International students gather in front of TRNC parliament building in Lefkosa, police interrupt gathering

International students who gathered in front of the TRNC parliament building on Friday to deliver a speech were stopped by the police.

On Friday morning, international students, together with VOIS, an international student body in the country and other student associations, holding banners came together at the parliament building in Lefkosa to read a press release.

They were informed by the police that they would be prevented from gathering in front of the parliament and were later restricted to some few meters away from the parliament where they were able to make a statement.

They read a press release in both Turkish and English in which they emphasized that the biggest problem of international students was language and racism.

Calling on the government to make decisions taking into account, foreign students in the country, they stated stated that many explanations and announcements, especially about COVID-19 were made in Turkish and that foreign students had difficulty in understanding these explanations. They called on the authorities not to engage in exclusionary attitudes.

On the other hand, many different issues were also mentioned in the statement, such as the lack of combating racist attitudes, the lack of proper supervision of housing rights, the quarantine fees that affected students recently, the quality of education, the lack of institutions to apply after the injustices suffered at universities and workplaces.

In the statement, it was claimed that there were students who were deported, after it was announced that students from dark red and gray countries would spend the quarantine process in "central quarantine", then this decision was changed to "home quarantine", but the airlines still demanded a central quarantine fee. In the statement, it was requested that the money of students who made central quarantine payments be returned.

It was also stated that such information affecting students should be explained more clearly and communicated directly to students through universities.

It was argued that the government decided to start face-to-face education at universities in the new period, but universities reported this information to students this week and students did not have time to make plans in such a short time.

It was noted that the biggest concern of the students regarding face-to-face education is that they face financial and moral difficulties when there is another wave in the future, even though they are forced to come to the country for education.

The statement continued as follows:
“We understand the strong financial challenges the country is going through, and with these in mind, we want to help develop and strengthen it. Our only expectation is that international students are treated with empathy and not be marginalized or seen as a last priority, especially in decisions that affect them. We hope you will see international students as your children and imagine that they are. We hope that there will be a quick solution and progress on the issues we have mentioned as soon as possible. The health of students depends on it.”

The full text of the statement is as follows:
Today, we are our friends and representatives from VOIS Cyprus and other international student organizations: Queer Cyprus, Refugee Rights Association and Famagusta Youth Union; We are here to highlight and make public the issues facing international students. While some of these problems have been going on for years, some of them started recently with the effect of the global epidemic and the decisions taken by the authorities and intensified by touching the lives of many international students in the TRNC.

Today, as of September 3, 2021, nearly 20 days have passed since the Ministry of Health announced that students in the dark red and gray country categories will enter Northern Cyprus and spend their quarantine in "central quarantine". Although a new statement was made that changed this decision and stated that students from dark red and gray countries can enter home quarantine as long as they have an address, we still face the difficulties of this decision to date.

The central quarantine announcement did not come from any university, which is a problem we have been struggling with for a long time. Because universities should be the first and direct line of contact with international students. However, many announcements are made only on the websites of government institutions and social media accounts that international students are not aware of.

The announcement regarding the central quarantine was incredibly vague. There was no explanation of what, where, or how much this central quarantine was, which we later learned cost 5.400 TL. However, since then, hundreds of international students have come and are coming to the island. Many incoming students were not even aware of such a policy and had to be expelled from Ercan, as the information was vague and not widely broadcast on appropriate channels such as universities. Most of the time they lost the tuition fees they paid and the cost of their tickets.

Those who are not informed about the subject are not only students, but even airports and airline companies are not informed! To date, we are still getting reports of airlines charging a central quarantine fee to board a plane, even though it has been officially announced that students from crimson and gray countries can apply quarantine at home.

However, we also have a problem with the way the immigration officers treat students at Ercan Airport and the conditions that students have to deal with. Lacking any security procedures, sometimes 10 hours when students are unable to pay the central quarantine fee or need a time to process a bank transfer.

They are put together with others in a small prison cell, where they are held throughout the day, with insufficient food and sometimes ill-treatment.

If students can pay the quarantine fee after they enter the island, unfortunately, this time they face other problems. Quarantine conditions are terrible in most cases. Students are given insufficient food, not enough to feed them, and in some cases students are asked to pay for their own water! Even if a student has a chronic illness, needs special medicine or healthy food, these needs are not given to them. In addition, students are placed in pairs in the rooms, which completely eliminates the meaning of quarantine.

We talked to those responsible for this issue and they promised us a new system, improvements and regulations, but we haven't seen anything yet. Yes, according to the Ministry of Transport, the central quarantine policy has been removed and students of all categories can now be quarantined at home. 

However, this is not reflected in reality. We still receive dozens of messages every day from students being asked by airlines to pay for the central quarantine fee. If this decision has been taken, why is it so difficult to inform airlines over a phone call? Or at least set up a hotline for students from universities and the government to call, why aren't the immigration officers in Ercan informed about this?

Regarding the decision, we wonder: Has the safety of international students coming to the island been given priority? Why weren't these security plans posted for all students to see? We've been told there will be random PCR tests as well as social distancing, so let everyone know! Parents of students are worried about what they are sending their children to, they have the right to know what will happen to their children!

Considering past experience, we know how much of these plans and decisions will be implemented, enter any public place right now, do you see people wearing masks? Do you expect these decisions to be followed as the semester progresses? Do all universities have the capacity and resources to monitor and ensure the implementation of any security plans put in place? Maybe social distancing will be followed in the classroom, but what about outside of that? What about on public transport? Will inspections from the Ministry of Health really be carried out?

What we are concerned about is; international students are forced to be brought here for face-to-face education and then when there is another wave, they will be left alone, physically, mentally and financially devastated. And if that happens, we place the responsibility of these international students directly on the government and the responsible institutions.

That's why we advocate a hybrid system where students are not forced to travel, have freedom of choice, and suffer the consequences of their decisions. Let's also not forget how many students were affected by the pandemic and the global financial crisis last year, many lost a family member, many contracted COVID, and many lost their income and financial resources. So how do you hope to force them to travel under these adverse conditions? As a minimum, we ask you to waive exorbitant late registration penalties and semester freeze fees for the next semester.

Other issues that have bothered us for years as international students in TRNC are:

• Allowing real estate and university agents to roam freely without supervision, with many defrauding students and directing them into human trafficking.

• Abuse of office and poor quality of education in many universities, in many cases directly lying to students about what facilities they have, poor level of English at the university and quality of teaching.

• There is a serious lack of communication, information and transparency in all institutions, international students are not provided with direct information on their own issues, and even if transferred, it is mostly in Turkish.

• Lack of persuasive campaigns to encourage students to get vaccinated or to educate about vaccination, no campaigns to combat xenophobic and racist attitudes that cause hostility towards students.

• Lack of supervision and regulation in the housing sector of which students are a part. Students do not know where to complain when they encounter a problem, and what their rights as tenants are. Although many hosts engage in racism, xenophobia or fraud, students do not know where to go and are not listened to if they go to the police.

• Working conditions of international students are also ignored. Many employers do not give work permits to students, many employers hire students to work on illegal construction sites, and many students experience salary cuts and not being paid by their employers. In addition, many students work without a contract and below the minimum wage. Students are not informed about where to complain when they are wronged as workers.

• And more.

So how long? How long will promises be made but not kept? How long will we be told that the situation will improve? How long will students be told not to worry?

We reiterate our demands:

• A detailed announcement regarding the quarantine situation should be published; Clarifications should be made about what will happen to new students and former students, where they will stay, how much they will pay if they will be paid, what will happen if they stay at home and if they have roommates. All details should be included in the statement and should be published in universities and all institutions related to students.

• All students who had to pay for central quarantine should be refunded.

• A very detailed plan should be published on the security procedures of face-to-face learning, specifying what steps will be taken to ensure it is feasible and safe, and what measures are taken to protect students in the event of another shutdown and return online.

• The Stay Safe agreements that students signed while wearing the tracking system handcuffs should be translated into English.

• Further efforts should be made to translate notices, information and communications that are important to international students into English when publishing.

• A list of all verified agents working with universities should be posted on their website and announced to students. Thus, students will know which agencies to work with, and at the same time, laws will be created and implemented to punish agencies that abuse and defraud students.

• A joint committee including VOIS Cyprus as well as all relevant bodies and authorities should be established to discuss and resolve the problems of international students and to facilitate future processes with these emerging discussions and solutions.

We come here in peace, not hostility, and we understand the strong financial challenges the country is going through, and with these in mind, we want to help develop and strengthen it. We do not accept that all these decisions are taken by the relevant authorities at the expense of resources to put in place the right controls and procedures. But our only expectation is that international students are treated with empathy and that they are not marginalized or seen as a last priority, especially in decisions that affect them. 

We hope you will see international students as your children and imagine that they are. We hope that there will be a quick solution and progress on the issues we have mentioned as soon as possible. The health of students depends on it.

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