Turkish Cypriot Authorities Arrest 4 in Fake Diploma Scandal
Turkish Cypriot police have arrested three university officials and a senior civil servant as part of a fake diploma and fraud investigation aimed at tackling widespread corruption in the education sector in the Turkish Cypriot northern third of the divided Mediterranean island.
Secretary-General and Director Serdal Gündüz, Vice-Dean and lecturer Serdal Işiktaş, and the head of the international office, Amir Shakira, of Kıbrıs Sağlık ve Toplum Bilimleri Üniversitesi (KSTU), are charged with larceny, forgery of documents, and circulation of forged documents.
The Head of the Turkish Cypriot Registrar of Cooperative Companies and former Undersecretary of the ministry responsible for labour and social security, Çelebi Ilık, is charged with forgery of documents, circulation of forged documents, and eliciting funds through fraud.
The four faced the judge on Friday. Police officer Ortunç Özbaylı told the court that Ilık has fake graduate and post-graduate diplomas from the university. The graduate diploma was issued on the day he was enrolled. Işıktaş signed the diploma knowing it was fake on the orders of Gündüz. Civil servant Ilık presented the diploma to his ministry to get a promotion and therefore a pay raise.
Former Education Minister and the Chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, Kemal Dürüst, was also interrogated by the police.
Investigators suspect that corrupt officials have by now made tens of millions of dollars through fake enrollment and fake diplomas, mostly involving students from Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Egypt. Police have already questioned 11 people and plan to question many more.
The university is owned by Turkish investor Levent Uysal.
The higher education sector, one of the main engines of the Turkish Cypriot economy, has grown in the last two decades with a focus on opening as many universities and enrolling as many students as possible.
The northern part of Cyprus has 22 universities, hosting some 107,000 students on paper, and close to half of them are from countries in the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, Middle East, and Far East.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 30 percent of the total population in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots are foreign university students.
Most of these universities, some of which are owned by big businessmen who, in some cases, also own casinos, have also been a vehicle for human trafficking and smuggling. The ease with which student visas are issued, the inadequate legal framework, and the general lack of controls have facilitated this.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report in 2023, in many cases, agents working with universities falsely promise students low tuition fees, accommodation, and access to good jobs in an EU member state. Once in the northern part of Cyprus, they end up being exploited as cheap labour, or forced into prostitution or drug trafficking.
Kudret Özersay, head of the Turkish Cypriot People’s Party, stated last November that “some establishments are operating under the name of a ‘university’ and illegally bringing people into the country.” He added, “steps should be taken to close these organisations.”
The north’s Human Rights Platform has also warned of links between the north’s educational sector and human trafficking. According to the 2022 human trafficking monitoring report by the platform, in 2022 Turkish Cypriot police have been tipped off about 18 human trafficking cases involving student visas.
Human smugglers also exploit the ungoverned higher education sector to offer young people a path to Europe.
Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirm this trend. From January to March 2023, some 3,182 persons have applied for asylum in the Greek Cypriot-majority Republic of Cyprus - the other half of the island. The vast majority of these arrived from the northern, Turkish Cypriot part, a spokesperson for the UNHCR told OCCRP.
According to figures from the Education Ministry, at least 20 percent of the registered students are not attending universities.
Turgay Avci, the head of the higher education watchdog YODAK in the northern part of Cyprus, is himself under investigation on suspicion that his diploma is fake.