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The war in Ukraine exposed the trafficking of ‘student packages’

Published on April 05, 2022

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The crisis unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed an unusually large presence of Ecuadorian students in Ukraine, many of whom did not have passports.

Among the thousands of students from 158 countries who lived in Ukraine before the Russian invasion in February 2022, were hundreds of Ecuadorians.

The rescue of the Ecuadorians who lived there, in addition to being a complex task for the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry, left many open questions.

According to the records of that State Portfolio, 85% of the 913 Ecuadorians living in Ukraine were students and 15% were residents.

Despite this, only 41% of those who declared themselves students, and who returned to Ecuador on humanitarian and commercial flights, have registered on the government list to continue their studies here.

In the Secretary of Higher Education (Senescyt) only 319 students have been registered, with the aim of obtaining government aid.

Senescyt has offered to relocate students to Ecuadorian universities. Secretary Alejandro Ribadeneira says that the State would assume these expenses, since it is a population in a situation of vulnerability, having been displaced by a war conflict.

However, figures from Senecyt itself show that 59% of students who returned to Ecuador do not plan to take that option to continue their studies.

What did they do in Ukraine?

The war crisis revealed that Ecuadorians represented the largest number of Latin Americans in Ukraine—four out of 10—even though Ecuador is a country with a small population, compared to Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Chile, for example.

Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Holguín himself said on March 14th, that it was an unusual figure.

Ukraine also rose in 2020 to 13th place in the list of countries to which Ecuadorians sent the most money, almost $2.2 million in remittances. The previous year, before the pandemic, the figure reached $1.4 million.

During the crisis, there were other factors that caused surprise: there were students who did not want to return to Ecuador, none of them were state scholarship holders, and many families had debts that they incurred to send their children to that country.

The rescue operation led by the Foreign Ministry concluded with the return to Ecuador of 655 people of the 913 listed.

Of these, 213 did not have a passport, for which travel documents had to be issued in record time. Where were the passports with which they left Ecuador?

“Around 10% had expired passports or did not have them with them,” Holguín reported.

The foreign minister mentioned that in Ukraine some universities allegedly kept the documents, others had outdated residence cards and there were also those who, in the rush to leave, forgot their documents.

Strange patterns

With the passing of days and the claims of the families in Ecuador, as well as the crossing of the students across the borders of Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry was identifying some striking patterns.

For example, most undocumented students had traveled by contracting the services of an intermediary company.

And, in most cases these companies had not complied with what was stipulated in the contracts.

For example, temporary residence cards had much shorter durations than those offered.

On March 10th, the Vice Minister of Human Mobility, Luis Vayas, who traveled to Poland to deal with the emergency, realized that something strange was happening. “There was a “sale of student packages, a kind of traffic, which is not yet clear,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry has requested the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the phenomenon

Now in Quito, Ambassador Vayas acknowledges that he was taken by surprise by the number of Ecuadorians who did not have a passport.

Initially, 31 emergency documents had been issued, a normal number, he says, but the number continued to grow.

“Parents here already told us that there were some supposed companies that sold them student packages and offered them things that would not have been fulfilled, such as language courses, lodging,” he adds.

The movement discovered by the Foreign Ministry, during the crisis, suggests that this business moved students in groups of 100 and 120 people up to three times a year.

Academic coyotes?

But the biggest problem appeared when the same relatives reported that some of these companies had withheld the students’ passports.

Among the companies that offer ‘the service,’ there is even one that is not based in Ecuador but in Panama.

“We are talking about the fact that 25% of Ecuadorians did not have a passport,” said Vayas.

Promotion through these companies was important, recounts Vayas, and he recalls that among the testimonies he heard that some of them offered to find work for Ecuadorians in Ukraine, as a possibility to remain there indefinitely.

Here is another piece of the puzzle: the Ecuadorian diplomats who organized the rescue operation for the Ecuadorians were struck by the enormous number of pets they had. Some 88 pets arrived on the humanitarian flights.

During the evacuation there were cases in which the students refused to return, apparently because they had some kind of income in Ukraine.

Others preferred to pay their own expenses to find ‘better’ options than the State’s humanitarian aid or decided not to travel on the first flights because they needed time to shop.

Although Ambassador Vayas cannot confirm what was happening with the Ecuadorians in the Ukraine, he agrees that many traveled to establish their life project there.

Something that is reflected, for example, in the number of pets, some were brought to Ukraine by their owners from Ecuador, especially cats.

Bad reputation

The exodus of international students caused by the Russian attack, shows the intense university activity that was happening in Ukraine.

According to the calculations of the Ministry of Education, at the end of 2020, foreign students enrolled up to that time accounted for about $600 million in income for Ukraine.

There was not only a high number of Ecuadorians, but also students from countries such as India, Morocco and Azerbaijan.

Ukrainian universities are seen as a gateway to the European labor market, as they offer affordable prices (with tuition between $1,200 and $5,000), without entrance exams or the need for proficiency in the language, with easy visa requirements and the possibility of a permanent residence.

According to the Ukrainian State Center for International Students, an international student spends between $6,000 and $8,000 a year on tuition fees and living costs.

But Ukraine’s higher education system is far from prestigious, with few exceptions.

The World Bank notes that teaching and learning in Ukrainian universities was often sustained ‘with outdated content that does not meet the needs of modern students or new trends, research or technology.’

The 2019 World Bank report also points to the problem of corruption in higher education, “including a massive disregard for academic integrity and a high tolerance for academic violations.”

And it warns that at least 25% to 30% of students have been directly involved in academic misconduct or bribery.

A 2017 academic investigation, by ‘International Higher Education,’ revealed that 48% of students in Lviv universities had paid bribes to improve grades or increase their attendance record.

And 95% of those surveyed admitted to cheating on their exams, either by buying the tests or the answers in advance.

The World Bank confirms that problems persist “such as academic dishonesty and systematic violations of the principles of academic integrity, including cheating during exams and plagiarism. These cases are common and are not perceived as abuses.”

A simple Internet search on corruption in the Ukrainian university system returns 9.8 million results. By comparison, the same search for Ecuador returns just 327,000 results.

The well-known portal Politico published an article in 2016 about the high ‘hidden’ costs that students in Ukraine faced compared to the low prices of university tuition.

According to Politico, students know that at certain universities they can pay for their diplomas and not worry about exams.

Options in Hungary

To address the situation in that area of ​​Europe, the Ecuadorian government is considering reopening the Ecuadorian Embassy in Poland, which was closed in 2014, as quickly as possible.

Ambassador Luis Vayas said that the process will not take long, since Poland has given the go-ahead to the proceed.

And he confirmed that the Hungarian government has agreed to receive Ecuadorian students who fled the conflict at its universities.

The latter must still be analyzed and requires an agreement between countries, since the details of how and when it would happen have not been established.

For example, in Ecuador, Senescyt itself only endorses degrees from four Ukrainian universities, which are:

  • Donetsk University.
  • National Technical University of Ukraine – Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.
  • Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.
  • VN Karazin Kharkiv National University

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