Riots against foreign students in Kyrgystan undermine its people-to-people ties with South Asia

Pakistani students arriving at the Lahore airport in Pakistan. Screenshot from the video “Пакистан специальным рейсом вывез своих граждан из Бишкека” (Pakistan evacuated its citizens out of Bishkek on a special flight) from Kaktus Media‘s YouTube channel. Fair use.

On May 18, Kyrgyzstan witnessed an unforeseen riot against foreign students, who mainly come from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan to study at medical universities in the capital Bishkek. Tensions escalated in Bishkek after a video of a brawl between foreigners and locals went viral on social media. The footage captured a moment when foreigners beat outnumbered locals at one of the hostels.

On May 17, around 1,000 protestors gathered in front of the place where the fight took place and demanded that foreigners be punished for beating up locals. Violence broke out as locals attacked a student dormitory on May 18, injuring 29 people.

The surviving students shared harrowing accounts of attacks against them on social media, and over 300 Pakistani students returned home immediately. Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh also expressed concern about their students and asked them to stay indoors to avoid mobs. The Kyrgyz government reacted strongly to the incident, condemning the violence, apologizing to the students, and promising that such incidents would not happen again. The incident highlighted the destructive power of misinformation on social media to incite violence and undermined growing social ties between Kyrgyzstan and South Asia.

What sparked the riot

The incident that sparked the violence took place on May 13, according to a statement released by Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Interior on May 18, 2024. At around 2:00 a.m., a group of four locals encountered a group of foreign students from Egypt and provoked a physical altercation, after which the foreigners ran to their hostel. The locals chased them down, entered the hostel, beat them, and took their phones and money. They then started assaulting other residents of the hostel, including young women.

The foreigners eventually fought back, and three of the four assaulters ran away, leaving one behind. The moment when the assailants were beaten up by the foreigners was caught on tape and was widely circulated on social media starting from the evening of May 16. The ministry also revealed that the assailant who was beaten at the hostel was later taken to a hospital where he used a fake name at the registry and did not file a complaint with the police regarding his injuries.

On May 17, young Kyrgyz men started arriving at the intersection of the Chui and Kurmanjan Datka streets in Bishkek, near the hostel where the incident took place, demanding that the foreigners who assaulted the local youngster be punished with full severity of the law. They were joined by other men throughout the night, and the number of protestors eventually reached over 1,000 people. The protest ended at 5 in the morning on May 18.

Here is a YouTube video with the protests on May 17–18.

Parallel to this protest, at around 2 in the morning, a group of locals stormed the dormitory of the International University of Kyrgyzstan, where foreign students from Pakistan and other countries live. Several foreign students were beaten. As a result of the unrest on May 17–18, 29 foreign nationals received injuries.

Social media fueled offline violence

Social media played a key role in spreading offline violence in this case. The video of the fight between locals and foreigners at the hostel was widely shared on Instagram and Telegram. The problem was that it only captured only one portion of the whole incident and did not provide any contextual information. None of the shared videos had a verified explanation of what caused the incident and who was involved, making it appear as if innocent locals were severely beaten by a group of foreigners.

What made the misinformation worse was the video issued by the police on May 18, in which the three of the four foreigners, who were detained after the incident, admitted their fault and apologized for their act. They, too, did not tell their own account of the incident and omitted the part about locals chasing them down to their hostel, beating and robbing them before the fight. The apology video appeared after the video of the beating was circulated on social media, causing public anger and protests.

As the riots were unfolding in Bishkek, misinformation was rife on social media in Pakistan, stating that four Pakistani students were killed and a number of female student were raped. However, the Pakistan government refuted those allegations.

Here is a post on X (formerly Twitter) with misinformation about the riots.

Foreign students in Kyrgyzstan

In the last decade, Kyrgyzstan has become a major destination for foreign students from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh pursuing higher education abroad. As of 2023, there were 42,620 students from these three countries: 23,593 from India, 18,077 from Pakistan, and 950 from Bangladesh. For these students, private and public universities in Kyrgyzstan offer an opportunity to study medicine without difficult entry exams and expensive tuition fees: two main challenges they face at home.

For local universities, foreign students provide funds that enable them to upgrade their facilities and equipment. For example, the rector of the State Medical Academy, Kyrgyzstan’s largest medical education institution, admitted that 80 percent of all funds spent on upgrading the material and technical base of the university came from the tuition fees paid by foreign students. It is estimated that tuition fees paid by students from Pakistan and India annually reach USD 56.5 million.

Hundreds of Pakistani students have already left Kyrgyzstan, fearing for their safety. It is not yet clear how many of them will return and when they will do so. The violence against foreigners was an odd and irregular sighting, since there has never been such an incident before. The authorities and ordinary citizens alike are putting in work to right the ship by issuing their apologies and promises that they will not be subjected to violence in the future.

Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov has issued a video address following the violence, in which he called on locals to display hospitality to foreigners and warned that if such events repeat, law enforcement agencies will use “forceful dispersal methods from the first minutes.” The deputy head of the cabinet of ministers, Edil Baisalov, has met with the foreign students, apologized for what they went through, and assured that “all those responsible will be brought to justice.” In this regard, police have detained two suspects who assaulted and robbed students at the dorm and continue to search for other perpetrators.

In addition, popular Kyrgyz bloggers, singers, and actors recorded a public apology to foreign students.

Here is a post on Instagram with the local bloggers’ apology.

Meanwhile, locals delivered groceries to foreign students who were afraid to leave their homes and dorms.

Here is a post on X with videos of locals in Kyrgyzstan bringing groceries to foreign students.

On May 21, Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ishaq Dar visited Bishkek and met with his counterpart Jeenbek Kulubekov, who briefed on the work done by local law-enforcement bodies to prosecute perpetrators and ensure safety of foreign students. On his part, Dar thanked Kulubekov taking prompt action to regulate the situation. All the stakeholders are working towards putting the incident behind them. However, it may take more time and effort to erase the damage done to Kyrgyzstan’s image as a safe destination for students from South Asia.

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