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Pakistani Student Exodus Damages Kyrgyzstan's Reputation, Causes Economic Fallout

Members of the student wing of Islamic political party Jamaat-e Islami protest in Karachi against the attacks on foreign students in Kyrgyzstan on May 18.
Members of the student wing of Islamic political party Jamaat-e Islami protest in Karachi against the attacks on foreign students in Kyrgyzstan on May 18.

Hundreds of Pakistani students have left Kyrgyzstan amid safety fears after mob attacks on South Asians last week left dozens injured in the capital, Bishkek.

Many of the students' parents urged Islamabad to bring their children home and some students say they are unsure about ever returning to Kyrgyzstan to continue their studies.

The violence also prompted some embassies in Bishkek, including the U.S. and Turkish ones, to advise their citizens to exercise caution in Kyrgyzstan due to safety concerns.

The violent events in Bishkek have damaged Kyrgyzstan's image as a safe place for foreigners and could potentially deprive it of a major source of revenue.

As Foreign Student Exodus Continues, Officials Fear Kyrgyzstan's Reputation Is On The Line
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Kyrgyz authorities say foreign students studying in English-language universities bring in up to $180 million annually to the economy.

Kyrgyzstan hosts about 28,000 students from countries outside the former Soviet Union, according to Deputy Education Minister Rasul Abazbek-uulu.

The huge majority of the international students -- some 24,000 -- are from India and Pakistan and they mainly study medicine, paying about $3,000 in tuition per year. They collectively spend millions more dollars in Kyrgyzstan for room and board and living expenses.

"The foreign students who live here spend money in our country by using services such as taxis, restaurants, and hair salons, to name a few," Abazbek-uulu said in Bishkek on May 20.

"They bring in between $136 million and $181.4 million to our country every year, contributing to our economy," he added.

The total number of foreign students in Kyrgyzstan is about 60,000 according to official statistics, with the bulk of them from former Soviet republics.

That includes some 24,500 from Uzbekistan and more than 2,000 from both Russia and Kazakhstan. Students from neighboring countries study in Russian and Kyrgyz-language faculties that charge lower tuition than the English-language courses.

Abazbek-uulu said the violent attacks on at least four different student hostels in the capital will tarnish Kyrgyzstan's reputation as an "education hub" for foreign students -- an image Bishkek had spent "many years building."

The number of foreign students in Kyrgyzstan has significantly increased in the past decade.

According to official statistics, there were about 11,300 foreigners studying in Kyrgyzstan in the 2012-13 academic year, including 4,457 from Kazakhstan and some 1,140 from India, and 778 from Pakistan.

Abazbek-uulu mentioned the intense "competition" among countries trying to attract foreign students to boost their education sector and their economies.

Medical schools in Kyrgyzstan and its Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have become increasingly popular with Indian and Pakistani students due to their comparatively low tuition fees and living costs, as well as their relatively easy visa regimes. Jobs in the medical sector are highly regarded and well-paid in India and Pakistan.

The tuition fees in other Asian countries are usually much higher and it costs tens of thousands of dollars to study medicine in the West.

Most Kyrgyz Welcome Foreign Students

Meerim Osmonalieva, the head of the Oasis Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, said it will take a "long time" for the country to rebuild its image after foreign students in Bishkek suffered "beatings, violence, and attacks on their dorms."

"Kyrgyzstan is a hospitable country. It's a shame that the reputation of our country is suffering. Recovery will take a long time," she told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

A survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration in 2021 showed that most Kyrgyz were in favor of their country hosting foreign students and migrants, saying they have a positive impact on Kyrgyzstan.

Between 80 and 90 percent of respondents said that foreigners bring money to the economy, increase peoples' interest in learning foreign languages and culture, while also creating new business and investment opportunities.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service is an award-winning, multimedia source of independent news and informed debate, covering major stories and underreported topics, including women, minority rights, high-level corruption, and religious radicalism.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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