ISSN 2330-717X

Exiled ‘Brains’ Under-Employed


At the start of the 2000s, Latin-American countries experienced a huge wave of emigration among engineers, researchers and other higher education graduates. This phenomenon is well-known, referred to as the ‘brain drain’. Three million people emigrated, largely to Spain and the United States. Between 2000 and 2006, the proportion of Latin-Americans travelling abroad doubled, reaching up to 50% for graduates in the Caribbean.

These departures have been linked to development problems in the countries of origin(2). However, as revealed by data from the new MICAL observatory(1), this exodus also represents a general loss of knowledge: these intellectual and technical elites are often under-employed in their host countries. Until now, their migrations were poorly documented, due to a lack of precise, reliable or current data. This diaspora observatory, financed by the European Commission and coordinated by IRD researchers(1), enables a better understanding and monitoring, from day to day, of the complex mobilities that are affecting or spreading through Latin America. As such, it aims to shed light on the decisions to be made in this field by all participating actors, from migrants to the authorities, including civil organisations.

A proven ‘brain drain’

Although there were variations between countries, the proportion of Latin-American scientists and researchers settled abroad seemed to be moderate globally at the start of the 2000s. However, between 2000 and 2006, the expatriation rates(3) for qualified personnel grew considerably, rising from 5% of all graduates to levels between 10 and 20% in South America. In Central America and the Caribbean, migrants made up 17% and 43% respectively of these elites in 2000. Six years later, this proportion ranged between 20 and over 50% in the same area. The smallest, insular countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Uruguay and Paraguay – demonstrated the highest likelihood of exile. Their exposure to migratory dynamics is probably partially due to their dependence on foreign countries. In comparison, global expatriation rates for all migrants together only rose slightly during these six years in Latin America.

Wasted talent

During the same period, a general loss of skills, properly known as a ‘brain waste’, also increased. Indeed, the percentage of migrants employed in jobs for which they were over-qualified rose considerably. This was the case for three quarters of Bolivian, Ecuadorian or Dominican graduate migrants.

The qualified expatriates certainly have lower rates of unemployment than their unqualified compatriots. But the inequality between skill level and that required in the jobs obtained in the host nation reveals that the increased employability is only at the expense of a devalued qualification.

Women affected the most

Globally, unemployment affects one tenth of the active migrant population, with a slightly higher rate among women compared with men. This difference increases noticeably when degrees are included: among people with higher qualifications, the levels of inactivity and unemployment are greater for women than for men. Whereas higher management and craftsmen are more often male, women are overrepresented in the educational sector, office work and sales, in addition to the unqualified sector.

This research offers a new perspective on the graduate diaspora, and has revealed little known aspects. The observatory has also enabled a new trend to be observed, caused by the economic crisis currently affecting countries like Spain. Returning migrants are being recorded in increasing numbers – as is emigration by Spanish and Portuguese nationals – to new eldorados in emerging Latin-American nations such as Brazil. The observation and interpretation of these phenomena required the full attention of the partners coordinating with MICAL.

Notes :

1) () The MICAL observatory (Migration internationale des diasporas et des professionnels latino-américains) results from the CIDESAL project, conducted in partnership with the CNRS, the Centro Redes in Argentina, the University of the Republic and the Polo Mercosur foundation in Uruguay, the Colombian ministry of foreign affairs and the International Organization for Migration.

2) Economic, social and cultural development in a country specifically depends on the trained human workforce available.

3) The expatriation rate represents the number of expatriates compared to the total population of that country.

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