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Pakistan's brain drain crisis escalates as thousands leave

Zoya Nazir in Islamabad | Darko Janjevic
May 25, 2023

Many educated Pakistanis are looking to move abroad as living costs continue to climb and political unrest deepens in their home country.

A man with a gray beard talks into a cellphone in front of a wall of screens
Pakistan is struggling with an economic and political crisisImage: Sabir Mazhar/AA/picture alliance

Sana Hashim, who works at a digital marketing startup in Islamabad, is facing a dilemma: She wants to join thousands of highly qualified workers who have already moved out of Pakistan, but is worried about abandoning her family.

"I have applied to a few firms in the Middle East and received interview calls, too," the 29-year-old told DW. "But, even if I get a job, I can't just pack my bags and leave. Who is going to look after my aging parents?"

In 2021, about 225,000 Pakistanis left the country, but the number nearly tripled to 765,000 last year, according to the official numbers published by The Express Tribune daily.

The 2022 numbers include 92,000 of highly educated professionals such as doctors, engineers, information technology experts and accountants. Some of them go to the West, others to Middle Eastern countries such Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

And the trend shows no sign of abating in 2023. The latest data indicate that nearly 200,000 people left in the first three months of the year. Nasir Khan, an experienced immigration agent working in Islamabad, told DW that he has never seen such a surge before.

Pakistan's 'brain drain' amid economic crisis

"It's not just the younger lot — people of all ages turn up to my office daily," he said. "They are so tired and frustrated; it literally seems they want to run away from here."

Salaries eaten by galloping inflation

IT specialist Nouman Shah told DW that he took the plunge and moved to Saudi Arabia last year because of the rising living costs in Pakistan. 

"My low earnings were inadequate to run a household there, while a job prospect in Riyadh was too good to pass up," he said.

For years, people in Pakistan have had to contend with joblessness, low wages and limited prospects to advance their careers. Now, the country is also facing a deep political and economic crisis. In addition to the power struggle between the supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the current government led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif — a struggle that has repeatedly turned violent — the value of the Pakistani rupee has been plummeting, and the government is struggling to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The cost of imports such as crude oil has also skyrocketed, stoking inflation. 

According to JS Global Securities, inflation in the country is projected to reach over 37% year-on-year in May, the highest since July 1965.

"A salaried individual like myself is really struggling because prices have skyrocketed in recent months," Sana Hashim said. "My income hasn't increased, but the inflation has."

Crisis reaches students outside Pakistan

Fears of a deteriorating economic situation have also put Pakistanis studying abroad in distress. Formerly, international students would return to the country to work, but now, with fewer jobs available, many opt to stay in their host countries and apply for permanent residency.

Poor prospects in Pakistan spark brain drain

Parents are also finding it more challenging to transfer money to their children who are enrolled in universities abroad, as a result of the devaluation of the Pakistani currency.

"My parents are having a harder time affording my education in Australia, but I hope the decision will pay off when I finally obtain an Australian passport," student Ujala Tariq said.

'A future worth staying for'

The brain drain is also noticeable in the country's health care system. Medical professionals are moving abroad in search of a better income and access to advanced medical technology. As a result, Pakistan's already-fragile health care system is facing a shortage of staff at local hospitals.

"It is painful to see some of our best doctors move to the US, but can we blame them? The conditions at public hospitals are often dire, and the health workers get paid so little," Karachi gynecologist Afsheen Akbar said.

Pakistan's government has come under fire for not doing enough to improve the nation's politics and economy.

Many say efforts to address the cost of living crisis are currently being hampered by the ongoing political unrest.

"To stem this brain drain, we must offer our citizens a future worth staying for," immigration agent Nasir Khan said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru