Why Pakistanis Were Targeted In Kyrgyzstan

Former Soviet Union republics are well-known destinations for South Asia’s medical education aspirants. Students from South Asian countries fly in large numbers to Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan to pursue medical degrees at a cheaper rate and with better quality than in their home countries. The governments in the former Soviet Union countries promote this because these students provide a significant amount of money to their economy. However, although South Asian countries value and respect doctors educated in former Soviet states, the poor living conditions and overpopulation lead many of these doctors to seek opportunities in other countries or to stay in the countries where they graduated. While Indian students, who are comparatively better off financially, often move to other countries, most Pakistanis prefer to stay. As a predominantly Muslim former central state, Kyrgyzstan, is a popular destination for Pakistani students, who are there in significant numbers. Although, the Kyrgyz people, struggling with economic difficulties and a lack of jobs, are not happy with this situation.

Long-simmering xenophobia in Kyrgyzstan erupted in a violent clash between Kyrgyz youth and Pakistani students. The harmful fight left dozens injured and prompted hundreds of Pakistani students to flee from the country. According to a statement issued by the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Internal Affairs, the issue began on the night of May 12, when a comparatively minor incident on the street led to the mishappenings. Following the issues on the street, four Kyrgyz youths allegedly pursued the Pakistani nationals into their dormitory and proceeded to cause mayhem. According to reports, the four Kyrgyz youths who entered the dorm stole an estimated $2,800 in cash as well as personal property of the residents. The Pakistani version of events claims the issue ensued when the Kyrgyz youths allegedly began harassing female dorm residents, which developed into a violent clash between the Kyrgyz youth group and Pakistani students. Kyrgyz individuals too injured in the fight, a videos went viral through social media, it sparked outrage among some Kyrgyz people who consider the May 12 incident as a “Humiliation for their Nation”. At the elevation of Rage, One week later, on the night of May 17, a mob of about 700 people approached the same dormitory, demanding justice. They proceeded to attack any foreign student they could find, instilling significant fear in the foreign population.

Kyrgyz authorities are trying to defuse tension that could severely impact their foreign relations and reassure the foreign students who contribute significantly to the economy. Kyrgyzstan, in a poor economic condition since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is actively seeking investments to exploit its valuable minerals and needs foreign collaboration to improve its economic situation. They are engaging in discussions with representatives from China, the United States, India to attract more investments. Despite Pakistan’s economic challenges, its middle-class population can help support Kyrgyzstan’s educational institutions. However, the targeting of Pakistani students, who have been reported in criminal activities in other countries they migrate to, is a significant blow to Kyrgyzstan and could further damage the country’s image and deter potential investors. Understanding the gravity of the situation, the deputy head of the Kyrgyz Cabinet, Edil Baisalov, visited the dormitory on May 19, offering an apology and extending a security guarantee. “Your parents and relatives should know that there is no threat to you in Kyrgyzstan, and that authorities bear full responsibility for your well-being. The events of one night do not reflect the attitude of our people towards you”, Baisalov assured the students and teachers present.

The problem escalated to the diplomatic level as well. When the media, especially social media, spread attack visuals and student comments rapidly, it filled their home countries with fear. The day after the attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif expressed concern on Twitter about “The situation of Pakistani students in Bishkek” and directed the country’s ambassador to assist the victims. Pakistani authorities also organized charter flights to bring home any student who felt unsafe continuing their studies in Bishkek. Over 20000 Pakistani students in Kyrgyzstan had opted to return home. Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov announced that Pakistani students injured in the melee would not have to pay for medical care. He also blamed unnamed opposition forces for stoking the xenophobic outburst and vowed that any repetition of such violence would be swiftly crushed. However, it seems that more xenophobic incidents have been reported, targeting Indian and other foreign nationals as well.

There are reports that resentment is building among Kyrgyz people over the perception that foreigners, especially from South Asia, are displacing Kyrgyz workers in some sectors of the economy. While Kyrgyzstan is a major source of labor migrants working in Russia, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere abroad, the Central Asian nation is also attracting labor migrants to fill some of the most menial jobs. Lack of jobs and prosperity often leads to hatred and xenophobia toward foreigners in many countries, and it is the same underlying reason for the violence in Kyrgyzstan. Pakistani students have become scapegoats for this violence, which is essentially an outburst of frustration from people leading difficult lives.