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Sri Lankan student deaths in Azerbaijan puts agents under scrutiny

The death of three Sri Lankan nationals in Azerbaijan – two of which were international students – last month has prompted the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education to look into shoring up regulations around education agents and studying abroad. This, in turn, has prompted confusion from agents in the country who see little linking the tragedy and their work.

AzerbaijanAzerbaijan's capital Baku is being promoted as a study destination offering easier access to Europe. Photo: Faik Nagiyev/Pixabay

The MoE said it was planning to create a “regulatory framework” for agents in response to the incident

The students who had been attending Western Caspian University in Baku were named as Malsha Sandeepani and Tharuki Amaya, while the third victim, Amodya Maduhansi, had attended the university some years ago and was working in the country.

One agent said “didn’t make sense” to regulate agents as a result of what happened

The three rented an apartment together in the country’s capital, where an electric stove was left on overnight on top of a plastic suitcase. The three women suffocated in the resulting smoke.

Sri Lankan officials told local media last month that the MoE was planning to create a “regulatory framework” for agents in response to the incident.

Further details are yet to be released, but one agent told The PIE News it “didn’t make sense” to regulate agents as a result of what happened.

As a destination for Sri Lankan students, Azerbaijan is a newcomer to the market and conflicting statistics make it difficult to ascertain just how many students study there.

With no Sri Lankan embassy in the country, UNESCO data suggests six Sri Lankans are currently studying in the country, the Azerbaijan government lists just one in the previous academic year.

However, Western Caspian University told The PIE it has 68 Sri Lankan students.

Overall, fewer than 5,000 international students study in the country annually but, according to agents, Azerbaijan is a study destination with affordable tuition and the possibility of finding work upon graduating.

A quick search on social media reveals several companies offering packages for Sri Lankan students to study in the country advertising “departure within three days”, “no IELTs”, “no visa interview”, “no bank balance” and “no refusal”.

But agents also offer another unique selling point: studying in Azerbaijan, they say, is a route towards obtaining a Schengen visa or transferring to a university in Europe.

One agency advertises a “transfer degree program to European countries”. For a little over £2,000, another offers the chance to “study in Baku, Azerbaijan and move to Schengen countries” and to “build your future career, your gateway to Europe, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland”.

“Azerbaijan is a secular country, that’s why it’s easier to get a Schengen visa for Sri Lanka citizens, but to get it they must stay in our country legally, and the best option for legally staying in Azerbaijan is a study visa,” one such agent told The PIE.

“We can send students to Germany with the possibility of a scholarship if they pass their B1 exams in German. They will be provided with a job and scholarship in Germany. It’s a good option for Sri Lanka students.”

But getting to Europe through Azerbaijan may not be as easy as some agents are making out.

While the denial rate for Schengen visas applied for in Sri Lanka was almost double that of Azerbaijan in 2018, the Swiss Embassy in Baku told The PIE that three Sri Lankans had applied for visas through it last year, and all were subsequently rejected.

Western Caspian University said that most of their Sri Lankan students ultimately stay on in the country after completing their education.

“It’s difficult to talk about the intention and behaviour of Sri Lankan students since they are new to our country,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s quite difficult to use Azerbaijan as a transit country”

“As a matter of fact, it’s quite difficult to use Azerbaijan as a transit country. Nevertheless, to secure a job in the local job market isn’t difficult.”

Sri Lanka has previously expressed a desire to establish itself as a regional education hub but studying abroad remains popular among those who can afford it.

According to the Sri Lankan MoE, around 20,000 students leave the island to pursue educational opportunities abroad each year.

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