Society rallies to help students, in spite of PM’s comments

International students based in Northern Cyprus, many of whom are African, are receiving food aid packages and meals from support groups and non-governmental organisations that have teamed up with local municipalities and businesses to ensure they have enough to sustain them until the national lockdown due to COVID-19 is suspended.

The de facto state of Northern Cyprus recently extended the end of a current lockdown period from 27 March to 10 April.

The support efforts come against the backdrop of recent remarks by Prime Minister Ersin Tatar about African students in Northern Cyprus which have been perceived as inciting racism and fuelling a “politics of polarisation” during a global crisis that called for unity and compassion, according to non-profit organisation Voices of International Students in Cyprus (VOIS).

Tatar’s remarks on 24 March, made during a television interview and later published in the Gazedda Kibris, prompted an outcry from the international student community.

The interview was meant to address the coronavirus pandemic and proposed measures to curb its impact. When questioned on the welfare of African students, many of whom are struggling due to restrictions imposed by the national shutdown, Tatar said the responsibility for African students lay with those who had brought them there and not the government of Northern Cyprus.

‘A much bigger problem’

He said African students were a problem before the COVID-19 crisis and were now “a much bigger problem”, and that the crisis provided an opportunity to “clean them out”. He concluded by saying: “It is not racism, but we have to protect our own citizens.”

His remarks come at a time when the pandemic has affected thousands of international students who cannot return home due to travel bans and restrictions aimed at curbing the virus’s spread. With more countries being forced into lockdown, it has also become difficult for foreign students to receive funds from home.

As of 27 March, the number of reported coronavirus cases in Northern Cyprus was 61 with 29 recoveries, according to the Ministry of Health.

In a response on their website, VOIS called on the prime minister to retract his remarks, which it said were “discriminatory” towards African students who make up 20,000 of the roughly 90,000 foreign students in Northern Cyprus.

VOIS Cyprus noted that many African students had been deceived and effectively “trafficked” onto the island by bogus agents paid by universities to recruit learners from Africa. These universities, which were growing in number, received their licences to operate from the same government that was now referring to African students as “a bigger problem”, said VOIS.

International students respond

“It is disappointing to hear such a statement from a prime minister. The world is moving away from such racist statements. Let him remember that most international students are not here for free; we pay a lot of money which is contributing to the economy of this country,” engineering student Abdullah Sallah said in a WhatsApp interview with University World News.

His sentiments were shared by hundreds of students who rallied behind their African counterparts on social media platforms calling for a considerate approach towards all students, especially those most affected by the restrictions.

The Minister of National Education and Culture Kemal Dürüst expressed his support for international students in a statement made on 26 March in which he said: “We will protect our foreign students who are unable to return to their countries while living these extraordinary days.”

He said his ministry would work with universities to ensure that higher education students are not victimised but received the help they needed.

Relief for students

In a relief aid programme to ease the plight of students in the wake of closures to universities, banks and restaurants, VOIS Cyprus teamed up with refugee rights association Active Hands, local municipalities and businesses around a project called ‘AllforOne’ which has seen thousands of vulnerable students receive food aid and meals. The initiative kicked off on 22 March.

In addition, the rector’s office at Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta has sent out 2,700 packages of food to foreign students in university dormitories. The university has formed a volunteer team of 15 people, including administrative staff and students, for the distribution of cleaning supplies and food packages.