Bishkek violence

Editorial Board
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The early hours of Saturday (May 18) brought shock and panic for hundreds of parents of Pakistani students in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan after reports surfaced on social media about altercations between international students in the city and some local residents. Reports suggested that hostels and private residents hosting international students were attacked by a mob of around 1,000 local people. This was a response to a fight between Egyptian students and local residents that took place on May 13. Videos shared on social media were horrific. And it made sense why parents and students panicked and asked authorities to intervene. Given the dangerous turn the situation had taken, Pakistani authorities were quick to intervene, although some students are not satisfied with the way things were handled. While Pakistan’s Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Hassan Zaigham posted on his X account that the situation was under control, the panic that had seeped into students did not budge, prompting the government to arrange for special evacuation flights. At least 300 Pakistanis are back now, and more flights are expected to come, depending on students’ willingness to either return or continue their semester.

The Saturday incident was traumatizing, and no international student should face a situation where s/he has to lock him/herself inside their homes. Such attacks also add fear among local landlords and other people who become wary of dealing with foreigners to avoid backlash from fellow residents. That said, another fallout of the Bishkek incident has been the blatantly irresponsible use of social media by some people who, in their attempt to be supportive of students, ended up making the situation more complex. Instead of verifying the claims initially floated on social media, many social media users with huge followings spread misleading news about Pakistani students’ deaths. Several claims were also made about women’s harassment. This naturally created panic among parents here. On top of it, students’ complaints about lack of food at their homes also raised alarm bells among their families back home, who also requested authorities to help bring their children home.

The Bishkek incident is a sign of the growing racism and xenophobia in Central Asian states where local residents see foreign students as a threat. These feelings of animosity rise because the new immigrants compete with the locals for jobs and other resources. On the government level though, international students are a vital cog for running the economy. These complexities are not in a government’s hands. But what Pakistan can do is to provide consultancy and counselling services to students to teach them how they can prepare themselves for any untoward incident. The Pakistani government is notorious for its late response, which is why many people post SOS calls on social media before they reach out to government officials. This usually allows disruptors to take over the conversation, further complicating an already difficult situation. Students made distressed calls, and the government has thankfully responded to it. We hope that both parties made the decision of returning back after thoroughly considering all the available options, ensuring that students’ academic journey will not be harmed. Perhaps, a look at how students from other countries – like Egypt and India – are coping could help?