Foreign students in Northern Cyprus: False promises and disillusion

In Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus, education has become the leading economic sector. No less than 23 universities are concentrated in the small self-declared state recognised only by Turkey, which has occupied it since 1974. They attract students from developing countries by offering affordable courses with a "European" stamp of approval. But some of these students are soon disappointed. After falling victim to false promises made by their recruiters, they can end up in desperate situations. FRANCE 24's Corentin Bainier, Erika Olavarria and Derek Thomson report.


With nearly 50,000 foreign students, mainly from Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, education has become a lucrative business in Northern Cyprus. According to authorities, it generates a third of GDP more than tourism. In order to recruit students, universities employ so-called agents, often former students themselves. They are paid a commission – up to $800 per student – ​​for each person they sign up. But this system leads to abuses, particularly on the part of African agents.

On social media, these agents make various promises that stretch the truth. "The majority of the experiences that people have here when they come with an agent is that they tell them: 'You'll find jobs, it's easy to find housing, it's cheap, there are opportunities to get a scholarship'. When in fact it's very limited. All the people who come here are shocked by the reality that they discover. I have friends who also thought that they would have easy access to other European countries," says Magazi Ahmed, a Sudanese student and member of the Voice of International Students (VOIS), an association which pressures universities and the authorities to end the system of agents.

The campus of Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, one of Northern Cyprus's main universities. © Erika Olavarria, FRANCE 24

These agents' false promises can have serious consequences. Thousands of students find themselves penniless. Many of them end up dropping out of university. Although their courses – costing between €3,000 and €5,000 – are relatively affordable compared to European or American private universities, they have often only paid for their first semester, convinced of finding a job to finance the rest of their course. But job offers are rare. And since paying one's tuition fees acts as a visa, failing to do so is equivalent to being in an illegal situation. Some students find themselves in prison before being expelled to their country of origin.

Some simply prefer to return home, sometimes after only a few months. Others decide to cross to the south of the island. For nearly half a century, Cyprus has been divided between the northern part, which was seized by Turkey in 1974, and the southern half, the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU. Since the green line that separates the two entities is not intensely monitored, crossings are frequent. According to the Cypriot authorities, just over 19,000 people crossed over in 2022, the majority of whom had student visas for Northern Cyprus. They dream of obtaining asylum or trying their luck in Europe.

Unsanitary toilets in the Pournara camp in Cyprus. Photo taken by our Observer. © FRANCE 24 / Observers

Upon arrival, they are directed to the Pournara camp, where living conditions are bad, as documented by one of our Observers. Once in the European part of Cyprus, hope often gives way to disillusion. Many are unaware that only a tiny minority of asylum applications are accepted: 331 people obtained refugee status in 2022. Cypriot authorities do not communicate how many applicants were rejected. But 21,565 applications had been filed, in addition to thousands of ongoing applications dating from previous years. Some 70 percent of migrants who arrived in 2022 were deported that year, according to the InfoMigrants website.