Refugee Crisis

How to Halt the Brain Drain

refugee scientist-thomas koehler-photothek net
Professionals are desparetely needed in their home countries.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Middle East is losing its best and brightest, as highly skilled refugees flee to Europe.

  • Facts


    • In Romania, 40 percent of young professionals want to leave for the West.
    • A new industry of head-hunters connect them with employers in E.U. member nations.
    • Violence in Syria and Iraq has forced an estimated 20 to 25 percent of highly qualified professionals to leave their homeland.
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Large numbers of academics in Bucharest don’t dream of success in Romania, but of moving to Western Europe and Germany, in particular.

“If you talk to university graduates with a knowledge of German, it quickly becomes clear that hardly anyone wants to stay in Romania,” said Sven Irmer, head of the Bucharest-based Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation associated with but independent of the center-right Christian Democratic Union. “Many academics who started with German companies want to continue on to Germany.”

The reason for the brain drain is obvious. College graduates earn five to eight times as much in Germany or Scandinavia compared to their Southern European homeland.

Mr. Irmer cites a senior physician in Bucharest as an example. The professional, who also teaches, earns only €800, or $877, including his teaching activities. With such a huge pay gap, it’s not surprising the well educated are fleeing Romania in droves. And there is little chance low wages will rise quickly, despite promises of an increase by the transitional Romanian government.

“The brain drain in Romania is not going to let up,” Mr. Irmer said.

Despite strong economic growth in the European Union member state, the broad majority of well-educated citizens is not sharing in its benefits. Indeed, the minimum wage in Romania is barely above €1, or just over $1, an hour.

“The brain drain in Rumania is not going to let up.”

Sven Irmer, Bucharest office of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

The exodus of highly credentialed professionals has created a cottage industry in Bucharest, the sixth-largest city in the European Union. Placement agencies actively recruit medical professionals for Switzerland, where there is great demand for doctors.

“There is a strong westward brain drain in the healthcare industry,” said Matthias Jobelius, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bucharest, a German foundation associated with but independent of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party. “Forty percent of young people in Romania can imagine working temporarily or permanently abroad. This places Romania at the lower end.”

The percentage is even greater in the bitterly poor Balkan countries. Research by the foundation found almost 67 percent in Albania, 55 percent in Kosovo and 49 in Macedonia want to leave their homeland. Although Western Balkans nations may eventually join the European Union, young professionals envision their futures in Western Europe.

Southeastern Europe has long been the largest exporter of skilled labor in Europe, but there is little reliable data available because governments don’t fund studies on the exit of professionals or the toll it takes on their economies.

Meanwhile, Romania, with a population of 20 million, has become economically dependent on its well-educated workers in the West. “The Romanians’ foreign bank transfers have been higher than all foreign investments in the country,” said Mr. Jobelius. “The young people expect better economic and social conditions. The people want to have more prospects open to them.”

According to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation study, 55  percent of those queried gave a better standard of living as the main reason for emigration. More than 353,000 Romanians now live in Germany alone.

The brain drain isn’t just a Southern European phenomenon. Well-educated people also are leaving the Middle East and heading West. Wars in the region have greatly increased the traffic west especially from Syria and Iraq.

The figures are alarming. Khalid al-Wazani of the United Nations Development Program estimates that 20 to 25 percent of well-qualified Arabs already have left their home countries. As recently as 2012, the agency estimated the rate at between 10 and 15 percent. Mr. Wazani said the emigrants aren’t deserting their homelands out of hate, but in hope of a better future abroad.

The loss of well-educated people in Syria and Iraq is dramatic. Just one year after the Syrian civil war began, experts found there was a shortage of doctors, engineers, educators and legal professionals. Three years ago, the World Health Organization determined more than half of the doctors had left the Syrian city of Homs while all nine psychiatrists registered in Syria before the outbreak of hostilities also fled. The pace of the departures of medical professionals has increased enormously since then, even though the need for skilled doctors and medical personnel is most acute in a time of war.

A similar scenario has unfolded in Iraq. Two years ago, the International Organization for Migration found 99 percent of young people in the southern part of the country wanted to leave. In the Kurdistan portion of Iraq, almost 80 percent of youth said they wanted to leave.

A counter-movement is emerging in Iraq, however, and it’s happening on Facebook, where an Internet campaign pleads with young men not to leave the country. Under the heading “I don’t want to emigrate,” they are being called to resist the Islamic State. The Saudi-owned, pan-Arab television news channel, Al Arabiya, noted online that the patriots are mainly Shi’ites, who want to fight against a Sunni caliphate.

The pace of the departures of medical professionals has increased enormously, even though the need for skilled doctors and medical personnel is most acute in a time of war.

The Internet also is being used in Afghanistan to convince citizens not to flee to Europe. “Don’t go, stay with me, perhaps there will be no turning back,” warns an Afghan government message.

Many refugees have college degrees, explaining why the government is worried that rebuilding the war-torn country could be impossible if many of its most qualified citizens flee.

Oxford economist Paul Collier said the only way to halt the brain drain is to do a better job of caring for refugees in the region. He also calls for supporting people in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. At the same time, he said, aid shouldn’t be limited to humanitarian efforts. Instead, the refugee camps must be transformed into centers of education, training and entrepreneurship.

The flight of talent also is a tremendous problem for African nations. The masses fleeing poverty there include professional workers, setting a self-perpetuating process in motion.

The continent, experts agree, will never reduce the gap with Europe without the smart, well-educated people who have fled to Europe, which in turn creates fresh incentives for citizens to flee to the West.


Pierre Heumann reports on the Middle East from Israel. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna. To contact the authors: and

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