Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The movement of skilled people from one country to another is one of the most hotly contested public policy questions today. Debates amongst politicians, academics and bureaucrats about the scale and character of skilled migration, and the policies required to address these movements, are taking place in countries throughout the world (Zweig and Changgui 1995; Odunsi 1996; Phillips 1996; Carrington and Detragiache 1998; Iredale 1998; Iqbal 1999). As the opportunities for skilled personnel to move increases with globalization and the shift to a service economy (Sassen 1988, 1998), as the costs of international travel decrease, and as the ability to communicate with other parts of the world becomes easier, it is likely that skilled migration itself will increase over the next few decades, magnifying its importance as a public policy issue.

Compared to the volume of unskilled and forced migration, the international movement of skilled people is still relatively small (Findlay 1995), but its social and economic relevance outweighs its numerical significance for a number of reasons, some imagined, some real. The loss of a country’s ‘best and brightest’ is seen not only as a loss of human resources but also as a general indicator of whether a country is a desirable place to live. Nothing conjures up the image of a country gone wrong like the belief that skilled people are leaving in droves: a public litmus test of sorts where citizens vote with their feet. If true, a skilled exodus heralds tougher times to come, as human and financial capital moves with skilled nationals.

Given the far-reaching social and economic implications of the so-called ‘brain drain’ it is not surprising that there has been much public and academic hyperbole on the matter. Political leaders declare emigrants unpatriotic and selfish, while the media make wild and unsubstantiated statements about the extent of emigration and the motivations for it. Southern Africa is no different in this respect. Skilled migration is currently a topic of hot debate in the region and it has attracted a wide range of claims and counter-claims, particularly in South Africa where the emigration of skilled nationals has generated considerable public attention during and since the demise of apartheid.