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Reverse brain drain: Economic shifts lure migrants home

The tide of brain drain – from developing countries to industrialized nations – has turned. Human capital is returning home to Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, while some European professionals squeezed by the recession, turn toward developing countries for advancement.

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Even poorer countries of the European Union, which dealt with a sudden drain to the more developed countries when they joined the Union, are hoping that the financial crisis will position them to draw their lost migrants back. In 2004, with Polish accession to the EU, college graduates from Warsaw to Krakow and rural lands in between flocked to Ireland and England, often finding themselves with no other choices than to work as plumbers or waiters. Now, a steady trickle – especially of high-skilled executives – is returning to cash in on the potential of post-communist Poland, and there is a "circulatory" population of mobile middle-class migrants to and from European nations.

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Becoming a recipient of brain gain implies new responsibilities that often cause growing pains, such as preventing human rights abuses of illegal workers or discouraging new xenophobic discourse. The Brazilian government estimates that fully half of the 4 million nationals living abroad in 2005 have returned home. Many of them are unskilled workers pushed home by harsher immigration rules and the stagnant job market in the US. And they've been joined by tens of thousands of low-skilled Bolivian and Paraguayan workers drawn by Brazil's growth.

But Brazil, China, Poland, Kenya, and other traditional exporters of human capital have less pain than gain as destinations because the flows create a positive ripple effect, says Vivek Wadhwa, author of the new book "The Immigrant Exodus," which focuses on Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs leaving the US for home. "They start building communities," he says. "It makes it easier for other people to go back."

Benefits are not just measured in the individuals' skills or number of jobs generated but also in a host of ancillary benefits.

"When you've lived in an OECD country and you see how things work there, I would think you become less tolerant of a corruption, of things that don't work, inefficiency, people sitting on their thumbs," says Georges Lemaitre, an expert on workforce migration at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "You want to see your own country with much more available services and with the efficiency that you are used to."

Such benefits, he adds, could become a global pattern in coming years, both from new migration and reverse migration.

In the meantime, those countries losing their allure could also lose their competitive edge.

"It is already costing America economic growth. Over time you will see fewer and fewer start-ups in America and more in Asia and Latin America," says Mr. Papademetriou. "The US has never seen an exodus before. It takes pride in being a land of immigrants, not a land of emigrants."


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