🔒 WORLDVIEW: The bitter truth about emigration

By Felicity Duncan

Reliable statistics on emigration are hard to come by in South Africa. As the government has pointed out, those who are leaving are under no obligation to inform the government of their plans. But anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the number is relatively high.

This is cause for plenty of lamentations among South Africans, including the highest echelons of government. And, of course, these lamenters are correct: the emigration of skilled workers, especially young ones, is a big cost to the country in the form of lost tax revenue, potential entrepreneurship, and skilled labour.

But coming up with a workable solution to the problem of emigration is a challenge.

You see, immigration and its twin, emigration, are as old as the idea of human locomotion. Our ancient African ancestors emigrated to Europe about 2 million years ago, and people have been on the move ever since. What’s more, our motivations for emigration haven’t changed much in 2 million years. People migrate to find a better life, to escape a bad environment, and sometimes simply because they want adventure.

If we ignore the venturesome, who move around on a whim, we are left with two big reasons for migration – the hope of something better elsewhere and the desire to get away from something bad (these are obviously not mutually exclusive). These desires will never go away, so migration will always be with us.

Today, however, this ancient human impulse is interacting in important ways with the modern nation-state.

For most of history, there were no nation-states, and for most of the centuries where there were nation-states, these states had little control of their borders. If a foreigner wanted to move somewhere, he or she would just pack up and go. There were barriers of language, of course, and the icy welcome you may find on the other side, but there were few bureaucratic barriers.

That has changed. Today, countries around the world have thrown up the barricades along their borders. Even historically migrant-friendly countries like the US make it very tough to move there legally.

As nation-states have improved their ability to restrict free movement, the idea of skilled emigration has emerged. This is the idea that states can pick and choose their migrants – they can select only the “best” potential migrants, with education, skills, and capital that will make them good residents (sadly for nation-states, they are not yet able to pick and choose their native-born citizens, although doubtless, this horror lies in our future).

Thus, many countries, from Australia to Canada to the US, make provision in the law for highly skilled young people to immigrate, while working hard to keep out those seen as less desirable – older people who will need medical care, the unskilled, and the poor.

It’s an open question whether this is a good approach. Historically, countries with higher inward migration of any sort have done better than their closed cousins. Poor migrants are a boon to locals, who can shunt off the icky jobs on the foreigners and focus on the good ones. They have also helped to sustain birth rates in the US, one of America’s little-discussed competitive advantages (populations are falling in Europe and China, but thanks to migrants, the US population is still growing, helping to keep the economy healthier). On the flip side, skilled migrants may suppress wages for skilled locals – few studies have explored this question with any success – and educated people have fewer kids and live longer, meaning that they will probably contribute to the pain in healthcare and pension systems in the long run.

Nevertheless, no matter what the actual value of the idea is, skilled migration is all the rage. Most economic growth these days is occurring in companies that rely heavily on highly skilled workers, who are in surprisingly short supply. This is creating a talent war as economies fight one another for the best and the brightest.

Which brings us to South Africa. There are plenty of South Africans who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their personal grass will be greener elsewhere, especially in Europe, North America, or the Antipodes. Many are also justifiably anxious about the weak economy and high levels of violent crime. In other words, plenty of people are being pulled and pushed to migrate.

However, because modern migration requires a lot of social and human capital – skills, education, luck, and money – most of the people who can act on their migratory desires are skilled and wealthy. Hence, brain drain.

It’s not a uniquely South African problem. Canada worries about the brain drain of young Canadians to the US. Europe worries about brain drain among the nations of the EU. China, India, and New Zealand all lament the loss of skilled workers to other nations.

Even America, long the destination for the best and the brightest, is looking at a growing brain drain as it creates an ever-more hostile environment for migrants (especially those who aren’t white, like all the Indian and Chinese computer scientists who graduate from US universities every year).

In other words, migration desire is as strong as ever in all humans, not just South Africans, and the complexities of modern bureaucratic states mean that the people moving are likely to be skilled. Trying to stop South Africans leaving is probably futile.

Instead, the government may want to try something radical – getting involved on the demand side of the game by attracting skilled migrants from elsewhere. While SA may seem bad to someone dreaming of Brexit England, it looks pretty good to a nursing student in Ghana. Why not make skilled migration from Africa and Latin America much easier? SA’s murder rate is higher than Canada’s but lower than Guatemala’s. Why not bring skilled Guatemalans across?

Trying to retain talented South Africans is a worthy exercise, as is trying to lure them back. But in a global talent war, it’s not enough. If SA needs to plug skills gaps and the locals are leaving, it should be recruiting foreign skills wherever it can find them.

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