Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Best Minds Join Iraqi Exodus

Brain drain concerns as number of Iraqis emigrating to escape violence multiplies.
Karim Sa'id and his family looked sad as they said goodbye to their relatives.

Sa’id, 54, who has a leather-goods shop in Baghdad, has decided to take his wife and three kids to Syria, after being threatened by blackmailers.

They had shown up at this store and demanded that he pay protection money. If he refused, they said they would set fire to the premises or kidnap him or one of his children.

Rather than pay, he made plans to leave the country, sold his car, borrowed money from his brother and asked him to sell the family’s belongings. With the money, he intends to set up a new business in Syria.

"I never thought about leaving my homeland before," said Sa'id. "I worked hard to make a life here, but these brutal times force you to go.”

Every day, Iraqi families are packing their bags and emigrating to escape the violence tearing their county apart. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 1.8 million people have fled to neighbouring countries and 1.6 million have been internally displaced since the fall of Saddam. In 2006 alone, 425,000 Iraqis sought refuge abroad.

Brigadier General Sabah Mahdi, head of passport services in the capital, said demand for travel documents has never been higher. “At our six offices in Baghdad, we’ve noticed the number has been increasing remarkably.”

Most go to Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Syria is popular because habits and traditions are similar to those in Iraq and living costs are relatively low. Sa’id hopes to rent a flat for 200 US dollars a month, a third less than a comparable apartment in Iraqi Kurdistan, where growing numbers of Iraqis are flocking.

Few of the emigrants can afford airfares, so they risk traveling overland by buses and taxis, passing through lawless areas where insurgents and criminals operate freely.

A travel agent who did not want to give his name said those who ferry Iraqis abroad keep in close contact to warn each other of danger spots. He estimated that currently between 3-4,000 people were leaving the country each day.

Many families hope to return as soon as the situation improves and security has been restored. Majid Hamid, 50, who has a print shop, said he asked a relative to live in his house until he comes back.

“I will wait patiently until things become more stable,” he said. “ The important thing is to be far from car bombs, explosions and daily assassinations."

Among those leaving the country are some of its most able people, such as lawyers, doctors and scientists and academics. Last year, the government sought to stem the brain drain by offering to double the salaries of skilled emigrants.

The flight of the country’s best minds exacerbates a skills-shortage problem that emerged in Saddam’s time when hundreds of thousands of able people left the country.

Husam Jamal, a professor of archaeology, is preparing to leave Iraq for Syria. He fears that the exodus of professionals will deal a real blow to all sectors, especially education.

Education appears to have been singled out by the insurgents, with 89 university professors killed since the overthrow of Saddam, according to the higher education ministry. Some have suggested that the militants’ intimidation of teachers, doctor and other professionals is intended to paralyse basic services.

Many Iraqis believe neighbouring countries sponsor the extremists in order to keep Iraq unstable. “There are hidden hands behind the exodus,” said Jamal.

Meanwhile, people wait in long queues outside the passport offices. It takes up to twenty days to get new papers, which is why many resort to the black market - although they have to pay 15 times more than the official 40 US dollar charge.

Mohammed Abdul-Qadir, 45, is queuing for a new passport. He says he doesn’t feel safe in his neighbourhood anymore. “It’s deserted. Everyone has left for a safe haven,” he said.

Yasin al-Ruba’i is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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