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Chapter 1 The Good, The Bad, The Promising:
Migration in the 21st Century

A World on the Move

Unequal Opportunities in a Globalizing World

Between a Rock and a Hard Place:Irregular Migration

Forced Migration: Refugees and Asylum-seekers

Harnessing Hope: International Migration, Remittances and Developent

Burden or Boon? Impact on Receiving Countries

Migrant Health

Beyond Difference: Living with Diversity

Unequal Opportunities in a Globalizing World

Growing interdependence between countries, coupled with widening inequalities, will probably lead to the further intensification of international movements. In the "worldwide scramble for skills",(15) advanced countries are increasingly tapping a larger pool of highly mobile labour.(16) At the same time, if their economies are to continue to grow, developed countries will require more migrants to undertake low-paying work that their native counterparts are unable or unwilling to do–particularly at the low wages and working conditions offered.

These jobs–known as the four Ds: dirty, difficult, demeaning and dangerous(17)–include garbage collection, street cleaning, construction, mining, sex work, etc.(18) Other occupations, which local workers may or may not shun, are seasonal and require a complement of foreign workers.(19) At the other end of the scale, the demand for highly skilled professionals in technological, scientific, managerial or administrative activities is also increasing.(20) Most rich countries are open to, and indeed encourage, immigration at the top end of the skill range but are ambiguous or negative about their needs at the lower range.


Migrants tend to possess certain demographic and socio-economic characteristics in terms of age, sex, education, occupational category or willingness to face risks. These factors differentiate them from the rest of the population in their communities of origin.(21) Two trends stand out: on the receiving side, the demand for labour at both ends of the occupational spectrum (i.e., highly skilled and low-skilled)(22) and, despite the dearth of age-disaggregated data, the fact that a significant proportion of migrants are aged 15 to 30 years.(23) Migrant selectivity, in turn, has a direct impact on who benefits and what those benefits will be, both in origin and destination communities.

It is widely believed that most migrants come from the poorest populations. This is incorrect.(24) In fact, emigrants are usually better educated than those left behind.(25) The vast majority en route to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, for example, possess a secondary (high school) education or higher.(26) With the exception of short-distance movements across borders (i.e., people migrating from Mexico and Central America to the US, or Turks to Western Europe), migrants generally need access to information and some sort of bankroll (as much as US$60,000 for Chinese migrants(27)) in order to cross borders-whether legally or illegally.


The demand for skilled workers can result in the emigration of a substantial number of skilled workers from source countries. This fact is at the root of one of the major debates surrounding international migration and can represent a significant loss for developing countries. Countries spend considerable resources training highly skilled professionals: When they leave, the sending country loses both emigrant skills as well as its initial investment.

Concern with skills depletion is nothing new, but global competition is driving countries to recruit more highly skilled migrant workers in order to maintain and increase their economic edge. As a result, researchers estimate that between a third and half of the developing world's science and technology personnel now live in the developed world.(28) However, a World Bank study concludes that for "22 of the 33 countries in which educational attainment data can be estimated, less than 10 percent of the best educated (tertiary-educated) population of labour-exporting countries has migrated."(29)

What is a godsend for the developed world, however, can be devastating for more impoverished countries. Perhaps nowhere is the effect of "brain drain" more acutely felt than in the already fragile health systems of developing countries.(30) While sub-Saharan Africa is now staggering under the highest infectious disease burden in the world (25 per cent), it retains only 1.3 per cent of the world's health-care practitioners (see Figure 3).(31) In some countries, the supply of nurses and doctors has been severely depleted.(32) Aggressive recruitment policies on the part of developed countries seeking to address skills shortages in their own health workforces are partly responsible.(33)

Recent World Health Organization (WHO) surveys show that the intention to migrate is especially high among health workers living in regions hit hardest with HIV/AIDS-68 per cent in Zimbabwe and 26 per cent in Uganda.(34) The Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) reports that more Malawian doctors are currently practicing in the northern English city of Manchester than in the whole of Malawi. Only 50 out of the 600 doctors trained since independence are still practicing in Zambia.(35)

Although worrying, these types of situations do not tell the whole story. Some researchers argue that in order for the brain drain to be detrimental, two conditions must prevail: the loss of a high proportion of a country's total educated population and adverse economic consequences. Researchers observe that small, less-developed countries, particularly in Africa and in the Caribbean, are most likely to suffer the effects of brain drain.(36) For example, in 2000, over 70 per cent of the highly educated population of Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were living in OECD countries.(37)

Direct and indirect impacts (feedback effects) also need to be separated out in order to judge the overall effect of emigration. Direct economic impacts are likely to be adverse: The loss of human capital and lower levels of education in the remaining population can retard economic growth and stall efforts to reduce poverty. However, several positive indirect impacts have also been identified.(38) Indeed, the World Bank maintains that, despite the fact that developing countries are increasingly concerned about "brain drain", losses may be more than offset by remittances and increased trade and investment.(39) Put more simply, remittance income can spur consumption in the home country and can be used to invest in businesses.

Figure 2: The 20 countries or areas with the highest numbers of international migrants, 2005

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Source: UN Poplation Division. "Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2005 Revision"
(POP/DB/IG/Rev.2005/DOC), p.11.


Available research does not lead to a simple conclusion: Benefits can only be determined according to each specific case.(40) Moreover, when highly trained people find no outlet for their profession at home, neither the person nor the country benefits, and the end result may be "brain waste."(41)

Altogether, the idea of "brain drain" tells only part of the story concerning the overall impact of migration on an economy or society. Consequently, the intuitive policy response–to plug the drain–will likely be ineffective. Recent research promotes the idea of "optimal brain drain"–that is, that an increase in the emigration of skilled migrants may actually benefit the source country in some cases.(42) Lessons suggested by an analysis of Taiwan, Province of China (where brain drain was eventually transformed into gain), include: subsidize education only up to the level actually demanded by the national economy; use migration as a "brain reserve" in terms of advice and returning skills; support diaspora networking and recruitment; and build a critical mass of returnees.(43)

There are also practical reasons why attempts to restrict mobility may simply not work. Many migrants will find ways around recruitment bans. Furthermore, policies that have attempted to curb migration have historically met with little success. Efforts to limit mobility from particular countries could also end up inhibiting development. Indeed, those policies most likely to be effective are those that accept existing trends rather than seeking to reverse them.(44) The International Organization for Migration (IOM),(45) the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC)(46) and the Global Commission all support this view.(47)

Figure 3: Africa's Health-care Crisis

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Source: World Health Organization. 2004. "Addressing Africa's Health Workforce Crisis: An Avenue of Action." Paper prepared for the High-Level Forum on MDG's, Abuja.