Iraq has long suffered from a youthful “brain drain” - that is, where young, educated Iraqis leave the country as soon as they are able. But now, many locals believe, the biggest wave of immigration is just beginning, with many more Iraqis desperate to leave their country amid sectarian and ethnic unrest, the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State and the economic problems that have followed.
A decade or more ago many of the Iraqis leaving the country were unemployed and looking for a better life, or they were families who were being threatened with death or beating because of sectarian or other allegiances.
In the 1990s Iraqis left the country to escape the dictatorial regime led by Saddam Hussein, and then the crippling sanctions imposed upon his government. Around 2006 there were further waves of migration, when, after the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, a kind of sectarian civil war broke out.
In a 2009 “National Youth Survey, almost 17 percent of young Iraqis surveyed said that they would like to emigrate” and further surveys suggested a high unemployment rate among youth in the following years was pushing that number even higher.
And in 2013, a study by the International Organization for Migration appeared to indicate that a huge 99 percent of young people in southern Iraq and 79 percent of young people in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan wanted to leave the country.
The big difference now, is that a lot of Iraqis who actually have good jobs and live in fairly secure areas are also thinking about leaving town for good. And they seem to be considering this first and foremost, even before they contemplate getting a job, their own home or marrying.
“Life in Iraq has become unbearable,” says Rafea al-Khafaji, who recently graduated with a degree in management and economics from the University of Baghdad. “Every part of life here is just tiring. It is really hard to live here because of the security situation and the lack of government services.”
Al-Khafaji actually has a job; he works for a wholesaler in the upmarket central Baghdad neighbourhood of Arasat. But he has decided he wants to leave the country anyway and he's been saving his pay for the past nine months in order to do so. “The most important thing for me now is to save my own life,” al-Khafaji says. “I don't want to waste it here,” notes the young man, who's willing to go to any European country that will accept him.
Raed al-Taei's story is similar. “These days young people here are afraid for their futures, not for the present day,” explains the young man who lives in Basra, a relatively safe southern city and works for the university there. “They believe that the security conditions will only deteriorate further because of all the militias and armed gangs roaming the streets as well as the increasing tensions between Iraqi politicians.”
Al-Taei is currently trying to work out a way of getting out of Iraq. He wants to try and get a visa for Europe's Schengen area first and then claim asylum. He plans to say he has been threatened and might be killed and he is preparing an appropriate story and evidence to support this.
“Iraq is losing it's youth,” Qaysar Ibrahim, a member of the Iraqi Youth Association, a cvil society organisation that works to support young Iraqis, told NIQASH. “It's a very sad thing. Iraq is losing its potential.”
Ibrahim believes that over the past few months, more and more young Iraqis have either been seriously considering leaving or they have left. “The government doesn't have any real statistics on this and it's not really paying any attention to this problem,” Ibrahim says. “Really, they are only paying attention to the country's internally displaced people in various Iraqi provinces, not to people who are emigrating.”
Ibrahim admits that he cannot supply any actual figures on the numbers migrating either. “It's difficult because many young Iraqis tend to use illegal methods to immigrate, using people smugglers or other methods,” he notes. “But we hear that most of them are trying to get to Europe because the countries there have better systems of social welfare for new immigrants, unlike other nations like the US.”
“Most of the young men get to Europe through Turkey,” confirms Amjad, an Iraqi who had just arrived in Germany and who therefore didn't want to give his full name. “When they manage to get to Turkey they have to find a new set of people smugglers who will take them to Europe.”
Amjad was no desperate young man either – he had been working for Iraq's Ministry of Health before he made the trip. He came on a boat from Turkey to Greece – a part of the journey he considered the most dangerous by far – and then went by land from Athens to Germany, via Macedonia and Hungary.
“Germany is one of Iraqis' favourite destinations because of its great social welfare system,” Amjad told NIQASH.
To get a better idea of how popular the idea of immigration is among Iraqi youth, it is also worth looking at social media. Various online pages – mainly on Facebook, which is the most popular in Iraq - and blogs offer advice on how to get out of Iraq and stay out. Some of the pages also publish the contacts for people smugglers.
The pages also contain film segments featuring the young Iraqis who've made it to Europe – they film themselves upon arrival, talking about their journey and their experiences so far. The short videos encourage other Iraqi youth to immigrate and seem to have been made without any consideration of the consequences. Some of the Iraqis who speak so enthusiastically about immigrating seem only to be thinking of the immediate problem – they're not even thinking about what life would be like in a foreign country or about the Iraqis who came before them and who have not been any more successful in their new homes, living on government subsidies in welfare housing.
In one widely-shared clip, a young Iraqi man speaks about his failed attempt to immigrate. Greek authorities arrested him and contacted Turkish officials, who fingerprinted him and detained him for several days before sending him back to Iraq. The young man also says he lost a large amount of money that he had paid to people smugglers.
Iraqi social media sites go into detail about various ways of immigrating.
Some private travel agents in Baghdad will gladly sell clients a visa for Europe's Schengen area – and the price is increasing all the time. A few years ago you could buy one for around US$10,000. Now you need to pay double that.
Certain sites will also talk about what to tell European authorities when seeking residency or asylum – that is, what kind of fiction will best ensure success and a long-term stay. For example, some suggest that talking about sexual abuse will help and others tell immigrants they should claim to be homosexual. It's also good to say you've been threatened by armed groups or tortured or imprisoned by government security forces simply because you belong to a certain religious sect or ethnic group. And these are just a few of the sample stories experts in immigration suggest.
Last week, a widely circulated video clip on Iraqi social media showed a young man called Eric, originally from Hong Kong. Eric had filmed himself standing on a bridge in Baghdad, one that spanned the Tigris river.
“I came to Baghdad to see what was really going on here,” Eric says in the video clip. “I know that not so many people come here. And I also know that many people are leaving it.”
Eric then addresses Iraqis: “Please don't leave your country,” he says on camera. “Work together to build your cities back up. Because sooner or later this war will end and you should all help one another.”
The comments left by Iraqis on the video clip were very telling. Some said that Eric's comments were utterly unrealistic. Others said they felt deep despair because of what he was saying but they had lost hope of the country ever becoming stable. And of course, this being Iraq where locals have developed a good sense of dark humour over the years, there were also some jokes made – and mostly, these were mainly about how Eric clearly didn't know what he was talking about.