Abstract: The theory of ‘human capital flight’, or ‘brain drain’, was developed in the 1950s, after it was seen that large numbers of scientists from the UK and Europe were migrating to America. Since the 1970s, however, the concept has largely been defined as the large migration of highly skilled workers and professionals around the globe. International and internal migration rely upon ‘pull’ (economic growth, social security, political stability) and ‘push’ factors (war, instability, conflict, economic stagnation, environmental disasters) that determine whether people migrate and to which states they move. One way to analyse the flight of human capital is through the states' social policies that attract the most migrants and how they both react.
Bottom-line-up-front: While there is no systemic evidence that welfare states contribute the sole major pull factor in international migration, especially those with restrictive welfare social policies, it is much more conclusive when viewing other factors like economic growth and political stability. When these are combined with major ‘push’ factors such as instability, and stagnant economic growth, they are much more significant in attracting migrants away from their countries of origin.
Problem statement: How to analyse the reasons for the flight of human capital, and how regions attempt to mitigate their “brain drain”?
So what?: With the rise of globalisation taking the form of dual citizenship, cheaper transport links, and interconnected banking systems, the process of migration can significantly be for the benefit of both the host and origin nations. Social policies and government/political discourses are the main obstacles in enabling the benefits of migration, as seen with increasing hostility surrounding asylum and immigration in Western Europe and America.
When looking internationally at the trends of migration, we can see that contrary to the dominant Western media sources and political discourses, most migration actually occurs within Asia. Developing nations, such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have very high numbers of citizens within the Arab states of the Middle East: an estimated 32 million workers in 2017. In some nations, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, over 80% of the nation's population are foreign nationals.
A prevalent social policy practice is to restrict the privileges of citizenship, such as public welfare schemes or naturalisation, to reduce migration. Consequently, according to the International Labour Organisation, many of these migrants are subjected to poor working conditions, dangerous health and safety standards, restricted access to state institutions like justice, and the inability of workers to bargain as a collective. As well as these restrictive measures, the number of migrant workers who die in the Middle East also provides grounds for concern. Since 2014, over 34,000 Indian migrant workers have died in Gulf due to poor conditions.
Such harsh treatment of migrants highlights both the inability of states to ‘understand’ their migrant populations, and worryingly their ulterior intentions to dissuade from further migration through their treatment, or even their attempts to make them return by showing that life for non-citizens and citizens will never be the same. A vast number of these workers mainly migrate not only due to economic ‘pull’ factors, but as well as cultural similarities, like faith, or linguistics. Another important fact is that many of these migrants do not stay indefinitely and are often referred to as circular or return migrants, who travel seasonally for work and then go back home. These workers do not posit a significant ‘brain drain’ to their nations of origin but manifest as short-term labour shortages. However, them returning with more experience than they left with, they often can benefit their nations. This circular migration is economically beneficial for the host nation and the nation of origin, both of whom gain from this human capital transaction.
A vast number of these workers mainly migrate not only due to economic ‘pull’ factors, but as well as cultural similarities, like faith, or linguistics. Another important fact is that many of these migrants do not stay indefinitely and are often referred to as circular or return migrants, who travel seasonally for work and then go back home.
European states often have similar restrictive social policies in areas like welfare for migrants (for example, The Linking Act of 1998, Netherlands). It must be stated that migrants often need high levels of social capital, technology, and money to move across borders, meaning that often it is not the very poor who are migrating, but the lower middle classes. Migration policy in many states receiving migrants also has a preference towards highly-educated individuals, making the financial and social cost of migrating cheaper. Therefore, the discourse dominating Europe, that migrants often solely arrive for social security, often called ‘benefit tourism’ or ‘welfare migration’, is quite antiquated and inadequately framed, compared to more reasonable pull factors like economic opportunities, or political stability. Therefore, as this migration is not temporary, it is much more of an ‘example’ of human capital flight for the nations of origin. However, in many ways, while migrants choose jobs that are a lot less attractive to natives of the country – therefore plugging an economic gap – a considerable loss for the host country is the level of capital that leaves annually due to remittances. In 2014, it is estimated that international migrants sent over USD 443 billion to low-income nations, whereas in the same year, the worlds wealthiest nations sent USD 135 billion to developing nations in aid and development. While remittances can do much good, such as increasing education, increasing gender equality, helping with care/support. It must also be stated that due to the social-economic backgrounds of the migrants, as considered before, they often reproduce class inequality, increasing the class gap between the middle-classes and working-classes in the nations of origin.
We can see that the countries of origin can often benefit financially in the face of human capital flight. Bangladesh, for example, received USD 2 billion from citizens abroad. In fact, that made it its 2nd largest source of foreign revenue in 2005. In comparison, in April 2021, remittance levels reached their highest monthly rate ever for Pakistan, USD 2.8 Billion, firstly from Arab states and then Western European states and America. While these nations have lost human resources as a result of migration, the migrants themselves are often still very attached to their origin countries. It can be said that the restrictiveness of host nations’ social policies towards asylum and residence status facilitates migrants transferring money home in order to look after their families, rather than spending their money, with their family, in the host nation.
Internal (European/EU) Migration
Due to the structural and cooperative nature of the European Union, it is much easier to see potential areas of human flight capital and which social policies are put into place in order to combat possible brain drains in regions of the EU. In 2017, out of a population of 511 million citizens, 17 million moved within the borders of the EU – Germany taking 33%, and Britain taking 20% of these migrants. The largest contingent, 576,300 highly-educated people, came from Poland. Post-Brexit however, Britain would still be likely to receive high levels of skilled migration due to significant employment pull factors, such as in the financial sector in London. Yet, the number of those who migrate will decline due to the effort included in moving, at least from the EU, compared with similar opportunities given by nations such as Germany or France.
Post-Brexit however, Britain would still be likely to receive high levels of skilled migration due to significant employment pull factors, such as in the financial sector in London.
Population loss, at a regional level in the EU, occurs mainly in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states), Greece, Finland, Portugal, Spain, and some regions of Italy and France. This is primarily due to a natural population decline, where death rates are higher than birth rates (Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania). Meanwhile, population loss by negative net migration occurs in states like Croatia, Latvia, and Lithuania. For states like Germany, whose population had been in decline for some time, their social policy to accept high levels of migrants has been very beneficial both in the short- and long-term economically. However, interestingly, a social policy plan recently developed has allowed asylum seekers who feel that they have not ‘succeeded’ in their new lives in Germany to travel back to their countries of origin with 1,200 Euros. This dual social policy allows Germany both to secure a new generation of workers, and therefore decrease the unequally weighted population scale (tipped in favour of the elderly) and allow for long-term economic growth, as well as relieving pressures on the welfare state, for a low, short-term economic hit. Other states, however, oppose methods like this and prefer more nationalistic social policies. To mitigate the decline in population, Hungary, under Victor Orban, has implemented a number of social policies in order to promote an increase in the birthrate. Including that – only native – married couples can receive 30,000 Euros if they have three children or more, other policies include tax breaks and loan forgiveness after having children too. However, social policies, such as these, misunderstand many of the core reasons why population growth is not occurring. This could be due to political instability or economic stagnation, meaning that families and couples are unwilling to have children. Opening up to international or even internal European migrants allows for more manageable population and economic growth than spending current capital on promoting future generations with minimal chances of success.
While those are rather national social policies, policies at regional levels can help human capital flight and a brain drain at more local levels. Chemnitz zieht an! (Chemnitz is Booming!) is a regional social policy in the German city of Chemnitz, with a population of 241,705. In 2008, the programme began to help businesses in the area find specialists. It aimed at creating an effective bridge to connect graduates in the area with regional businesses and created a platform for exchanging information and experience between Education Agencies, Employment Agencies, and Chemnitz’s Chambers and Businesses, not found anywhere else in Germany. The platform also gives information to specialists who have moved away from Chemnitz and are considering returning. Currently, 28 leading companies use the platform, with the portal accessed more than 5 million times, with over 350,000 visitors – half of which return. Since 2009, Chemnitz has also been in a positive net migration growth to the city. We can see here that forming connections between education and business can reinvigorate these regions in areas with high human capital flight.
Another anti-brain drain social policy is the Austrian Salzburg Model for the regions of, Pinzgau, Pongau and Lungau. With a population of 184,000, initiatives were set up to combat against a brain drain of the youth, migrating for more urban lifestyles, and more worryingly with an increasing elderly population in the regions too. Firstly, the local government wanted to improve the quality of living in the region, providing more affordable housing and housing for young families in particular. Secondly, they attempted to improve the region's labour market conditions by better matching educational courses to local business demand. A programme was also set up, called ‘Welcome-Service-Pinzgau’, which talked to young professionals in the region and invited those back who had left, providing professional support to look for: childcare, housing, and other services. Overall, a decline was seen in 2017 and onwards in net migrations from the region.
With a population of 184,000, initiatives were set up to combat against a brain drain of the youth, migrating for more urban lifestyles, and more worryingly with an increasing elderly population in the regions too.
While there is no systemic evidence that welfare states contribute the sole major pull factor in international migration, especially with restrictive welfare social policies. It is much more conclusive when viewing other factors like economic growth and political stability, combined with major ‘push’ factors such as instability, and stagnant economic growth, as much more significant in attracting migrants away from their countries of origin. However, human capital flight, or ‘brain drain’, does not necessarily maintain the negative connotations from the 1970s, by moving to alternative definitions, such as ‘professional mobility’, or ‘brain circulation/gain’. This, to some extent, is true - the movement of workers around the world increases globalisation and international capital flows. Origin countries, mainly those who are developing nations, gain significant sums of money through remittances, while their citizens are increasingly educated and experienced.
However, human capital flight, or ‘brain drain’, does not necessarily maintain the negative connotations from the 1970s, by moving to alternative definitions, such as ‘professional mobility’, or ‘brain circulation/gain’.
While some nations’ social policies have quickly adapted to a more globalised world, beneficial for them as a host country and the origin countries, it is very important to note that nations must promote multiculturalism and tolerance amongst their communities and institutions. Only this allows for reciprocal economic and social/political benefits due to migration. Other nations such as Britain – through Brexit – are suffering the beginning of a brain drain, where companies and individuals are looking to Europe as an alternative place of residence. Britain is also planning for more restrictive points-based migration policies, that would give priority to highly-educated individuals. However, lack of political stability/competence, such as the recent testimony given by Dominic Cummings, a senior aid to the Prime Minister, has caused internal political instability – through slumping opinion polls yet has had little movement on the international stage and therefore will not impact on people’s decisions to migrate to the UK, limited cooperation with the European Union, and technical/manual employment opportunities moving out of the country, all decrease the possible pull factors of migration to the UK.
On the other hand, social trends importantly impact the individual’s choice to migrate, perhaps more than political issues. For example, the rise of racism in post-Brexit Britain may be more of an obstacle for the UK’s pull factors, than political crises. Social movements also have an intersectional impact, rising racism would deter both working-class manual labourers, and the middle-class intelligentsia from migrating, perhaps even starting a brain drain in Britain, and other European states, of those escaping a hostile atmosphere. Yet the political elite of Britain must play into what will grant them more votes, therefore, it is in their interest to create policies that are built on the will of the electorate. Therefore, by deconstructing Brexit, on the basis of immigration and multiculturalism, for example, we can see that recent social policy trends, such as tighter immigration controls, follow in combatting this and creating an institutional behaviour of anti-immigration and being suspect of diversity and multiculturalism. While still maintaining some migration levels from culturally-linked nations, it will decrease compared to other host nations with more competitive migration policies. Creating hostile environments for migrants, as seen in some European nations, will also lead to further human capital flight, and the social exclusion of immigrant communities within the host nation, leading to economic decline and domestic political instability.
While still maintaining some migration levels from culturally-linked nations, it will decrease compared to other host nations with more competitive migration policies.
Overall, prevailing discourses portray human capital flight as an overwhelmingly negative prospect. However, with the rise of globalisation taking the form of dual citizenship, cheaper transport links, and interconnected banking systems, the process of migration can significantly be for the benefit of both the host and origin nations. Social policies and government/political discourses are the main obstacles in enabling the benefits of migration, as seen with increasing hostility surrounding asylum and immigration in Western Europe and America. However, we can see significant economic, social, and political benefits of new dynamic social policies towards migration in nations like Germany. We can also see that anti-human capital flight social policies work by integrating the financial and educational sectors to work together to provide opportunities, limiting the ‘brain drain’ of certain regions, as well as nations as a whole.
Muhammad Irfan is an undergraduate student, currently studying Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Bath, UK. His research interests include contemporary international social policy and sociological theory – and is looking for a future career in policymaking, with this being his first academic publication. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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