The Great Iraqi Brain Drain

By<a href="mailto:andrew.chang@abc.com">Andrew Chang</a>

Feb. 16, 2001 -- The most obvious effects of the U.N. sanctions on Iraq are the starving children, the barren marketplaces, and idle groups of unemployed men.

But some casualties are harder to see, and harder to quantify — like the darkening of Iraq's future, prompted by the country's immense diaspora.

By some estimates, almost 20 percent of Iraq's population has left, 4 million out of a population of 22 million.

They're winding up on shores and cities around the world, from next-door neighbor Jordan to Australia.

And the bad news for Iraq is that this exodus is in large part composed of the country's most-valued individuals: the doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Two million professionals have left the country, one expert said.

Living Beyond Their Means

Many Iraqi professionals are leaving, experts say, because sanctions have made it impossible to keep up a decent standard of living.

An average salary in Iraq is $3 to $5 a month — when monthly food expenses alone can run $2 to $6.

"The official figure on inflation is 900 percent since 1991," said Denis Halliday, the former assistant secretary general at the United Nations.

According to some estimates, Baghdad's unemployment rate is more than 50 percent. In Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, unemployment is around 75 percent.

Out-of-work engineers now drive taxis, and doctors take on second jobs. Others live on cash infusions from overseas relatives, or simply go hungry.

Life in the country's urban centers is at an all-time low, said Rania Masri, of the Iraq Action Coalition. "People living in a city akin to L.A. or Chicago are being forced to live at third world standards," said .

Even those who have jobs still come under pressure. "If you are well-educated, you just can't live by your own, peacefully. You have to be used by the regime," says a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based group of Iraqi opposition leaders-in-exile.

An Immigrant’s Tale

The situation in Iraq has gotten so bad that many of the country's leading lights have left.

One of the most recognized modern Iraqi writers, Nuha Al-Radi, who wrote an account of life in Baghdad during the war, now lives in Lebanon.

One Iraqi university claims to have lost up to 20 percent of its staff in the first five years of sanctions.

In early February, the Bush administration even gave support for Iraqi opposition groups to resume activities inside Iraq with American funding.

A State Department official told the Washington Post that the administration was telling Iraqis abroad: "You're beyond the organizational phase. Now do something."

The story for most Iraqi exiles, however, is no different from many immigrant tales. They usually wind up wherever they can — for Iraqis, it's friendly Islamic countries like their neighbors Jordan and Libya and Pakistan, or further afield, in Indonesia or Malaysia.

A smaller proportion wind up in the United States, Great Britain or Australia.

Whatever the case, these upper-middle-class Iraqis wind up taking jobs below what they had in their home country, experts say.

There's even a joke in Jordan, where the majority of Iraqi exiles have wound up: If your butcher is slow in cutting your meat, then he's probably an Iraqi surgeon.

50 Years to Leave Home

It's no small task for Iraqis to leave home, said Masri. "Iraqis don't have a history of leaving." Iraq is a landlocked country, she said, and even during the Iran-Iraq war, there was not much of an exodus.

She also said the outside world is reluctant to deal with Iraqi immigrants. Entry visas are very difficult for Iraqis to get, she said, because of the international hostility towards the regime.

Even neighboring Arab countries attempt to curb their intake levels, because of their own troubled economies.

And now, the Iraqi government itself has placed tight controls on who can leave. "They're panicking and they've lost so many skilled people," said Halliday.

An exit visa is 400,000 dinars, he says — when typical monthly salaries hover around 10,000 dinars — about $5.

In addition, some reports say Iraq has imposed a bond of up to 1 million dinars on anyone with an education beyond the level of a bachelor's degree, to ensure they return.

With tickets and bribes, a trip out of Iraq can reportedly cost $3,000 — or 6 million dinars.

Still, most of the departures are legitimate, said Halliday. People manage to pay the fees, reports say — by selling everything they own, or getting cash from relatives.

Even if Iraqis leave illegally, the borders are wide, and there's little stopping them. "It's just the usual border staff, nothing dramatic — you're not overwhelmed by armed guards," Halliday said

He knows of an Iraqi doctor now residing in Ireland, who left his country by walking into Turkey and claiming refugee status.

Easy emigration or not, the exodus is prompting worry among some observers of Iraq — not only for the current state of the country, but its future.

"There will be no one left to promote democracy and dialogue with the West after Saddam," one Arab observer told The Jerusalem Report.

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