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Poland's Emigration Rate Is Falling But People Are Still Worried About The 'Brain Drain' Bogeyman (Forbes)

August 9, 2019

From the article:

"A lot has been made in the last few weeks about Poland cutting taxes for the young to prevent them emigrating. The fear, it is said, is that with Poland seeing heavy emigration in the last fifteen years a "brain drain" has occurred, wherein the country's best and brightest have abandoned Poland. For migration researchers, this trend is not so simple as Poland being left weaker by emigration and even the term itself, "brain drain", obscures the real benefits and drawbacks of migration.

The income tax cut, which came into effect in early August, takes the tax rate down to zero for those under 26 earning under $22,000 per year. It was one of a number of election promises made by the leader of the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party earlier in the year, in a clear effort to win voters ahead of October's parliamentary elections. The promise tapped into fears among Polish citizens about demographic decline. With the fertility rate incredibly low and general resistance to immigration, the country is naturally concerned with what's going to happen to Polish industry and the welfare state (a concern shared across the continent).

For Poland, this worry needs to be seen in context. Since around 2004 (when Poland joined the EU and gained access to member countries' labor markets) the country saw emigration of well over a million people, many to the U.K. To give a picture of this, in 2001 the number of Polish-born people living in the U.K. was 58,000. By 2011 that number had risen to 676,000.

This history, coupled with today's record low unemployment and labor shortages in Poland, might lead one to see a picture of emigration since 2004 as simply a bad thing. A brain drain, perhaps. But Barbara Jancewicz, head of the Economics of Migration Research Unit at the Centre of Migration Research in Warsaw, says this is not the correct picture at all.

'If those people (who left) had stayed we would have had a lot of young frustrated people just searching for work,' says Jancewicz. 'So the fact that they migrated saved us a lot of trouble. In a way they got something; they could work and they could develop and they could earn money and get new skills. And in that time our economy grew...'

Michael Clemens, economist and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, also says 'brain drain' is an unhelpful term.

'It is common to define skilled migration as something that necessarily harms the countries that migrants leave. This has been true ever since a sensationalist newspaper coined the unfortunate term 'brain drain' in 1963, referring to British scientists emigrating from the UK.'

Clemens says the ability to emigrate in itself can be a driver of development: 'Economic research has shown that the very possibility to emigrate with skills is a major reason that people in poor countries invest in skills in the first place, even though many such people do not end up leaving. That option also benefits developing countries through the formation of trade and investment networks, and transfers of remittances and skills.'

He says countries should try to maximize those economic benefits and use them to grow the economy. This is of course good in itself but it would also help entice high-skilled émigrés back home. Which brings us back to Poland...."


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Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Fellow