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Traffickers promising university places to lure Nigerians to Cyprus

Nigerian women are being lured to Northern Cyprus by human traffickers promising them university places and work opportunities, NGOs have warned.

The report includes examples of individuals being placed into exploitative labour abroad framed as educational work experience. Photo: Unsplash.

Female victims entered Northern Cyprus on student visas and subsequently engaged in commercial sex

The Turkish National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons last week released a statement saying that many young Nigerians arriving in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a defacto state currently only recognised by Turkey, expecting to study in the region are “locked up in private apartments and forced into prostitution”.

Human Rights Platform, an NGO based in the region, told The PIE News that approximately 70% of the individuals contacting its anti-trafficking hotline since November 2021 were Nigerian women, primarily between the ages of 18 and 30.

“We see that the victims are coming here by the help of another person in their country”

“We see that the victims are coming here by the help of another person in their country. That person approaches them and says they are agents of certain universities in Cyprus,” said Fezile Osum, anti-trafficking and refugee rights program coordinator at Human Rights Platform.

Often students are actually registered at universities and pay enrolment fees, only to be forced into commercial sex when they arrive in the region.

Osum said that the 22 universities in Northern Cyprus are aware of the issues – particularly as many students fail to attend class – but the majority refuse to step in.

Visa regulations are also rarely enforced in the region: according to Osum, there are currently approximately 20,000 “passive” student visas.

“They entered as students. However, at some point, they didn’t attend their classes, they didn’t renew their residency permits,” Osum said. “They disappeared.”

The warning comes as the US government has also highlighted cases of human trafficking involving international students in Cyprus, as well as other countries including Australia, Japan and Israel. 

The US State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, published in July, assesses how countries are performing when it comes to preventing trafficking and protecting victims. It also highlights cases involving students.

The report flags similar cases in Northern Cyprus, noting, “traffickers force female students into sex trafficking in apartments and male students into forced labor or coerce students to commit crimes such as transporting or selling drugs”.

The report also includes multiple examples of individuals being placed into exploitative labour conditions abroad framed as educational work experience opportunities.

In Taiwan, for-profit universities are accused of “aggressively” recruiting foreign students, only to subject them to coerced labour under harsh conditions. In 2019, Indonesia ceased a university internship program to Taiwan over concerns that up to 300 international students were exploited by universities.

Earlier this year, the Philippine’s representative office in Taipei said that Kao Yuan University in Taiwan had been banned from admitting Filipino nationals after accusations that students recruited to the university for a work-study program had been subjected to “gruelling work conditions unrelated to their studies”. 

There are also instances of Filipino undergraduate students being trafficked to Japan for forced labour via short-term visitor visas. 

In Australia, the report accuses “unscrupulous” employers of coercing students to illegally work additional hours (foreign students in the country were permitted to work a maximum of 20 hours per week until earlier this year), in turn making them vulnerable to traffickers who exploit their fears of deportation. 

Individuals based in remote regions of Australia with limited access to support are identified as particularly vulnerable. 

Trafficking victims have also been identified in Israel, notably in agricultural study programs. Most recently, nine Vietnamese students were recognised as having been trafficked after arriving in the country to join a farming apprenticeship program, where the students say they were forced to work under “harsh conditions” for low pay.

The recognised definition of trafficking includes recruiting people for labour through the use of fraud or for “the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude” – victims do not need to be physically transported from one location to another to be included in this definition. 

Russia continues to be a region of concern, receiving a “tier three” rating – the lowest rank, excluding “special cases” – reflecting its failure to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking or make efforts to do so.

The State department accuses the Russian government of a “policy or pattern of trafficking”, including turning a blind eye to sex-trafficking victims from Africa entering the country under student visas. 

Other countries ranked tier three include Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Afghanistan, while the report also flagged that foreign students are vulnerable in Iceland and New Zealand. 

Universities in the UK were reportedly last month warned to be on high alert after suspected trafficking victims were brought into the country on student visas. 

The UK received a tier one ranking in the report – the highest possible ranking – alongside countries including the US, Australia, the Philippines, Germany, and Canada. 

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