At Europe’s Edge, Unwanted Migrants Are Stranded in an Unrecognized Country
Scammed by opportunistic agents, African students seeking a future in the EU have ended up stuck in Northern Cyprus—some of them left for dead.
NORTH NICOSIA, Cyprus—At first glance, it seems like anywhere in West Africa—a public hall at a university on a weekday evening filled with young black students poised over three snooker boards. But this is not Africa.
Atop the next building, a Turkish flag rattles on a long pole. Hoisted beside it is another flag that seems to have been created from the former. In this one, a red crescent against a massive white background is sandwiched between two horizontal lines of red. This is the flag of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a territory under international embargo since it declared its independence in 1983; it is recognized by Ankara, but no one else.
The seeds of what is today a divided island were planted in 1960 when the British Empire granted Cyprus its independence. The constitution Britain created in 1960 for the newly independent Cyprus sought to ensure that Turkish and Greek Cypriots could live together, securely and on equal terms. It quickly unraveled as the majority Greek Cypriots became dissatisfied with provisions they deemed unfair. Soon Greek Cypriots began a concerted drive to dismantle this perceived preferential treatment. Nationalist militants within the two communities emerged, backed by Greece and Turkey.
The situation was exacerbated by a resurgence of Hellenism among Greek Cypriot nationalists. Their renewed fervor for enosis, or union, with the Greek motherland served to further alarm the Turkish Cypriots. The Turks countered by promoting the concept of an independent Turkish state in northern Cyprus. Intercommunal strife erupted in December 1963, resulting in large-scale killings on both sides. Turkish Cypriot representation in the institutions of the new republic became a thing of the past as the government, led by Archbishop Makarios, changed the governmental structure. An alarmed international community sent United Nations peacekeepers in 1964 to prevent further violence and restore calm. They patrolled the Green Line that to this day separates the two communities in Nicosia, known as Lefkosa among Turks.
Meanwhile, with enosis by that point an acknowledged aim of Greek and Greek Cypriot policy, Greece dispatched 10,000 troops to Cyprus to counter a possible Turkish invasion. Turkey would restrain itself until a decade later when, in July 1974, Greece’s military junta and Greek Cypriot nationalists combined forces to stage a coup that ousted Archbishop Makarios from the presidency and installed the pro-enosis nationalist Nikos Sampson. Turkish forces swooped in and seized one-third of the island, uprooting 165,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes in the North while displacing some 45,000 Turkish Cypriots from South to North. Though the coup and subsequent invasion were short-lived, their consequences live on. The U.N. presence remains on the island, charged with maintaining and patrolling a 110-mile-long buffer zone that separates the two communities.
The student hall at Cyprus International University (CIU) in North Nicosia is bustling with young men and women, but they are conspicuously uncomfortable. One of them is Tolu, a student from Nigeria who is struggling to pay her upcoming tuition fees since her full-time job at an American burger chain is paying her in Turkish lira, while the university keeps billing its students in euros. The Turkish Cypriot government’s decision to establish international universities beginning in the 1990s was a backdoor method of creating alternative sources of income for the beleaguered territory—and they quickly drew students from struggling nations in Africa and Asia. But those students often came with objectives other than a degree, and many are now finding themselves stuck in an international no man’s land that doesn’t want them.
The Turkish lira has been sliding recently, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions, and is now worth less than half of what it was a few years ago. While Tolu was hoping to study in the United Kingdom, where her parents had migrated when she was a teenager, her family’s financial situation left no alternative for her but to go for a less expensive university here in Northern Cyprus.
Later, at a local coffee shop, after comfortably conversing with the waiter and ordering pastries and tea in Turkish, she said she had done a lot of research before coming to Northern Cyprus; unlike many other students, she knew exactly what she was getting into. “There are two groups of students coming here,” she explained: those who want to excel in their academic career and others who simply want to make money to send it home.
“The academic achievement in Nigerian universities is more rigorous than the ones on this island, but Nigeria holds no future for me,” she said. After being enrolled at CIU for five years, much longer than she expected, she is finally writing her thesis and completing her master’s degree in English literature with a focus on feminist scholarship in African literature. She is eagerly waiting for an acceptance letter from a teacher-training program in Finland that would allow her emigrate to what she calls a “proper” European nation.
This hope that Northern Cyprus will serve as a gateway to more developed countries is the primary factor driving what many locals view as an “invasion” of this tiny pariah nation by African youths. The sharp growth of the population of African immigrants is shocking for the people of Northern Cyprus, who until recently hardly ever received immigrants who weren’t Eastern Europeans or Middle Eastern menial workers. For the 2018-19 academic year, the foreign student population—including students from mainland Turkey—stood at 90,438 out of Northern Cyprus’ total population of about 350,000. According to investigative journalist Agnieszka Rackoczy, Nigerians are the largest group of non-Turkish students, followed by Zimbabweans and Cameroonians. The total number of Africans this year stands around 20,000.
But the goal of moving on to Europe is rarely achieved by the students who come here. Increasingly, many of them end up in dire straits; the killing in April of a Nigerian student, allegedly by other foreigners, is an example of the kind of trouble that awaits many of those who migrate to Northern Cyprus. I was once a student there myself.
When I came to Northern Cyprus in 2007 I met Yaw, a Ghanaian who was the first African students ever to attend CIU. He spoke Turkish almost fluently and told us of his first experiences. “There are days when I would wake up and not feel like going to class,” he once told me. “Sometimes, I would just wonder how I ended up here.” For him, it was sheer coincidence. He had been looking to advance his education elsewhere and came by an agent who told him about the new schools in Northern Cyprus and their affordability. He applied and came in 2005.
By 2007, the number of African students at CIU had increased from nine to about 15. Even this number had started to shock people in Northern Cyprus. African students at other universities in the territory—then only six in total—could not have topped 120 by my count. Today, there are 19 universities in Northern Cyprus. And by 2009, when the number of African students reached 40 at CIU, I and my cohort had started to use the term “floodgate.” Our worry was not about the number itself, but about the conditions back home that were forcing students to migrate to Northern Cyprus.
Many of them were being deceived into coming to the island by educational agents in Nigeria. By deceiving the students with bogus promises, these agents took advantage of youthful students often disillusioned by the unforgiving economic situations in their home countries.
Lured by the promises of an agent, Jay came to Northern Cyprus in August 2009. He was a Nigerian who had lived in Germany before and had been deported. On returning to Nigeria, he became intent on returning to Europe. The agents saw him as a prime target: a man who was desperate and willing to do anything to leave Nigeria again. Once Jay arrived at the airport in Northern Cyprus and discovered he’d been deceived and that it was not the developed country he’d been told it was, he became devastated and depressed. He drank heavily, and one day he climbed up to the attic of a multistory building and fell to his death. His body would be found decomposing a few days later.
After Jay’s death, the African students in Northern Cyprus resolved to do something. At CIU, we marched to the office of the rector and demanded that the school cut ties with the various agents who deceive unsuspecting students with false information in order to enrich themselves. A few weeks later, when one of the agents came with a new group of a dozen Nigerians, we accosted the man and threatened him.
I and the established students would realize later that there was little we could do to hold the agents who were doubling as fixers accountable. The forces were stacked against us. We were dealing with universities in a place unrecognized by any government except Turkey’s. These institutions saw a channel for easy income, which they were unwilling to allow any scandal to shut off; the agents and student supporters were making money from fleecing gullible students, and had no qualms about the consequences of their actions; and there were students who were hellbent on fleeing a country where they felt they had no future. We watched helplessly as the university completed the formalities to ship Jay’s body back to Nigeria. We’d hear later that the school official who accompanied the body did some recruitment rallies and returned with a portfolio full of prospective students for the new semester.
The 2018 Nigerian Independence Day celebration should have been held on Oct. 1, but it was delayed a month because the actual date was during a break when most students were off campus. Halil Nadiri, the current rector of Cyprus International University, gave his opening remarks on Nov. 2 in English, addressing the room filled with students and international guests in his heavy Turkish accent. “CIU is the leading institute of higher education in the region. Cyprus International University has a great responsibility to raise future leaders and future decision makers from more than 109 countries on our campus. Within CIU, we try to create this atmosphere and we want all the nations to interact. We are the CIU family and we are working together.”
His warm words about global harmony were designed to address a barrage of complaints about the treatment of black African students in Northern Cyprus. The locals’ first noticeable reactions to the presence of Africans came when local shops began to construct gates around their food departments. We noticed that Kiler, a chain grocery store which used to leave its fruit unattended under a pavilion overnight, now cordoned off the area. It wasn’t long before rumors began to spread that this was because hungry African students were helping themselves.
By 2010, the number of African students had increased to such an extent that it was common to see black people everywhere. The new African students figured out that everyone could not fit in campus housing, and they began to seek housing off campus. In time, this too became an issue. Today, many landlords refuse to rent to African students, especially Nigerians. In an interview last year in Cyprus Mail, Ezinne Favour Ogwuegbe, a 21-year-old Nigerian, revealed the extent of their hardship: “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.’”
One explanation for the rapid influx of African students was a rumor about Cyprus’ political future which was rife between 2007 and 2009. African and other international students in Northern Cyprus were eagerly telling each other that the territory was on the verge of reuniting with the Greek side, and that there would no longer be a need to leave the North. Those who remained, according to the rumor, would be granted European Union visas or residence permits. Cyprus as a whole had been granted EU membership in 2004, but the EU’s acquis communautaire was suspended in the North because Greek Cypriots rejected a 2004 U.N. plan to reunite the island. This meant that as long as Northern Cyprus remained separated from the Republic of Cyprus, it would be excluded from EU law.
Reunification talks had begun again in earnest, and some progress was made in 2009 under Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat, who said he was open to a “solution.” But he would not get past the thickets of issues involving how the territories would be redistributed and how repatriations would be handled. I was in my final year of university when the hard-line separatist politician Dervis Eroglu was elected president in 2010, making the negotiations even more difficult and effectively killing any hopes of settling in Northern Cyprus for most of the African students.
The African students devised more aggressive ways to leave the territory: Instead of merely relying on getting visas to other countries, they began making their way south into the Republic of Cyprus and declaring asylum in order to stay there. Those who were left in the North continued a life in which they had to contend with the rapidly shifting attitudes of the people of the island. On the campuses, African students live mostly separated from their Turkish-speaking counterparts. They make friends with a few who seem curious or find a common ground—especially if the African is a Muslim or is able to speak their language, as I could when I lived there.
These days, off campus, things are different. The locals treat the foreigners with suspicion and sometimes outright condescension. Many of the students, having come on the promise of finding a job here, attempt to find work to stay afloat. Those jobs are scarce, especially because of restrictions regarding work permits and employers’ unwillingness to secure them for students—preferring to pay meager wages for low-skilled labor under the table. Employers end up exploiting African students and paying them at rates that are far below those paid to other groups who troop to Northern Cyprus to work—such as Turks, Kurds, and Syrians.
Sometime in 2009, I was standing beside a Nigerian girl on the side of the road, waiting to cross, when a truck suddenly pulled over. A man with sun-beaten skin emerged with his finger poking through another formed into what he thought was a demonstration of a vagina. He grinned, showing a mouthful of heavily discolored teeth, and said something to her. When the girl turned her head the other way, the man spat on her face and drove away. I remember being furious at the situation and my inability to do anything about it.
Such treatment persists today. Routinely, African female students are harassed, even raped, while others resort to prostitution to make ends meet. African students still on the island tell me that when they try to take taxis or hitchhike, the drivers harass them. A friend of mine, Victoria Williams, who has since left the island and returned to Nigeria, told me that while she was hitchhiking from North Nicosia to Kyrenia in 2013, she and her friend were shocked when, en route, “The man looked at us, said something about fucking good and brought out his penis and asked my friend, who was on the passenger’s seat, to touch it.”
While women face sexual abuse, young African men face different kinds of harassment and violence. Such violence has claimed the lives of at least three African students since 2010. A Nigerian student, 28-year-old Kennedy Taomwabwa Dede, was murdered in February 2018 by a group of seven mostly Turkish Cypriots and his body dumped in a lake near the city of Famagusta. The case, which led to widespread protests among African students, eventually led to the arrest of all the suspects.
Dede’s death marked a turning point in the matter of foreign students’ immigration into Northern Cyprus. African students—mostly Nigerians and some Cameroonians and Sudanese—took to the streets to protest. Other Nigerians stood apart. Some of them said Dede was known to have been dealing drugs and had been a major contributor to the bad name they were getting in the country. That concern about the reputation of Africans in Northern Cyprus, especially Nigerians, is rising. This is mostly because African students have started to turn to crime to stay afloat. In 2018, approximately 20 arrests were publicized in local media—ranging from petty theft and drug trafficking to rape and assault.
Students also routinely act as agents themselves and help bring other students to Cyprus from various parts of Africa. When these new students arrive, they often find that they have been duped too, and a cycle ensues. Some wealthier students sometimes loan money to students of less substantial means, who hand in their laptops or even passports as collateral for the loans. This was the case of Moktar Mohammed, widely reported in local media, who took another student’s passport for a loan of $500, then sold it for $1,000 to an illegal immigrant in need of documents when the student couldn’t pay back the loan. Mohammed was arrested.
Such news about the treatment of Africans and their ordeals flows back to Africa, but the tide of students has not slowed. Even students who live in Northern Cyprus continue to invite family members. As Ife, who lives in Famagusta and commutes more than two hours per day to work at the international student center, told me, “It is better here than staying in Nigeria, where there is no hope.”
And now Cameroonian students, facing a war back home, could soon outnumber the Nigerians. The experience of Terrence, 22, is not unusual. “I came by plane to the North. They burnt my village in Cameroon, I escaped to the bush. It was 2017,” he told Foreign Policy. “Finally I got into a town, met an agent, paid him 3 million francs [$6,100] to get me to the TRNC [Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus].” He was locked up in a house in North Nicosia and, as he alleges, raped by three “white men.” He escaped through the help of another African and moved to the South.
As the night winds down at the student hall a group of Turkish students stop, peep at them, wave, shout a few words in Turkish—“Kanki”; “Yabanci”—and move ahead. The students begin to leave the hall one after the other, shaking hands and walking away in choreographed gaits. In a few days, another group of Africans will arrive—continuing to flock to an island where they are unwanted, maligned, and sometimes destroyed.
Additional reporting by Agnieszka Rakoczy—an investigative journalist covering Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece.