Brain drain in Central and Eastern Europe

Brain drain in Central and Eastern Europe

To what extent is our region affected by brain drain?


Many Central and Eastern Europeans probably know what brain drain is: It means the migration of high-skilled professionals from one country to another with better living and working conditions. Brain drain is a global phenomenon but affects different countries differently.

Brain drain is the emigration of intellectuals and highly educated people due to political instability, low salaries, discrimination, or poor working conditions. They aim to settle in a country that provides more opportunities professionally and better living conditions with a more positive social and political climate. Of course, this phenomenon affects both countries, leading to complex consequences. The emigrants’ home countries suffer from the loss of skilled labor, creating a chain reaction: they can expect labor shortages in certain sectors, population decline, and economic downturn. On the other side, the effect is positive for the countries the skilled people choose as their new homes; they benefit from the so-called brain gain. The skilled workers’ arrival is a predominantly positive phenomenon as it stimulates the economy; however, there are some potential setbacks: it might lead to rising prices and the oversaturation of certain job fields. To sum up, the less developed countries suffer from the brain drain, while the luckier ones profit from it. Therefore, this phenomenon reinforces the growing inequalities between states and makes catching up almost impossible for poorer countries.

The extent and effects of brain drain can be quantified: researchers used a scale of one to ten to illustrate brain drain’s impact in countries. Intellectuals’ emigration rate is directly proportional to these figures: so, the higher the number, the more people emigrate. The global average was 5.21 in 2022, but the overall average is significantly increased by countries where emigration is exceptionally high. Some African and South American countries reached 8 or even 9 points on the scale.

Europe has more moderate numbers: the average of the 41 European countries is 3.66. It is not a very low figure, and just like globally, there are significant disproportionalities in Europe. Albania leads the brain drain list with 8.3 points, while Sweden (0.6) and Norway (0.7) suffer from this phenomenon the least. In a nutshell, the Balkan countries scored the most, then Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the Mediterranean states are in the middle, followed by the Benelux states, and the Nordic countries have the least points.

Emigration is a massive issue for the former Eastern Bloc countries: between their democratic transitions and 2015, 18 million people left the region, most of them from Poland. Poland’s brain drain index was 4.6 in 2022, but there were much higher figures in the past 20 years. In 2007, three years after Poland’s EU accession, the number was 6.5, and Warsaw joined the Schengen Area just at the end of that year. 2.3 million Poles left the country in 2007, most of them starting a new life in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, or Ireland. 2007 was a record year in emigration, but the wave of moving abroad has been a constant trend in Poland over the past few decades. Of course, just a small part of the emigrants qualify for the brain drain statistics, as only roughly 25% were graduates. Still, almost 580.000 highly skilled and educated Poles lived in another EU member state in 2017.

Although the situation is the worst in Poland, other Central and Eastern European countries are not doing much better regarding brain drain. Hungary scored 4.0 in 2022, and the country has been one of the biggest victims of brain drain in the traditional sense over the past few decades. On average, proportionally, the most highly skilled people emigrate from here. Hence, the pressing problem for the Hungarian economy is not the population decline in general but the lack of skilled workers in key sectors. Besides the economy, the mass emigration of young intellectuals or complete families has other adverse implications. For example, it negatively affects the quality of education as highly educated parents will raise and educate their children abroad.

Besides Hungary and Poland, Romania is also one of the big losers of brain drain: within the region, Romania reached the highest score (5.3) in 2022. Since Romania’s democratic transition and Bucharest’s EU accession in 2007, Romanians have left the country in droves. The plight is so severe that in some years, more Romanian babies were born abroad than in Romania. The effects of brain drain are extremely critical in the healthcare sector: more than half of skilled health workers have emigrated to Western countries, and statistics show that four out of five physicians are considering moving abroad. The deep-rooted problem then leads to further disparities: Romania educates its future doctors at high cost who, in many cases, move abroad due to the Romanian healthcare system’s severe problems. Population aging is a very unfortunate and challenging combination with the 20% healthcare worker shortage, leading to potentially disastrous consequences that Romanian decision-makers cannot ignore.

The trends are similar but more moderate in Slovakia (4.1 points on the brain drain scale) and Czechia (3.4 points), and it should be mentioned that there is a high level of workforce movement between the two countries, mainly from Slovakia to Czechia. Around two-thirds of the 18-25-year-old Slovaks are planning to study abroad or have already left the country; most of them study in the neighboring Czech Republic due to its proximity but better quality of education. The Slovak government is trying to curb the rising brain drain. For instance, they plan to launch a support scheme for 1400 students: a thousand of the supported young people will be outstanding talents, and four hundred will be students with a disability. The Slovak government hopes that with similar initiatives, they can persuade young Slovaks to stay in the country or even move back from abroad. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that such programs will be a big success as only one-third of those who plan to leave the country say they might return to Slovakia one day. Czechia is probably the least affected country in the region as it has the lowest brain drain index score, and many young Slovaks also choose to study in Czech higher education. Still, the emigration of the intelligentsia has been a problem also for Prague in the past few decades.

But what are the causes behind these trends? In the 19th and 20th centuries, Eastern Europeans, and other peoples, left their home countries because of poverty, religious persecution, or ethnic discrimination. Today the causes are different: Central and Eastern Europe’s incapability to catch up with the West, enormous social inequalities, corruption, low salaries, and inadequate healthcare and social services are the main reasons why people emigrate. Globalization and the freedom of movement granted by our countries’ EU memberships make leaving our homes easier. So, to sum up, many highly skilled people who speak foreign languages leave the CEE region simply because there are more reasons to go than to stay. The governments are trying to make efforts to persuade young people to stay, but it is difficult to find effective solutions: it is still more appealing for many of the CEE youth to live on the other side of the former Iron Curtain, especially as moving to Western Europe is not a hard task anymore.

Graphics: Réka Pisla

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