from, she claimed. “First they took all the Turkish Cypriots, then the Turks, then South-East Asians, then Arabs, then black girls and only at the end African boys.”
Some of the cautionary tales cited were of the simple if ignorant variety such as unwanted touching of a student’s hair in public. Others were more unpleasant, unstated yet overt, as when some local people opt to stand on the bus rather than sit next to a black person. There was the Famagusta shopkeeper who refused to sell alcohol to an African student. Even worse, the north Nicosia gym where the owner asked African members to use only specific sets of equipment and not to mix with his local clientele.
Some participants complained that African students are often relegated to menial tasks in the back of the restaurant because of a belief that “customers don’t want to be served by black people”.
African females fare worst of all.
“All of them face some kind of harassment,” Mine Yucel, director of the Centre for Migration, Identity and Rights Studies (CMIRS) tells the Sunday Mail. And one of the biggest problems is transportation because of the unwanted attention and danger it can expose them to. Invariably, when they get in a taxi or are forced by economic circumstances to hitchhike the first question they get from male drivers is ‘how much’.”
Female students in the workplace are regularly pestered for sex by their bosses, one EMU student claimed. Girls are also targetted on social media with both Turkish Cypriot and Turkish men sending them indecent proposals.
Confirming this, Ezinne Favour Ogwuegbe relates how strangers would send her pictures of their private parts or stalk her in the streets. Emmanuel Achiri cites how a female friend was forced to stop using Facebook after months of being stalked. Complaints to the police fell on deaf ears because the alleged culprit’s “father is well-known”.
Achiri also speaks of the local men who drive up to harass any and all African girls going in and out of one of the EMU dormitories
Data obtained by CMIRS’s Yucel suggests that a high percentage of African female students have been raped. “Our statistics say at least one third and possibly more have been raped.” In cases of rape by a fellow student, drugs may play a role. “Many of the victims we interview say they don’t really remember what happened to them,” says Yucel.
Female foreign students also risk unwanted pregnancies (whether the result of rape or consensual relationships). Sadly, this fact of student life is reflected in the growing number of abandoned babies as well as instances of suicide. Financial hardship plays a considerable and occasionally sinister role with some female students getting involved in human egg trade and others being forced to venture into prostitution.
Some female students are duped even before setting foot on the island, the unwitting victims of unscrupulous operators who seek to entrap them specifically for sex trade purposes.
A recent edition of the Yeniduzen newspaper carried an interview with a Nigerian student named Glory who wanted to study in Cyprus but lacked the money for her tuition fees. Another Nigerian woman, already in Cyprus, offered to fund her provided Glory agreed to pay back double the amount advanced. A naive Glory grasped at the opportunity. The woman arranged for her student visa. On her arrival, Glory was taken aback to learn that she owed her “benefactor” 40,000 euros and would have to pay off the debt by working as a prostitute.
Doctor Nesil Bayraktar at the state hospital in north Nicosia tells the Sunday Mail that she often deals with cases of female students who face deportation from the island after being diagnosed as HIV positive or infected with hepatitis B or C. She claims many have been trafficked to the island by their fellow citizens for the same purpose as Glory.
Organised crime has sought to take advantage of the north’s burgeoning university populations. CMIRS director Yucel notes how older men come to the island on fake passports pretending to be students and then set up drug rings entrapping addicted or cash-strapped students to serve as dealers and distributors. Some have been known to set up online scams as well.
The consensus is that most foreign students who come to north Cyprus are genuine about wanting to earn a degree, but too often ill-informed about issues of day-to-day existence on the island.
An online search shows numerous ads encouraging young Africans to enrol at north Cyprus’ universities. They promise affordable tuition, cheap accommodation, jobs, free transport and free internet plus the chance to travel to other European countries. Many claim average living expenses on the island don’t exceed 50 to 100 euros per month.
“These are local agents in the countries of origin,” explains Yucel.
“And they are not aimed at the children of wealthy families… they target the poorest with promises that cannot be met.”
Lloyd, a Zimbabwean computer engineering student at Cyprus International University (CIU) in north Nicosia, explains that many students come to island “unprepared for the reality, deceived by unscrupulous agents back home”.
“Many of us come here hoping that not only will we be able to study but also earn and send money home to the family. The truth is jobs are scarce and badly paid and life is much more expensive.”
Tumer Garip, deputy founding rector and registrar of the international students at the Near East University (NEU) in north Nicosia, says the university is aware of the problem and investigates any complaint against a dishonest agent.
“Our policy is very strict – if it is true we stop cooperating with such agents.”
But he admits it is difficult to eliminate agents from the recruitment process since most student applicants prefer to deal with a physical person rather than apply online.
“Also, agents ensure that application forms are filled in correctly and that the documents students provide such as certificates and the like are genuine because we do get a lot of fake documents.”
The NEU has 8,000 foreign students from 110 countries at present, he says and, yes, some do face financial problems but the university does try to assist them.
“We offer many scholarships, and if students come to us with payment problems we give them extra time to pay their fees or we increase the number of instalments.”
The NEU also offers students some campus job opportunities but does not encourage them to work outside as “we don’t feel that would be appropriate since strictly speaking it is not the reason they come here.”
He admits that accommodation is scarce but says more dormitories are being built. He says the university works closely with the police when it comes to criminal activities involving students.
The NEU values its foreign student intake and hopes more will come, he says. “They improve the quality of our university.”
Gamze Atay, head of the student counselling and development office at the Cyprus International University says her office works very closely with the CIU students.
“They come here with many dreams and we want them to realise them as much as possible. We do our best to assist them in their financial problems. We have a special team that helps them with any health issues.”
She points out too that she has personally mediated with employers who have refused to pay students their wages.
A staff of 25 at the EMU International Office is dedicated to helping students and some 50 EMU student associations deal with issues ranging from immigration to health matters and accommodation, says Murat Aktugrali, head of EMU public relations.
“We go to hospital with them if needed and assist them in their contacts with police in case of traffic accidents. We also cooperate with police if there is a crime investigation,” says Aktugrali.
He notes that improving foreign students’ welfare in north Cyprus is an ongoing and demanding process and that the upsurge in university student numbers (now approaching 100,000) has not made matters any easier. EMU’s academic staff, he insists, are “very sensitive to any abuse foreign students may face”.
“We have been constantly working on reshaping our policies to respond at our best to any problems that arise,” he says.