UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
Yaounde: Highly qualified Cameroonian graduates are leaving for Europe and North Africa in unprecedented numbers, and unlike in the past no longer feel compelled to return, starving the professional classes of qualified workers, according to experts.
"We have shifted from having a spirit of national solidarity to one of individualism," said a university student. "It used to be inconceivable that a student would leave for abroad and not return to apply their skills to serve their country, but that is no longer the case."
As many as 83 percent of 15-35 year olds said they planned to leave the country in a 2007 study by the non-governmental organisation, Association for the Fight against Illegal Immigration, (ALCEC), which works in the capital, Yaoundé.
Educated driven to leave
According to public sector workers and emigration experts, it is the most educated who leave. "Of the 75 students in my year at medical school about fifty went abroad to pursue their studies and specialise, and none of them then returned. They are all practicing in Europe or America now," a doctor at the ministry of health in Yaoundé, who asked to go unnamed, told IRIN.
Some 42 percent of Cameroonian immigrants identified in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries were considered to be "highly qualified." This compares to just 23 percent of Senegalese emigrants in a 2004 study.
And the number of students leaving Cameroon continues to rise - in France alone student numbers increased by 40 percent in eight years, according to Jacques Nkene, professor of international relations at Yaoundé II university.
Public services are suffering as a result. In one sector alone - the medical profession - four-fifths of the country's 5,000 qualified physicians have emigrated to find work abroad, leaving behind just one doctor for every 30,000 inhabitants in the country, according to the National Order of Physicians.
Cameroonian students leave for the simple reason that they cannot find stable paid work upon graduating, according to Nkene. "Cameroonian universities produce up to 5,000 graduates per year and many of them will be unable to find employment commensurate with their training," he pointed out.
The Cameroonian economy has been unstable for years - the government faced bankruptcy in 1993 and the devaluation of its currency, the West African CFA in 1994, leading to empty state coffers. This prompted the government to slash the salaries of public sector workers by as much as 70 percent.
According to Nkene, the average public sector worker salary at US$165 a month is not enough to live on.
The public sector is also defined by clientelism and corruption, said Paul, a student at Yaoundé II university, automatically barring many from the job market whether qualified or not. "People leave Cameroon because they hope that elsewhere recruitment procedures will be fairer."
Another student, Francis, 29, agrees. "Here there is small elite that has been in power for over 20 years and it blocks everything... I wanted to become a policeman but here if you have no money or connections, your application will be rejected." He became a scooter-taxi driver instead.
The vast majority of these emigrants end up in Europe or North Africa according to Emile Bomba who works at ALCEC. The principal route is from Cameroon through Chad and Libya ending up in Italy or France, while the second routes starts in Cameroon going through Nigeria and Niger through to Algeria, Morocco and Libya.
And Cameroonians are employing increasingly risky measures to get away. Of those interviewed by ALCEC, 17 percent said they were willing to attempt illegal crossings if their visas were rejected.
Destination governments do their best to warn youths, using simple tactics. An awareness raising campaign run by the European Union imparted the simple message, "Go to Europe prepared" on posters throughout the capital. While more and more NGOs are sprouting up to try to address the problem.
Addressing the problem
For the staff at ALCEC it's crucial to dissuade students from considering the journey at all. They work with students' parents and teachers to try to convince them to stay. And they have a receptive audience - 68 percent of interviewees told ALCEC they would prefer to find a well-paid job in Cameroon than spend their savings travelling abroad.
But too often they feel they have no choice.
"There is an eternal dilemma for youths," said Bomba. "You do not want to leave - but what else does the government propose?" Until the economic situation shows better prospects, the exodus will continue, he said.