"It was when I arrived that I realized that I was not in Europe," a Nigerian student told AFP on condition of anonymity. "Everything is displayed in Turkish liras here."
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been divided since the invasion of the north by the Turkish army in 1974 in reaction to a coup d'etat by Cypriot-Greek nationalists.
The South, a member of the European Union, is inhabited by Greek Cypriots, and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), not recognized by the international community, by Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers.
Under an international embargo, cut off from the rest of the island by a UN-controlled ceasefire line and bordered by barbed wire, Northern Cyprus is suffering from the economic crisis that is hitting Turkey and relies on its 21 universities recognized by Ankara to attract foreign students, requiring them to pay their tuition in euros or dollars.
This sector represents "about 35% of the territory's GDP", Education Minister Nazim Cavusoglu told AFP. "More than tourism."
In 2021-2022, of the 108,588 students enrolled in universities in the North, 51,280 were foreign and mostly African. They came in particular from Nigeria (17,406), the Democratic Republic of Congo (3,177), Cameroon (2,693) and Pakistan (2,432).
- "A trick" -
To attract these students, universities use agents who are active in particular on social networks, against commissions ranging from 300 to 1,000 euros per new recruit.
But according to local and international NGOs, many of these agents are "abusing" students by failing to mention that the island is divided.
Rictus Franck Ngongang, a 28-year-old Cameroonian management student, recalls the "shock" experienced upon arriving in Northern Cyprus in 2019: "I paid my agent 300 euros for a room, but I ended up with 10 other students in a two-bedroom apartment."
"They sell us dreams," he says.
Noting that he was not the only one to have been deceived, he launched an association in 2022 to "guide" students.
The latter arrive on the island via Turkey, attracted by the speed of the procedures and the absence of a visa in most cases. Rictus Franck Ngongang says he was seduced by the "magic" of this scenario.
The other attraction is the promise of "scholarships" supposed to cover up to 75% of tuition fees. But "it's just a trick", admitted a university official in Northern Cyprus who requested anonymity, who admits fictitious discounts.
Salih Sarpten, a researcher specializing in education in Northern Cyprus, regrets that "universities are only looking for profits" to the detriment of the quality of teaching. “Students have become customers,” he says.
He also denounces the arrival on the island of students "looking for a shortcut to Europe".
According to Mr. Cavusoglu, each year, between 10,000 and 15,000 foreigners drop out of school or never set foot on campus.
In a narrow lane in the northern part of the old town of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital, an Ottoman building houses the American University of Cyprus (AUC), founded in 2015 and which, contrary to what its name suggests , does not have US accreditation.
Inside, a dozen African students learn Turkish, while the call to prayer resounds from a nearby mosque.
Of the 400 students enrolled this year, 200 are foreigners, but 100 are "inactive", says Hazan Sherifli, an AUC official.
- Risk of human trafficking -
“Some students face financial hardship, work opportunities are almost non-existent, and end up falling into the hands of criminals,” warns a report from the Center for Migration and Human Rights, a Turkish Cypriot NGO.
“This situation opens the door to human trafficking,” the document continues, claiming that dozens of students have been “forced into prostitution”.
"We live in fear every day," says the Nigerian student, who fears being identified and deported, his residence permit having expired for lack of funds to pay his schooling.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), smugglers pose as university agents in Northern Cyprus, "offering their services to potential asylum seekers". Two-thirds of illegal migrants in the South came from the North, again according to the UNHCR.
Cyprus has the highest ratio of asylum seekers to its population in the European Union. Between January and September, 16,705 migrants, including 2,522 Nigerians, had applied for asylum there, says the UNHCR. A record.
Faced with this situation, Nigeria recently warned its people against "unscrupulous elements who present themselves as agents and promise new horizons" in Northern Cyprus.
Sitting in his office under a portrait of Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mr. Cavusoglu assures that a "new law to make agents accountable will be presented next year to Parliament", providing for sanctions in the event of abuse.
For Ibraham Isaac, a Nigerian agent, the sector must certainly be regulated, but "if the students cannot afford to come, I tell them honestly, do not come".
Rictus Franck Ngongang meanwhile dreams of returning to Cameroon one day, hoping to develop an African university exchange program, like the European Erasmus program.
"We are students, not asylum seekers," he says. "Europe should no longer be a destination at all costs."