North Cyprus PM Ersin Tatar accused of “racism” over remarks about foreign workers and students

The Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) has come under fire after making controversial comments about foreign students and workers while discussing his government’s new coronavirus Economic Aid package on television.

Appearing on one television programme on 24 March, Prime Minister Tatar spoke about African students in the TRNC and said the coronavirus pandemic was an opportunity to “clean them out”.

Mr Tatar told the TV presenter that: “The responsibility to take care of the thousands of African students who live in the TRNC lies with whoever brought them here,” adding that, “Before this [COVID-19] crisis, this situation was a problem, now it stands before us as a bigger problem. This may be an opportunity to clear them out. This is not racism, but we have to protect our own citizens.”

Two days later, while being interviewed by Reşat Akar on Diyalog TV, the Prime Minister made further contentious remarks about the contributions of foreign workers, and the benefits they received from the TRNC state.

When asked by Mr Akar about the lack of provision in the Aid Package for the TRNC’s 16,000 foreign workers, Mr Tatar responded with:

“These people are coming and working on a salary. Is there any tax being paid? I’m very sceptical! They [employers] show him on a minimum wage. They just pay the national insurance premium! He has three children and goes to my school. When he is sick he goes to my hospital … ”

The prime minister’s comments drew widespread condemnation from opposition politicians, business people and civil society groups.

The Voice of International Students in Cyprus (VOIS Cyprus), which aims to represent the TRNC’s 90,000 foreign students, issued a hard-hitting letter criticising the Prime Minister, telling him that,

“Not only are your statements racist, but they lack compassion too.”

VOIS Cyprus’ lengthy letter, published in several Turkish Cypriot newspapers, went on to say:

“Many of these African students are sponsored by their families, and these families live in countries which have been severely affected by the Covid-19 crisis, leading to the adoption of drastic measures which has seen many families lose jobs and incomes – measures which have also reduced the operational capacities of banks making money transfer virtually impossible. To make matters worse, your government shut down MoneyGram, and Western Union operates for only half a day. So, how do you expect these students to get money from their families? How do you expect them to feed and take care of themselves?”

Mr Tatar was also criticised by the Cyprus Turkish Human Rights Foundation, who said his comments about foreign students “are unacceptable” and “a violation of human rights”.

TRNC Education Minister Nazım Çavuşoğlu issues a statement on social media to diffuse tensions over comments about African students in the TRNC during the coronavirus pandemic

The prime minister’s xenophobic remarks about foreign workers also received a sharp rebuke from TRNC businessmen.

Writing on the KKTC COVID-19 Facebook group, IT entrepreneur Niyazi Toros apologised to foreign students and workers alike for the TRNC Prime Minister’s comments and addressing Mr Tatar said:

“To think like this on such a bad day is downright racism and disrespect for human rights. The public will call you to account at the ballot box”.

Businessman Mustafa Bulutoğluları was equally outspoken on his social media post. He said the TRNC Economic Aid package “amounted to nothing”, before slamming the Prime Minister for his choice of words about foreign workers:

“Working with me are 3rd World Citizens. There are PEOPLE [sic]! This is a disgusting comment! “What Do You Mean 3rd World Citizen? [sic]”.

Mr Bulutoğluları added, “As if we are very recognized and in a perfect, luxury state that we say to these people “3rd CLASS. The real 3rd world CITIZENS are you, o governors [sic]”.

An aide to the prime minister told T-VINE that his comments about foreign students had been taken out of context and that Mr Tatar was talking about ‘fake students’ who had obtained TRNC student visas under false pretences. It was these phony students “who don’t study at all, work unregistered and get into trouble” that the Prime Minister wanted to remove from North Cyprus, , the aide said.

A damage limitation exercise also saw the TRNC’s Education Minister Nazım Çavuşoğlu and Work and Pensions Minister Faiz Sucuoğlu in action earlier today.

Mr Çavuşoğlu promised to “protect all our foreign students who are unable to return to their countries” in a statement he issued, while Dr Sucuoğlu drew praise for his candid explanations about behind-the-scenes work developing the coronavirus Economic Aid package in a 30-minute on Levent Kutay’s news programme on BRT.