International students accused of ‘importing’ COVID-19

Fears that foreign students may be importing COVID-19 to Northern Cyprus have been growing following reports that 27 new African students who registered at Cyprus International University tested positive for the virus.

This, in turn, has sparked behaviour towards international students which they perceived to be xenophobic and racist, according to Voices of International Students (VOIS) in Cyprus, a student-led organisation advocating the rights of foreign learners.

The nationalities of the infected students were leaked by local publications which pointed out that, because the students who tested positive are African, they could be spreading COVID-19 variants found in Southern Africa.

An article published on 1 March by Özgür Gazete, a local online publication, stated that foreign students who had recently entered the country were not being fully monitored by authorities and had broken quarantine regulations. This sparked outrage among local residents.

The national education and culture minister of the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Olgun Amcaoglu, however, issued a statement on 2 March denying the claims. (Northern Cyprus has been occupied by Turkey since 1974, a conflict which remains unresolved.)

Amcaoglu said the 27 students who had tested positive were not recent arrivals but had come into the country more than three months earlier. He said that media reports that the students had just arrived on the island were lies.

He added that arriving students were tested, quarantined and once they had completed their isolation period and the tests were negative, they would be released.

The dormitories located in the capital city, North Nicosia, officially became a quarantine zone with 70 other contacts traced by teams from the ministry of health.

Northern Cyprus has been battling its second wave of the virus, which has seen a spike in the number of infections, forcing the government to institute lockdown measures since February.

The secretary general of the Cyprus Turkish Businessmen Association, Levent Ozerdag, issued a press statement in January highlighting the importance of international students to the economy of Northern Cyprus and called on the government to make the necessary preparations to secure the intake of overseas learners for the spring semester.

According to 2018-19 figures, the island had 90,000 international students, including those from mainland Turkey. Of this group, at least 20,000 were from African countries, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Cameroon.

Despite travel restrictions due to COVID-19, the island has continued to receive a steady flow of students, especially from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Students face discrimination

VOIS condemned the negative comments in the media and by the local community.

In a press statement, VOIS highlighted that the current outbreak of cases was not the first in the country but rather the first to focus attention on overseas students.

The organisation refuted statements such as “foreigners are the problem” by local residents which could fuel racial discrimination, especially towards ‘students of colour’.

In an interview with University World News, Maghazi Ahmed, head of the institutional discrimination committee at VOIS, expressed concern over numerous complaints from African students who had been compelled to take rapid COVID-19 detection tests by their landlords and disturbing reports by other students who had received unfair treatment at supermarkets and department stores.

According to the reports, some African students had been refused entry until locals had completed their shopping.

Maghazi stated that foreign students, especially from the black minority group, were under-represented and called on universities and public authorities to take an active role and intervene in systemic issues, particularly institutional discrimination.

“Our latest concern at VOIS is the accessibility of vaccines to foreign students,” she said.

“Universities should aim to protect the welfare of international students by reaching out to relevant bodies to provide a roadmap on how they are going to be vaccinated before face-to-face learning resumes,” she stated.

VOIS Cyprus held its annual general assembly on 25 February to discuss challenges faced by foreign students and how to improve their livelihoods while pursuing studies abroad.

Some of the critical issues discussed during the virtual meeting included the financial challenges faced by international students due to lockdown measures, mental health, learning and working conditions and gender-based violence.