Plight of foreign students amid rising xenophobia

It is imperative for nations to recognise and address the vulnerabilities of international students

Amna Hashmi May 22, 2024
The writer is pursuing M Phil in International Relations from Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore. E-mail her at


In a world increasingly marked by rising nationalism and xenophobia, international students often find themselves in precarious situations. The recent violence against foreign students in Kyrgyzstan is a stark reminder of this ongoing and troubling trend. These students, who travel across borders for education and cultural exchange, are often caught in the crossfire of larger socio-political conflicts, becoming scapegoats for broader societal issues.

In April 2024, Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, witnessed a spate of mob violence targeting foreign students, primarily from Pakistan and Egypt. The violence was triggered by a viral video on social media, which allegedly depicted a clash between local and foreign students. This video spread rapidly, fueling xenophobic sentiments and culminating in attacks that left many students injured and traumatised.

Nationalism often thrives on the demonisation of ‘the other’, and foreign students, with their distinct identities and backgrounds, become easy targets. This nationalism is further exacerbated by economic anxieties, cultural fears and political agendas, leading to a toxic environment where xenophobia can flourish. This all is often fueled by the geopolitical landscape, which in terms of Kyrgyzstan is heavily influenced by neighbouring Russia and China. The presence of significant foreign investment from these countries has led to local fears of economic colonisation, which are then directed at foreign students as visible representatives of this change. This incident is not an isolated case but part of a larger pattern where nationalism and xenophobia intersect to target vulnerable groups.

Sadly, this disturbing trend is not limited to Kyrgyzstan. Across the globe, similar incidents highlight the vulnerability of foreign students to xenophobic violence.

In India, African students have faced numerous attacks fueled by racial prejudices and misinformation. For instance, in 2017, Nigerian students were assaulted by a mob in Greater Noida, near Delhi, following rumours of African involvement in a local youth’s death, according to BBC. Moreover, in 2024, a mob in New Delhi attacked Muslim students because they didn’t want them offering namaz at the hostel. Europe, too, has its share of such incidents. In Germany, there have been multiple reports of racially motivated attacks on international students. In 2016, an Indian student was assaulted in the city of Leipzig by a group of locals who shouted xenophobic slurs. These incidents reflect the broader rise of nationalist movements across Europe, where immigrants and foreign students are often scapegoated for economic and social issues.

South African countries too often struggle with the same sentiment where students from other African nations are notably targeted. The violence, often fueled by economic competition and social tensions, has seen Nigerian and Zimbabwean students subjected to harassment and attacks. This reflects deeper issues within South African society, where foreigners are unfairly blamed for economic hardships, leading to a volatile environment for those seeking education and opportunity in the country.

Another key aspect to such situations is the role of social media platforms which amplify these tensions by spreading misinformation and provocative content at unprecedented speeds. The viral video in Kyrgyzstan is a prime example of how unverified content can incite violence. The rapid dissemination of false information can ignite existing prejudices and lead to mob actions before authorities can intervene.

Hence, it is imperative for nations to recognise and address the vulnerabilities of international students — something that requires enforcing laws against xenophobic violence and ensuring swift justice for victims. There should also be promotion of cultural sensitivity and digital literacy to combat misinformation. Additionally, establishment of robust support mechanisms for international students, including legal aid as well as mental health services, is also necessary.

In the wake of violence against foreign students, we’re confronted with a sobering truth: in a world where differences are becoming more and more apparent, the quest for knowledge turns into a battlefield. Yet, it’s in these very moments we must reaffirm our commitment to fostering understanding, empathy and unity across borders. For in the halls of education, diversity isn’t a threat — it’s our greatest strength.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2024.

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