The transforming role of skilled and business returnees: Taiwan, China and Bangladesh

Type Working Paper - Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies, University of Wollongong, Wollongong
Title The transforming role of skilled and business returnees: Taiwan, China and Bangladesh
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2001
The impact of migrants as agents of development or social change in sending and receiving
countries or regions received increasing attention in the 1990s. By the late 1990s, theory in
relation to the effects of temporary or permanent emigration had been developed to the point
where the potential benefits of emigration were seen as possibly occurring at three different
levels: the micro-level for individual migrants, families and communities; the mezzo-level
or intermediate effects on particular industries/areas; and the macro-level effects for
economies and societies as a whole (Skeldon, 1997; Abella, 1999).
Most of research into the effects of emigration, temporary or permanent, has
focussed on two aspects: the effects of labour out-migration (mostly for relatively unskilled
work), the probability of the return of these labour migrants and the impacts of their return.
A study by Colton (1993) on the return migration of Yemenis from Saudi Arabia found that
upon their return, many people invested in small businesses such as convenience stores, but
there was no analysis of the processes or of the interaction between the returning migrants
and the society at large. Studies about US-Mexico migration also touched on the issue of
impacts of return migration (Massey and Espinosa, 1997).
Highly skilled migrants represent an increasingly large component of global
migration streams and while some research has been conducted into various types of highly
skilled migration, there has been little work on impacts. The total number of professional
migrants at any one time is unknown but Stalker (2000) estimates that there are 1.5 million
professionals from developing countries in the industrial countries alone. There are many
types of movement: permanent settlement to major immigrant-receiving countries, and
temporary migration within and outside of multinational corporations. Few countries take
highly skilled professionals on a permanent basis but many are seeking them on a temporary
basis, supposedly to meet skills shortages until they can train their own stock of skilled
The potential benefits of the return migration of professionals and business people,
usually from more developed countries, for both the country of original emigration and the
country from which the return migration takes place, has received little attention. Much of
the early skilled migration was termed ‘brain-drain’ and sending countries tended to see it as
a loss of their resources to wealthier countries. Industrialised countries accepted theseimmigrants as they filled labour market shortages and increased the general human capital
stock of the nation. Few benefits were seen as emanating from these flows for the sending
countries. The possibility of return was also seen as minimal and the lack of data on both
emigration and return migration made analysis of the scale of the flows difficult if not
Research by Thomas-Hope on return skilled migration in the Caribbean region has
been innovative. Much of it has been in collaboration with the International Organization for
Migration (IOM) focusing on IOM’s Return of Talent Program. She found that migration
came to be regarded less as a means of permanent escape and more as a mechanism for
extending opportunities beyond the resource limitations of small islands. Return became an
integral part of the purpose for emigration and this has continued to the present time by
providing the opportunity for migrants to reap the benefits of working abroad. These
benefits were measured both in economic terms and in terms of opportunities for social
mobility for the migrants and their children (Thomas-Hope, 1992). The return of families
had formerly not been common but has emerged recently. Thomas-Hope (1998: 191) states
that ‘only when Caribbean international migration is examined in its entirety will activity at
the origin and destination be seen to be intrinsically linked’. She maintains that the presence
of the migrant abroad must be seen as ‘part of the wider transnational system of outflow,
interaction and feedback’.
Zweig (1997) conducted a study on Mainland Chinese people’s view of returning to
China from the United States and found that the majority (91%) did not intend to return.
Economic factors, such as better income and housing in the United States, as well as
professional concerns, such as lack of career mobility and poor work environment in China,
were important. However, Zweig predicted that if China’s economy continues to grow
significant numbers of Chinese would return in the future. Subsequently, a report in the Far
Eastern Economic Review (Wilhelm and Biers, 2000) provides a number of stories of
successful returned overseas professional Chinese who have found success in China.
Another report in Newsweek International (Larmer, 2000) also suggests that there is an
increasing number of Western-educated, highly qualified, overseas Chinese who have
returned to China. They often work in law firms and multinational companies and/or
establish their own firms. Xiang’s (2001) research into Indian information technology
professionals in Australia shows that they are very active in forming a bridge in the industry
between India and other parts of the world.
Research on the impact of return migration on the country from which the migrants
are returning is also very limited. In 1994, Hugo completed an Australian study for the
Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research in which he calculated a
settler loss rate of 21% during the period from 1947 to 1991. Kee and Skeldon’s study
(1994) of Hong Kong immigrants in Australia confirmed a high return migration rate of 30%
for those who arrived in 1990-91. Pe-Pua et al. (1996: 70) in a more qualitative Australian
study of Hong Kong ‘astronauts’ (people who have acquired permanent residence elsewhere
but continue to work or do business in Hong Kong) concluded that ‘returnees to Hong Kong
appear to be more an asset than a liability to their adopted country’. In 1997, Mak conducted
a study of skilled Hong Kong immigrants in Australia and their intention to repatriate, using
the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia. Khoo and Mak (2000) partially
replicated Mak’s 1997 study and analysed data for 530 skilled and business migrants: 70%
were classified as ‘having the intention of settling permanently’. The remainder were classed
as possible or actual (having been absent for the second interview) returnees but the rate of
return varied by group: 37% for South Asia (India and Sri Lanka), 31% for Taiwan and
Korea and 24% for China.
The view that return migration (and emigration) from developed countries represents
a loss of human capital and a waste of migration administration funds is gaining added
impetus. Countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada are now themselves
talking about ‘brain drain’ from their countries. However, there has also been some
increasing recognition that return migration or the long term or permanent departure of
Australia, United States or Canadian-born may actually bring benefits to these countries as
well as contribute to social and economic transformation in the countries of destination of
these migrants. However, there have been few studies that have been able to explain or
quantify these gains.

Related studies