Attacks on South Asian Students and Workers Destabilize Kyrgyzstan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 82

(Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan)

Executive Summary:

  • A Kyrgyz mob stormed dormitories housing foreign students in Bishkek, targeting South Asian students and causing hundreds, possibly thousands, of foreign students to evacuate the country.
  • The attack has left the Kyrgyz government concerned about economic losses and the destabilizing effects on the country’s position as a destination for South Asian education and labor migrants.
  •  Resentment is growing among the Kyrgyz population over the perception that workers from South Asia are displacing locals in many economic sectors.

On the night of May 17–18, a mob of Kyrgyz youth stormed hostels in Bishkek that house foreign students. They targeted South Asian nationals in particular, including Pakistanis and Indians. Hundreds of locals ransacked the dormitories of foreign medical students, broke windows and glass, and damaged property. The mob attacks injured at least 29 people, including five Pakistani students ( Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 18; Dawn, May 19). Other reports indicate similar attacks taking place at factories where South Asian labor migrants were prevalent (see EDM, May 28). The latest rise in xenophobia in Kyrgyzstan can be directly linked to growing concerns among the population that South Asian immigrants are taking jobs away from locals, all while the government has increased quotas for foreign workers (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 21). In addition, Bishkek has loosened restrictions on owning guns, signaling its own weakness, and encouraging some members of the population to take matters into their own hands.  

The most recent attacks were not the first examples of Kyrgyz xenophobia and violence against foreigners. For example, in December 2021, two Pakistani citizens were attacked in a hotel in Bishkek. Earlier, in July 2020, two Pakistani medical volunteers were assaulted by a group of Kyrgyz men. And that the same year, a group of Kyrgyz expatriates in Russia warned Kyrgyz women in a video of dire consequences if they enter into relationships with men of other ethnicities (Eurasianet, December 23, 2021).

A statement issued by Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said that the May 17 attack was the result of a previous clash between Kyrgyz youth and Pakistani students that occurred on the night of May 12–13. Four Kyrgyz youth allegedly entered the dormitory of Pakistani students at the International University of Kyrgyzstan and stole an estimated $2,800 in cash and other personal property. A brawl ensued between locals and Pakistani students after the Kyrgyz youth reportedly began harassing female students. One Kyrgyz youth was beaten up, and three others fled the scene. A video of the fight went viral on social media, sparking outrage among locals who perceived the May 12 incident as a “humiliation for their nation” (Eurasianet, May 20). Locals also saw the brawl as a breach of the hospitality extended to the foreign students in Kyrgyzstan. Protesters accused the Kyrgyz authorities of showing “lenient treatment” toward the foreign students involved in the violence. On the night of May 17, the locals’ anger and protest transformed into mob violence in Bishkek (Hindustan Times, May 19).

In response, the Pakistani Embassy in Kyrgyzstan advised all Pakistani students in the capital to stay indoors until the situation returned to normal (Dawn, May 19). On May 18, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif posted on X that he was “deeply concerned over the situation of Pakistani students in Bishkek” (, May 17; Al Jazeera, May 20). The Pakistani government arranged special commercial flights, which brought back hundreds of Pakistani students due to the ongoing security concerns (Dawn, May 19). The number of Pakistani students fleeing Kyrgyzstan following the attacks is expected to exceed 4,000, according to Pakistani Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar, who also visited Bishkek on May 21 (, May 21; Dawn, May 22).

Indian students have also appealed to New Delhi to return home due to safety concerns. They have urged the university administrations in Kyrgyzstan to continue the academic year through online classes, which have just one month left, as locals target them whenever they leave their hostels or apartments (Deccan Herald, May 21).

With the evacuation of foreign students, the Kyrgyz government is concerned not only about social stability but also about the economic losses and damage to the country’s reputation as a regional hub for education and labor migrants. Over 28,000 foreign medical students are studying in Kyrgyzstan, according to Deputy Minister of Education and Science Rasul Abazbek-uulu. Of these students, more than 11,000 are Pakistani, and 15,000 are Indian (Al Jazeera, May 20). Abazbek-uulu has emphasized Kyrgyzstan’s national interest in attracting foreign students. In a statement following the May 17 attack, he said, “Every student is an investor. They contribute to the university budget, pay for dormitories and hostels, use taxis, the services of hairdressers and other specialists, and go to shops. We are not economists, but, according to various estimates, the country’s budget annually receives from 12 to 16 billion soms [between roughly $136 million to $182 million] from foreign students” (, May 20).

Kyrgyz officials are attempting to limit the damage to the country’s economy and reputation through some outreach to foreign students. On May 19, Deputy Chairman of the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers Edil Baisalov, accompanied by the Pakistani ambassador, visited the dormitory of the Faculty of Medicine of the International University of Kyrgyzstan, which was attacked on the night of May 17. Addressing the foreign students, Baisalov said, “These criminal acts by individuals have nothing to do with [our] culture and traditions of hospitality. … Your parents and relatives should know that you are not in danger in Kyrgyzstan and that the authorities bear full responsibility for your well-being. The events of one night do not reflect the attitude of our people toward you’’(, May 19).

Despite such statements, resentment is growing among the Kyrgyz people over the perception that workers from South Asia are displacing locals in many economic sectors (see EDM, May 28). Some in the population have complained that the presence of foreign migrant workers is growing too quickly. Bishkek, nevertheless, has introduced higher quotas for labor migrants, especially following Moscow’s expanded invasion of Ukraine. After the attacks, the Ministry of Labor, Social Security, and Migration claimed that none of the migrants who were brought in under the new quotas were involved in the violence (, May 18).

This year, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed an influx of migrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, according to Baisalov. On May 18, he declared, “This is well illustrated by the flow of citizens from Pakistan and Bangladesh who travel to Kyrgyzstan to work. This is a new phenomenon. They are almost everywhere, these migrants. In taxi services, at car washes, and as couriers in food delivery services. They are ready to work and live for $300. …We are interested primarily in creating jobs for our citizens. But businessmen are attracting cheap labor from South Asia” (The Insider, May 18). Baisalov added that this was not the intent of the current government and that officials were working to ensure Kyrgyz jobs are not replaced. Such official sentiments may point to further exacerbation of the tense environment rather than tamping down xenophobic violence and societal frustrations. This, in turn, would likely dissuade many South Asians from migrating to Kyrgyzstan for education or work, threatening a significant pull on the Kyrgyz economy.