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Is it a Brain Drain or a Brain Exchange?
Re-examining the Migration Issue

Lomarsh Roopnarine PhD
(October 2005)

In spite of an unknown number of return migrants, migration in the Caribbean has been predominately outward. Indeed, the Caribbean has become a net exporter of people. Over the past 40 years, about 6 million Caribbean nationals have migrated to the North America and Europe, while some 500,000 have migrated within the Caribbean. Why do Caribbean people migrate? The reason for this migration is multi-faceted and complex. Nonetheless, there appears to be five broad reasons or causes as to why there has been a mass movement of Caribbean nationals to various enclaves. They are as follow:

Pull Factors: As the economies of core countries develop, there is a need for labor – skilled and unskilled – which is subsequently recruited from countries in the periphery. Various mechanisms, including work permits, are put in place to attract workers.

Push Factors: Long-term deteriorating conditions (unemployment, instability, victimization) and the opportunities for a better quality of life in the sending countries encourage migration.

Relative Deprivation: Feelings of deprivation arising from racial, social and economic inequities in sending countries.

Networking and Linkages: Connection between potential migrants and their destination through networking and linkages such as information on jobs, life in the receiving countries, and modes of entry.

The Iron Law of Labor Migration:
othing more is permanent than temporary workers; no immigration laws or policies will stop migration. Migrants will enter through the front (legally), middle (manipulating the immigration laws) or back door (illegally).

Researchers have long underlined the concept that when migration occurs, as in the case of the Caribbean, the sending countries suffer from a brain drain and the receiving countries benefit from a brain gain. Recent evidence, however, suggests that this concept does not adequately explain the movement of Caribbean nationals to North America and Europe (extra-regional migration) and within the Caribbean (intra-regional). Certainly only a small percentage of Caribbean migrants return home – whether temporary or permanently – but interestingly, this very link with their homeland often results in skill exchanges and remittances. The economic impact of emigration on the Caribbean economy is impressive. One Caribbean person abroad supports two to four persons in the Caribbean and, in some cases, remittances exceed levels of official development assistance and foreign investment. Deputy Director at the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), Sharon O’Regan states that in 2002 in some countries like the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Trinidad, for example, remittances were recorded at $US1,935,000,000, $US120,000,000 $US50,000,000, respectively.1 Author Keith Nurse (2004) notes that an estimated $US 5 billion in remittances were sent to the Caribbean in 2002.2 Certainly, this is not a brain drain when juxtaposed with the idea that the retention of skills in the Caribbean, for most part, is to generate revenues and to have a viable economy.

Furthermore, intra-Caribbean migration is different from extra-regional migration, and so it would be a misnomer to group them together. Intra-Caribbean migration does not simply represent a permanent loss and gain in human capital but it is a foundation for producing a myriad of positive socio-economic effects in the past and present locations. The similar historical experience with slavery and indenture within the Caribbean allows a more fluid interaction in terms of adjustment and settlement. Moreover, Caribbean people are familiar with the race and class structure of other Caribbean countries, which makes the pursuit of personal and economic endeavors less tenable. It is therefore possible to argue that Caribbean intra-migration is related more to the brain exchange model of migration. Both the sending as well as the receiving societies within the Caribbean do not only exchange skills, ideas and remittances but they also benefit from migration, although not equally. Nonetheless, beneath the extra and intra-regional models of migration some common features remain such as bouts of discrimination in the Caribbean as well as in North America and Europe. As a result of these migratory patterns, the universality of migrants’ basic rights requires sounder policies to protect and guarantee the fair treatment of non-national immigrants.

O’ Regan, Sharon (2002). “Transnationalism and the Emigration Exodus.” Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL)
Nurse, Keith. 2004. “Migration and Development in the Caribbean.” Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL)

Lomarsh Roopnarine is Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix.
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