Last November, stories of humanitarian despair and agony occurring on the Belarus-Polish border made international headlines as thousands of immigrants and refugees were left stranded and denied entry into Europe. One immigrant found his way to the Los Angeles Times to tell his story.

Twenty-five-year-old Iraqi Hussein Shummari is a lawyer by education and hails from a prominent Arab tribe. After failing to find a decent job, Shummari decided that there was no future for him in his own country — a country whose annual budget stands at USD $103 billion, and yet, cannot provide employment or 24-hours of electricity for its own citizens. His story mirrors that of millions of young Iraqis, now in their twenties, born either after the downfall of Saddam Hussein or during the final years of his brutal 24-year rule.

99 percent of young people in Iraq and 79 percent of those living in Iraqi Kurdistan wish to leave the country.

It’s been almost ten years since the International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducted a study with the British Foreign Ministry, concluding that 99 percent of young people in Iraq and 79 percent of those living in Iraqi Kurdistan wish to leave the country. That same year, Iraqi doctor Nabil al-Khalisi published an academic paper on the medical brain drain in Iraq, surveying 1,395 physicians, 202 of whom were still living in Iraq. Sixty percent of those who had already left cited security concerns, while 50 percent of those still in Iraq were struggling to get out.

That was shortly before ISIS swept the country in mid-2014, and less than a decade after the 2003 US-led invasion that flattened the country, toppled its regime, disbanded its army, and sent millions into poverty. Thousands left in 2003-2006, escaping sectarian threats from warring militias, who now controlled the lion’s share of Iraq’s Chamber of Deputies.

Many left because of lack of jobs and inferior education, topped with the collapse in basic services – with regular electricity being at the top of the list for the oil-producing country. Because expatriate statistics give the post-2003 order a bad name, there are no official numbers in Iraq.

A Mass Exodus of Iraqi Doctors

According to the London-based Al-Arabi al-Jadid newspaper, 72,000 doctors have fled the country since April 2003. The Iraqi Health Ministry cites a much lower figure of no more than 9,000 doctors, although the official number of Iraqi doctors, as reported by the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, currently stands at 34,453.

72,000 doctors have fled the country since April 2003.

In 2021, Iraqi scholar Thamir Naeem Jassim published an academic paper on the medical knowledge for Iraqi medics, surveying resident physicians and specialized doctors at the Al-Kindy Medical College University in Baghdad. Respondents complained of bad management throughout the health sector, lack of research funding from the Ministry of Higher Education, second-rate labs, and poor internet services. All these factors, they said, create a chronic shortage of career-oriented doctors, producing a generation of physicians instead who feel “that they will not have a meritorious career in Iraq.”

Schools Paying a High Price

According to UNICEF, 3.2 million Iraqi school-aged children are out of school. Most of the students dropped out so they could work and provide additional income for their poverty-stricken families. Others did so because their schools were destroyed by the ongoing violence.

One in every two schools in Iraq is damaged and needs rehabilitation, reports UNICEF. Many now operate in multiple shifts to accommodate a maximum number of students, squeezing them into classrooms that are cold, damp, and poorly ventilated.

Although government expenditure on defense remains high – citing the ever-present threat from ISIS – only 6 percent of this year’s budget is marked for education. Additionally, many schools were transformed into military bases and detention centers for various militias, while 350 schools were damaged between 2014-2018. Those same militias have either killed, injured, or abducted 100 teachers and 60 students.

Only 6 percent of this year’s budget is marked for education.

In schools run by ISIS after it occupied large swaths of Iraqi territory, subjects like history, literature, art, and music were banned and replaced with Quranic classes and religious sermons. That, along with mediocre salaries, has prompted thousands of schoolteachers to flee the country. An average teacher’s monthly salary ranges from 1 to 2 million Iraqi dinars (USD $684 to $1,360).

In 2018, an independent humanitarian information provider reported that only 20 percent of Iraqi students have access to computers at home, making homeschooling impossible during the Covid-19 lockdown throughout Iraq.

A direct consequence of the mass exodus of qualified educators and the lack of safe schools is rising illiteracy. According to the official spokesman for the Ministry of Education, illiteracy in Iraq currently stands at a whopping 13 percent, although the real rate might be much higher. If taken at face value, that adds up to 3.7 million adults (age 15 and above) out of Iraq’s total population of 40 million.

According to a 2020 UNICEF survey, female completion rates for secondary education throughout Iraq stand at no more than 43 percent. To make matters worse, 24 percent of Iraqi women are illiterate, as reported by the World Bank in September 2020.

[Iraq’s Road to Peace is Still Paved with Obstacles]

A History of Brain Drain

Iraq’s brain drain is chronic and far from new, dating back to the country’s first military coup in July 1958. At the time, young flamboyant officers seized power in Baghdad, butchering the Iraqi royal family. Thousands of Western-educated professionals — doctors, engineers, and teachers — decided to flee the country to avoid persecution under Iraq’s first military ruler, Abdul Karim Qassim.

Iraq’s brain drain is chronic and far from new, dating back to the country’s first military coup in July 1958.

Then came a series of military regimes, leading up to Saddam Hussein’s assumption of power in July 1979. Saddam’s era was marked with endless conflict, starting with the Iran-Iraq War, onto the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and its 1991 liberation by the United States, followed by American sanctions which crippled the country ahead of the 2003 US invasion with its subsequent aftershocks.

In fact, the brain drain under Saddam was so unrelenting that he had to issue an order making it illegal for university degree holders to leave the country. The law was imposed in 1982 and lifted at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. During the final years of Saddam’s rule, an estimated 20 percent of Iraqis – around 4 million people – were living in the Diaspora. Average salaries had been slashed to between USD $3 and $5 per month, while inflation stood at 900 percent.

The brain drain under Saddam was so unrelenting, he made it illegal for university degree holders to leave the country.

Destinations for Iraqi professionals have changed over the years, with many heading to Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s, then to Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and Syria and Jordan after the 2003 US invasion. Over the past ten years, they have headed back to Europe again, with Sweden, the UK, and Germany standing out as preferred destinations.

Throughout it all, the greatest victims of this mass exodus were the health, cultural, and educational sectors, says Salam Smeasim, a former Iraqi academic, and current economic consultant.

“Most of the emigrants worked in the fields of health, education, and culture, explaining why there is plenty of regression and backwardness in these sectors today, along with a notable decline in their output,” Smeasim told Inside Arabia.

“The process of ignorance consolidates the dominance of the bad over the good, and the expulsion of talented and distinguished people at a time when the values that do prevail are those of ignorance and corruption,” he added.

Sadly, with the ongoing political quagmire and economic mismanagement, the brain drain trend for Iraq is not encouraging.