Syria’s Brain Drain

This article has been written as a supplement to the 2016 St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference, whose focus this year is on Migration & Displaced Peoples. Through this article, we hope to delve deeper into the diverse and far-reaching effects of conflict and the freedom of movement in areas such as state interaction, internal politics, societies, and economies.

The refugee crisis has received consistent and ample media attention across the globe: the media is bringing the causes, statistics, effects, and more harrowingly, visual images of the European refugee and migration crisis to the televisions, radios and timelines of people in a vast number of countries. However, the devastating immediate effects and statistics of the deaths, homelessness and injury of fleeing refugees presented in the news are overshadowing a long-term effect which will prove to be just as devastating for the countries suffering, in particular Syria, Kosovo and Afghanistan: the brain drain. The term ‘brain drain’ was first used in the 60s, when public concerns about the emigration of British scientists to the USA in the 50s and 60s began to rise and spark debate.[1] This is precisely what a ‘brain drain’ is: ‘a situation in which many educated or professional people move to a different country in search of better living conditions.’[2] Nonetheless, the term brain drain does not only apply to legal migration and people deciding to move residencies, but is often associated with those who are forced by unfavourable conditions to flee, be it by foot, boat or truck, to the nearest place they can. Much attention is paid to the overwhelming rising numbers of migrants and asylum seekers in Europe, and even more attention is focused on the numbers that don’t make it, but few prioritise concerns about who it is that is packing up and going on the run.

Image Courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO ©2014, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO ©2014, some rights reserved.

The media has shone a spotlight on who migrants are and made the crisis personal by giving it a face. Among those most memorable is a boy named Aylan. Persons who would otherwise be unaffected by this crisis now have the image of 3-year-old Aylan drowned and face down on a Turkish beach burned into their memories; this image in particular has made a great contribution to informing public opinion particularly in Western countries, and highlighting the collective failures of countries in preventing humanitarian disasters on an enormous scale.[3] A face has indeed been put to the ongoing refugee and migration crisis; this face tells of death, displacement, and fear. It is truly a humanitarian crisis in need of collective intervention. The statistics are truly appalling: 3,279 people have died in 2014 trying to cross the Mediterranean, while 3,138 people died in 2015 following the same routes.[4] The deadliest month in 2015 has been April, which saw a flimsy and overcrowded boat carrying 800 migrants capsize in the sea off Libya.[5] Most of these people are desperately fleeing from the ongoing conflict in Syria, with approximately 60,000 more Syrians applying for asylum in EU countries than Kosovo and Afghanistan, the second and third countries with the largest migrating peoples, respectively.[6] European countries have been struggling under the pressure to accept large numbers of refugees and migrants. This has caused tension in the EU as Greece, Italy and Hungary bear the largest refugee burden due to their geographic location, despite Germany taking the lead in granting asylum to the most migrants.[7]

Despite being rooted in completely different contexts, a parallel can be drawn between the contemporary European migration crisis and the post-1945 Berlin crisis. The Berlin Wall is one of the most well known and drastic examples of the costs and risks of immigration restrictions, i.e. the containment of movement into an area. Between 1944 and 1950, over ten million Germans fled or were expelled from Soviet Union-held territories and settled in East or West Germany. A quarter of East Germans fled across the Iron Curtain towards West Germany.[8] Being an intra-state conflict, the Berlin Wall was a tangible symbol of the causes, effects and costs of displacement due to living conditions. The brain drain caused by this greatly stunted East Germany’s growth and economy. While the contemporary migration crisis does not have such a tangible symbol like the Berlin Wall, the brain drain will in the long run have the same negative effects. In fact the effects will possibly be worse, given the added factor that the Syrian war will undoubtedly leave in shambles their economy, infrastructure, and chances of rebuilding after the war ends.

The brain drain in Syria began alongside the beginning of the war in 2011. Lack of opportunities and political freedom saw educated people and professionals fleeing Syria for decades before the war, but the conflict has increased the professional shortages by unprecedented levels, particularly the medical industry. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria wrote in 2013 that a major factor for doctors fleeing the country is the way medical care has been used as a tactic of war: ‘Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by parties to the conflict as military objectives.’[9] The extent to which the brain drain will cripple Syria in years to come cannot yet be measured, however studies showing that half the number of the country’s certified doctors have fled over the last 4 years.[10] While the healthcare sector seems to be bearing the brunt of the Syrian brain drain, education, arts and culture will suffer greatly as the youths of Syria are fleeing or being killed in the conflict. Whoever is left after the four year civil war will essentially be left with the monumental task of rebuilding a country from the ashes with no young educated professionals. For this reason, the redevelopment process is looking tentative.

Humanitarian aid for the European refugee crisis is focusing on providing the essentials: food, health care, shelter, as they should. However to truly reduce the overall impact of the crisis, including the brain drain which could have a more detrimental effect on Syria’s future than postulated, whatever measures can be taken now to support those remaining in the country and perhaps assist those who may return, should be carried out simultaneously with humanitarian aid efforts. Suggestions of turning refugee camps into “havens of education, training and enterprise, [honing the refugee population] into a skilled task force ready to help with the recovery if and when the war ends”[11] are perhaps idealistic, but efforts in this direction remain Syria’s best bet for securing a future when the dust settles.

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[4] [Figures up to 20/10/2015]








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