THBT intellectual migration (brain drain) is caused by a lack of belonging rather than a lack of opportunities

In many parts of the world, migration has replaced fertility and mortality as the leading agent of demographic change. It is estimated that one billion of the world’s seven billion people are migrants (1), and among them, 244 million are international migrants in 2015 (2).

But today, when we talk about migration, we often think of asylum seekers, hazardous adventures, illegal migrants and the current challenging issues related to the European migration crisis.

This undesired migration experience is usually made under circumstances of coercion involving threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from wars, ethnic conflicts, religious persecution, famine or natural disaster.

Nevertheless, migration can also be a result of a free choice and desire to move. For individuals coming from the 3rd world, that decision implies a long procedure, a strong plan, meticulous researches, money, and eventually some networking, to meet the very restrictive legal requirements of the western world.

Developing countries don’t just accept that part of their population will leave with many investing in their own infrastructure, opening to privatization, and encourage internal and external investments, to create a more attractive working environment. However, the number of migrants who have chosen to leave their families and make a living in the developed world does not seem to decrease as a result.

The efforts made by these countries to improve their education system, gain international recognition, and to create new business dynamics, particularly through start-up clusters or technology centres (technopoles), seem to be not enough to retain young students and skilled professionals.

These young and middle-aged intellectuals, men and women who have attended - or prepared to attend - higher education, are driven by a high desire of learning and self-achievement. They are known to be the subject of the « brain drain » phenomenon - or what we can broadly call the « intellectual migration », and we will refer to them as “intellectuals” here.

Even though these migrants have the advantage of being literate, highly skilled, and often supported by their host school or employer, they rarely escape the rule of facing a certain level of discrimination - whether with regard to their salaries in comparison to natives, when looking for accommodation, or dealing with the host country’s administration.

They strive to make their own place within the developed countries, and most - if not all - of them, don’t miss the opportunity to acquire the host country citizenship, despite the long related administrative procedure and the fact that they may have finished their studies or taken the most of their foreign professional experience.

So why do intellectual migrants choose to stay in their host countries and endure such struggles, while they could claim nice opportunities if they go back to their countries of origin?

Are there any hidden reasons of their migration beyond education and economics? And is the remarkable increase of intellectual female migrants linked somehow to these reasons?

Some intellectual migrants already feel a certain degree of alienation towards their national culture before leaving their country

Intellectuals need stimulation, organisation, freedom, and recognition (3) that they usually struggle to find in their countries of origin. Some intellectuals from developing countries already feel a certain degree of alienation towards their national culture before leaving their own country (3). This may be a result of government policy; a lack of intellectual freedom, or because of a generally conservative culture. Thus, they experience a strong lack of intellectual belonging despite the arising economic opportunities resulting from their countries’ investments.

Family ties also play a strong role in aggravating or mitigating alienation. This is why it is the young, who don’t have dependents themselves, who are often the likeliest to migrate. 


If there is really no freedom then these migrants will be asylum seekers and refugees not true intellectual migrants by choice.  

Even if there is some alienation from their own native culture these migrants are still travelling to a much more alien culture. This being the case it seems unlikely that alienation is the main cause. Rather they are travelling to a culture that is more alien because they believe there are better opportunities there.

Intellectual women migrants outnumber intellectual men migrants

The need of belonging is greater for women than for men – Bardo and Bardo found that they miss home much more (5). On the other hand, unequal and discriminatory norms can be strong drivers of intellectual female migration (1). More young women than men now migrate for education and, in several European countries today, highly skilled migrant women outnumber highly skilled migrant men (1). Between 2000 and 2011, the number of tertiary-educated migrant women in OECD countries rose by 80%, which exceeded the 60% increase in the number of tertiary-educated migrant men. In Africa for example, the average emigration rates of tertiary-educated women are considerably higher than those of tertiary-educated men (27.7% for women and 17.1% for men). 


Education is a crossover point; migrating for education may be about a sense of belonging but it is also an opportunity. A conservative culture that does not educate young women is not providing them with an opportunity that is available elsewhere. 

Intellectual migrants are more impregnated by ideas of internationalism and universalism

The concept of nationalism as developed in Europe during the 19th century did not undergo the same evolution in the developing countries. Intellectuals do not identify themselves with their countries the way Europeans do. They are more impregnated by ideas of internationalism and universalism than the western nationalist – for example Mohsin Hamid argues our views of liberal values should be extended beyond nation states with their often unnatural borders. Thus, if they stay abroad after having adhered to the western way of life, they consider themselves part of the great human lot, value free movement as a basic human right, and do not necessarily suffer from complexes of disloyalty towards their home country (3).


Intellectual migrants do not necessarily discard a traditional value to replace it with a corresponding western value. For example, they seldom renounce their religion in favor of a western one (3).

A weaker sense of nationalism does not have to mean greater internationalism. Instead there may be greater ties to traditional culture, to a region or village. There may be fewer ties to nation, but throughout much of the developing world religion has a far greater adherence than in the west. Thus with a couple of exceptions (Communist states such as China and North Korea) it is more developed countries that are mostly non religious.(12)

Most young intellectuals from developing countries are politically conscious and want to be "actors" in policy making

Young intellectuals from developing countries are to a very large extent politically conscious and active. They want to be "actors" and not "spectators" in policy making, all the more so when their specialism is impacted by government policy. Those who grow up in an autocratic, or not very democratic state are likely to want to go where they can use their voice. Even in many democracies intellectuals often largely liberal views both for government and teaching are not readily approved by the conservative regimes of their countries where usually the older generation is in power and constitutes a barrier against their progress. 


If these young intellectuals really are politically conscious then they should desire to stay in their native country and change its system of government. It is the intellectuals who are needed to create, and then grow a democracy so that it represents the whole spectrum of opinion within the country and respects intellectual freedoms. 

The inferiority complex within older generations in the developing countries affects intellectuals’ sense of belonging while in their countries

An inferiority complex still exists among the older generations in the developing countries as regards the western technical know-how and organisation. A persisting attitude to place more confidence in the experts and specialists belonging to the developed countries than the educated nationals of the country (3) could foster a feeling of underestimation amongst intellectuals while in their countries, and becomes an additional driver of the continuous intellectual migration.


It seems hardly likely that feeling undervalued for their skills is a main reason for moving. When moving abroad many will instead encounter racism and concern about increasing numbers of migrants which would at least balance against being undervalued at home. They go instead because the ‘value’ of their skills is monetary – therefore about opportunities – not in terms of reputation and confidence or belonging.

Developing countries have high unemployment rates and need to invest in job creation

Developing countries invest in education and job creation because they have high unemployment rates (6). They need to address the lack of opportunities in order to improve their economy and reduce migration. This is as much the case for those at graduate level as for those who have less of an education. Africa’s 668 universities produce almost 10 million graduates a year, but only half find work.(14) It should therefore be no surprise that many migrate overseas for opportunities.


Most job vacancies in African countries ask for a university degree even if a degree is ultimately not the most important attribute for the job. (13) So the opportunities are there for those who would be considered to be intellectuals, it is everyone else for whom opportunities in their native land are lacking. 

Many migrants come from countries with strong sense of belonging

Many migrants come from countries with strong sense of belonging, national identities, and political consciousness. For instance, they are European migrants, and in 2016, they were 19.3 million residing in a different EU Member State from the one where they were born (7). With migration an issue even from countries with strong national identities it is clear that that identity is not the major driver of movement. 


A strong national identity does not necessarily result in a strong sense of belonging. That national identity may have precluded other senses of belonging such as religion, or even close community ties and interactions.

Many developing countries support entrepreneurship and gender equality

In many developing countries, entrepreneurship is supported to create jobs and dynamic work conditions, and women are empowered and politically represented reducing any concerns of feeling as if they don’t belong.

For example in Tunisia, many initiatives are being introduced to promote the entrepreneurship ecosystem including angel investing and attempts to reduce administrative barriers (9). Moreover, regarding gender equality, Tunisia’s Parliament has approved an amendment ensuring that women have greater representation in local politics. This amendment includes a proposal for gender parity in electoral law. (10)


Making a start in encouraging entrepreneurship and gender identity is not likely to be enough to make a county attractive when compared against countries that are much further down the path. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2016 Tunisia is still in the bottom quartile of the rankings on gender equality.(15)


(1) Birchall, Jenny. “Gender, Age and Migration, an extended briefeng.” The BRIDGE team at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). 2016.

(2) “Migration in the world.” International Organization for Migration. 2015.

(3) Khoshkish, A.. “Intellectual  Migration : A Sociological approach to ‘Brain Drain’.” Journal of World History. Vol. 10. 1966.

(4) “Acquisition of citizenship statistics.” Eurostat. 2017.

(5) Walsh, Sophie and Horenczyk, Gabriel. “Gendered Patterns of Experience in Social and Cultural Transition: The Case of English-Speaking Immigrants in Israel.” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 2001.

(6) “Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24)”. The World Bank. 2017.

(7) “Migration and migrant population statistics”. Eurostat. 2017.

(8) “Harnessing knowledge on the migration of highly skilled women”. OECD and IOM. 2014.

(9) Hassen, Majdi. “The Entrepreneurship Ecosystem in Tunisia”. CIPE. 2013.  

(10) “Tunisia moves closer to achieving gender equality in politics”. UN Women. 2016.

(11) Green, Graeme, ‘‘Migration will become a human right’ – Mohsin Hamid’, New internationalist, 1 June 2017,

(12) See Wikipedia Religions by country for percentages by unaffiliated accessed 30 August 2017

(13) Rewane, Misan, ‘University degrees are not the answer for Africa’s unemployed youth’, quartz, 8 June 2016,

(14) African Centre for Economic Transformation, ‘Unemployment in Africa: No jobs for 50% of graduates’, 1 April 2016,

(15) The Global Gender Gap report, rankings from Wikipedia accessed on 1 September 2017