Does Emigration of Highly-Skilled Migrants Hurt the Home Country?

Liberals have long fought for the rights of immigrants. Businesses have long fought for the right of people to immigrate. It’s a crucial distinction.

This quote is from Paul Collier, world known academic, and taken out of his latest entry on the New York Times. In it, Paul Collier repeats his old argument – high rate of immigration of the highly-skilled from poor countries is hurting these countries’ economy and development – but this time, directing it as a critic of Mark Zuckerberg’s lobby group communications. I here below briefly explain and summarise Paul Collier theory and article, for the fact that it goes against the general politically correct and accepted idea that highly skilled immigration is a good thing; and that in my opinion, this valid critic should be more widely known.

The brain-drain effect. Artwork by Andy Martin
The brain-drain effect. Artwork by Andy Martin

What’s Paul Collier’s saying?

With the help of evidence from the past, Mr Collier argues that the current lobby for a US immigration reform is eventually a bad news for poorer societies. His theory is simple: if the reform passes, meaning more visas and opportunities for highly skilled migrants in the US, poor countries will suffer from the loss of its engineers and “fairy god-mothers”*.

Paul Collier’s argument can be easily misread. He is not against immigration: emigration of the elite is not a bad thing per se; as long as its proportion stays reasonable. Emigration brings accelerated development and democratisation when the immigrant Elite decides to come back home. India and China are his selected examples. However, a too high rate of emigration from the highly-skilled will likely cause the poor country to be short of valuable skills, and worse will lessen the number of these fairy-mothers.

As such, Paul Collier’s article can be read as an attempt to ask policy-makers to be mindful when writing the immigration reform; and not to succumb to strategic rhetoric. Immigration reform has to be thought systematically, with in mind the impact it can have on poor countries’ development.

Yet if they (i.e. highly-skilled migrants) have acquired permanent residence they are reluctant to return.

This said, Paul Collier do acknowledge that large emigration flows are often associated with war and poverty, and as such advocates for the right of Asylum to anyone fleeing them. However, according to him refuge should not mean providing residency to these refugees. He, thus, draws the argument that the only refugees that make it far in a secure foreign country are often part of the rich elite, the one the country of origin mostly need post-meltdown. It is the reason why it is even more important for policy makers to be careful of not mixing right of refuge and right of residence.

Overall, Paul Collier advocates for sensible immigration policies that help the fairy-god mothers*, the catalyst of economic and political change in the country of origin, to go back.

What ideas to take away?

I personally don’t know many countries doing such immigration policies. It seems that immigration policies are always thought from the inward perspective: what is in it for my country and national economic development? Very rarely is immigration from rich countries thought in terms of what is in it for the countries of origin. Unlike in business where you always try to strike a win-win deal (or so).

Of course, refugees and asylum seekers specific immigration status are such policies, taking care of individuals that unluckily found themselves fleeing their country, and that the country of destination did not choose. So far, I can only think of one french visa that rewards talented individuals with a visa for France under the condition that the individual promotes economic development for both countries and goes back to the home country after 6 years. I would be interested to know if such visa works. If you have any idea or have heard of such visa, please do share :)!

Background information

Currently teaching economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, advisor at both the IMF and the World Bank, Paul Collier is the author of The Bottom Billion and most recently “Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World.” His research is focused on the causes and consequences of civil war; the effects of aid and the problems of democracy in low-income and natural-resources rich societies.

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