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Reverse brain drain pulls Brazilians home, and Europeans with them

Reverse brain drain means twofold "brain gain" for Brazil as the global recession pulls native Brazilians home and, with them, a wave of European migrants leaving their austerity stricken homelands.

By Staff writer / October 21, 2012

The 'brain gain' is twofold as Brazil pulls and Europe pushes a wave of migrants.

Rio de Janeiro

When school friends Alessandra Orofino and Miguel Lago were growing up here in the 1990s, their hometown wasn't where they envisioned getting an auspicious start to their futures. It was depressed, dirty, and violent. So like thousands of Brazilians with means, they headed abroad for college – both to Europe, and she, later, to the United States.

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"When I left, people said, 'You are never going to come back,' " says Ms. Orofino, who graduated from Columbia University in New York City.

Both friends – like many immigrants around the globe – figured they'd have careers abroad, returning home much later. They were part of the classic brain drain in which human capital flows from developing to developed nations.

But as they began college in the mid-2000s, the Brazilian economy was starting to boom, with a rising middle – and consuming – class. Indeed, by 2009, when Rio won the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil was an economic magnet for investment and "brain gain" migration. It was no longer a place to flee.

Now, not only is the Brazilian diaspora reconsidering its exile, but educated Europeans, fleeing economic recession, are flocking here.

Orofino and Mr. Lago returned in 2011 and started a nongovernmental organization – Meu Rio (My Rio) – to foster citizen promotion of transparency and good government in this era of explosive and lucrative growth in Rio.

"I saw the way that France's public services work, [and] for the first time in my life I experienced what was possible," says Lago, who studied at Sciences Po in Paris. "I thought, we have to fight for that in Brazil."

As Meu Rio opened its doors, Portuguese engineer Francisco Cruz saw firms around him downsizing as projects dried up. So he left his job in Portugal to relocate in Rio, which was drawing up blueprints for stadiums, bridges, and tunnels.

It was "riskier to stay in Portugal with a job than to move to Brazil without one," says Mr. Cruz, who got his first employment interview on his second day here and within a month was on the job at a firm designing Rio's bus transit system for the Olympic Games. The firm now is bidding on an Olympic Park project.


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