By Nimo Ismail
Somalia’s wrist is slashed and the country is bleeding out. The youth and the educated elite, who can contribute the most to the region’s advancement, are leaving to seek better lives in Western countries. Brain drain is one of the biggest problems facing this area, though it isn’t unique to Somalia and its neighbors; it’s prominent in other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. Scholars who study brain drain, or the migration of highly-trained individuals seeking better opportunities outside their home countries, are ignoring the uneducated youth migrating to the West. This trend is problematic not only for African nations losing workers but also for members of the international community seeking a democratized world.
At this point, most people in Somalia know a relative or someone close to them who migrated. For my family and me, that person was my father. In 1981, after the civil war broke in Somalia, he left for Saudi Arabia. He immediately started working for an American company named Arabian Homes that housed Westerners who worked in Saudi Arabia. My father and mother met in 1992 and got married a year later. After 24 years of working as a transportation manager for Arabian Homes, my father was laid off. In 2006, my family moved back to Somaliland, an unrecognized state located in the northern part of Somalia.
My father started looking for a job as soon as we arrived. He quickly realized that there weren’t many opportunities, and employers gave the few that were available to relatives or people they knew personally. During the first week of June 2007, he concluded that he couldn’t provide for his family in Somaliland. He left the following month with $2000 in his pocket, not knowing it would be a two-year-long trip. He travelled through the Sahara Desert to Libya by foot. He was imprisoned for nine months when he arrived, and eventually paid $300 to be released. He spent a month hiding in Tripoli waiting for the boat that would take him to the land of opportunity, Europe. When it arrived, he saw the boat was a small raft meant for 10 people. He, and 40 others, had to pay $900 for the right of passage to sail together from Tripoli to Italy.
Despite these hardships, my father’s story has a happy ending, as he lives in Switzerland today with a job that gives him the ability to provide for his family. But this voyage is a deadly one, and thousands of Africans who decide to take this trip lose their lives. In April 2016, 400 people, mostly Somali youths, drowned in the Mediterranean on their way from Egypt to Italy. Those who make it to the West searching for a better life usually realize that their expectations don’t match the reality. They end up living in the streets, resorting to drugs and alcohol, and their families back home never hear from them. Today, people starting this journey are aware of the dangers, yet are willing to take that chance. The Somali government and leaders must therefore ask themselves how they can improve the lives of our people so that Somalis don’t choose the risk of death over living in their home country.
Most scholars studying Africa and the brain drain effect focus on educated professionals who seek employment opportunities that their countries or continent don’t provide. But many of the youths leaving these countries are not educated, and Africa witnessed muscle drain long before brain drain. The first round of muscle drain took place during the transatlantic slave trade, when people were taken out of their homes and countries by force. While the current cycle is perceived as migration by choice, there are other driving forces at play. Because our education system isn’t on the same level as the Western countries my people migrate to, they often can’t compete for jobs that require a high degree of education once they have arrived at their destinations. Lately in Somalia, many of the people migrating have been teenagers who haven’t even completed high school. Therefore, they don’t fall under the definition of brain drain. These teens saw educated and professional people leaving the country, and they decided to do the same—but at an earlier age. Their migration is thus better characterized as muscle drain, though this doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to become part of the brain drain. Differentiating between the two categories will help us come up with better solutions to fight against these trends. Uneducated youth will require a different set of incentives to remain in the country, so to prevent them from migrating, we must use different strategies than the ones used to address the migration of educated individuals.
Both brain and muscle drain in Somalia affect not only the people who risk their lives, but also those who remain in the country. Social services suffer when few people remain who are trained to administer them; for instance, many African health professionals are leaving their countries, depriving the people in Somalia of access to necessary treatments. This drain also affects the political order of those countries: As more professionals leave, the middle class continues to dwindle. For a country to be fair and democratic, a strong middle class must exist, since governments aren’t checked by the poor or by the wealthy. The migration of brain and muscle in Somalia, and in the rest of Africa, should not just be a national and continental concern, but also an international concern, especially to the countries advocating for democracy.
Brain drain has been one of the more prominent issues facing Somalia for the last two decades. The term brain drain, however, leaves out a group that might not have the same skill sets as educated professionals, but who nonetheless support these professionals and make their jobs easier. Most of the time, with access to knowledge and facilities, they become the next generation of educated professionals. That’s why we need to include muscle drain in the conversation. To address this wound, direct pressure must be applied. It is time for the international community to come together to fight this epidemic that is spreading across underdeveloped and developing countries. This is no longer a one nation’s problem; it is the world’s problem.
Nimo Ismail is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Ron Jones]