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The root causes of Cameroon's youth brain drain

Moki Kindzeka in Yaounde
February 23, 2024

High living costs, few employment opportunities and a desire to support their families are driving many Cameroonian youths to emigrate.

A male nurse prepares to administer a malaria vaccine to infants at the health center in Datcheka, Cameroon.
Thousands of doctors and teachers have left Cameroon for greener pasturesImage: Desire Danga Essigue/REUTERS

Cameroon's government officials say that more than 6,000 teachers, doctors and nurses have left their jobs in public service within the past three months. Europe has long been a destination for most Cameroonians, but increasing numbers are finding opportunities in Canada, where immigration schemes favor young migrants.

The impact in Cameroon has been bad enough to gain the attention of President Paul Biya.

The 91-year-old president, who has led Cameroon since 1982, released a statement lamenting the youth's increasing desire to leave the Central African nation for greater opportunities. In labored sentences, Biya appealed to young Cameroonians' sense of patriotism and duty to remain in Cameroon, saying leaving was "not the solution" to Cameroon's problems.

The message has been broadcast in the capital, Yaounde, by state media ever since Cameroon celebrated its National Youth Day on February 11. At the Government High School Nyom, it blasts through speakers each morning.

Cameroon's President Paul Biya.
President Biya has appealed to young Cameroonians not to emigrateImage: Stephane Lemouton/abaca/picture alliance

Many Cameroonians are eager to leave

But Biya's words seem to fall on deaf ears. Not even teachers like 37-year-old Josian Minta are listening. She already tried leaving Cameroon once for Thailand two years ago. But she was turned away at the Thai airport due to an invalid visa.

"We went to Nigeria, to Abuja. I had to send my passport to Kenya. An agent told me, 'Okay, everything is ready, your visa is ready,'" she told DW. "So, when I went to Thailand, at the airport, the immigration officers took my passport, and they were asking how I got the visa."

Even though Minta said she was happy Biya addressed the issue, primarily due to her unpleasant experience emigrating, she said she would not obey Biya's advice for youths to remain in Cameroon and serve their fatherland. In fact, Minta said she would raise money to legally travel to Canada, where she believes many opportunities and better pay await.

Reasons Cameroonians want to emigrate

Tumenta F. Kennedy, a Cameroon-based international migration consultant, said poor working conditions and low salaries have been a significant push factor. "You can't use moral appeal or patriotism to make people stay," Kennedy told DW, adding that humans are driven by their dignity and ability to meet their basic needs.

"Addressing the mass movement requires efforts on addressing the root causes of migration, such as political instability, economic hardships, lack of job opportunities and last but not the least, security concerns."

Why do African politicians cling to power?

Cameroon faces three humanitarian crises: In the far North near Lake Chad, there is insecurity due to the presence of Nigeria's militant Islamist group  Boko Haram. In the Northwest and Southwest regions, Cameroon is grappling with the Anglophone crisis, where separatists are clamoring for independence. The country also has to contend with instability in neighboring Central African Republic.

In addition, Cameroon faces high unemployment, and many other national challenges. Currently, the nation hosts over half a million refugees, and the European Commission estimates that around 4 million people in Cameroon need humanitarian assistance.

Angeline Fua, a 32-year-old pharmacist, says her desire to leave Cameroon increases daily because her salary is way below what other pharmacists earn abroad.

"As a pharmacist, they pay you 80,000 CFA francs ($132, €121). Meanwhile, in other countries like Canada and the United States, you hear of people being paid 500,000 CFA francs and above," Fua told DW, as she complained about the rising cost of living.

"I am a mother. I should take care of my children, pay their fees; I have my plans, and projects, but with what we earn in Cameroon, it is really not possible."

A young internally displaced Cameroonian woman prepares greens outside a mud house.
Boko Haram's attacks have displaced many people in Cameroon's northern frontierImage: Saabi Jeakespier/AA/picture alliance

Europe closing doors on emigrants

Kennedy says traditional European destinations have closed their doors to would-be immigrants. "Going to Germany, France or Belgium to study is a nightmare," Tumenta noted, stressing that many Cameroonians now prefer North America. He added that the "best young brains" are leaving Cameroon.

"We have seen an aggressive advertisement coming up in the last few years from Canada and the United States, and this has been done through a very appeasing approach," Kennedy said. "You don't see Canadians advertising study in Canada, but you see Cameroonians that have made their life, they now open an agency back in Cameroon facilitating legal migration to Canada."

Canada has also specifically targeted francophone Africans to work in its French-speaking province of Quebec. And with respect to the US, Cameroon said 2023 saw a 70% increase in people applying for the US Diversity Visa Lottery, also known as the Green Card Lottery, which awards immigrant visas.

A checkpoint with the STOP traffic sign and another sign of European Union.
The European Union, a favorite destination for African migrants, has tightened its migration lawsImage: DesignIt/Zoonar/picture alliance

Sending money from abroad

African migrants remit billions of dollars to support their families and their investments. According to the World Bank, remittance flows to sub-Saharan Africa stood at a staggering $54 billion in 2023.

Kennedy said that remittances play a vital role not only in the development of the economy but also in democratization processes in Africa. "When the diasporas gain knowledge, they are capable of supporting their families, not just in money, but also ethical values schemes and the democratic principles," Temunta said.  

This aspect has also been supported through development projects by Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Cameroon, Ghana and Kenya, all of which have sizable diasporas in Europe. 

"Many Africans have an umbilical cord to their families that is more than just the ruling elite that most often is corrupt," Kennedy said, adding that Cameroonians in the diaspora don't care about [President] Paul Biya. "They're interested in the livelihood of their family."

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu