Using Return Migration As a Development Tool—Are the Right Policies in Place?

(September 2006) The conventional wisdom about return migrants is that they are retirees who always intended to return to their country of origin. They are generally not expected to contribute significantly to their home countries’ development, in part because they are older and are not working in the formal labor market.

Today, however, returnees are increasingly characterized by transnational networks, reflecting new migration circumstances that are evolving at the beginning of the 21st century.1 The globalizing effect of easy travel, fluid citizenship status, and rapid communications are key factors driving this change. As a result, today’s returning migrants are increasingly younger, more highly trained, and able to shuttle back and forth between their country of birth and their adopted country.

Skilled return migrants are poised to become more important to local government policy. And they hold the potential to help build global networks, forge further links between sending and receiving countries, and directly contribute to development efforts.

First Steps to Harnessing the Migration-Development Potential

Overall, a number of factors affect the development potential of returning migrants. These include their absolute numbers; motivations for return; relevance of their acquired skills to the country’s development priorities; legislative, economic, and social conditions in the country of origin; and the ways that government and informal networks help returnees reintegrate into society.2 A number of very good initial steps are being implemented to influence these factors and maximize the development potential of migrants.

Some of these initiatives work to match returnees’ skills with their home country’s development priorities. In the 1990s, the International Organization for Migration implemented a program called “Migration for Development” in several countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean that offered financial incentives and advertised “important vacant development positions” such as managers, engineers, and policy analysts for those contemplating return.3 Country officials have instituted innovative policy strategies to reach out to this skilled migrant pool. China and the Republic of Korea woo expatriate researchers back home with science “parks” designed to concentrate high-tech industries or science-related businesses. 4

In other cases, governments have implemented policies to facilitate the long-term re-entry of migrants. For instance, since 1993 the government of Jamaica has been working to identify re-entry problems, reduce red tape, and propose solutions to common bureaucratic obstacles that returnees face.5

Other policies target overseas workers. In the Philippines, for example, the government’s Overseas Workers Welfare Administration supports an intergovernment agency referral system called the Replacement and Monitoring Center. The Center offers returnees job placement services, skills training, livelihood programs, and job opportunity assessments, and gives employers a database of skilled migrant workers.6

Returnees have also been encouraged to spend or invest in their homelands, often through partnerships with the government and the private sector. In Guyana, for example, the Guyana Office for Investment was established in 1994 to attract and facilitate increased investment to fuel the country’s economic growth through efficient and effective investor services. In addition to targeting foreign investors, the government wants to target expatriate Guyanese.

Recommendations for Further Government Action

While such initiatives are often good first steps, they are often difficult to implement or integrate into existing programs. Generally, these programs tend to be short-term and work best for migrants who were already contemplating return. Internationally, such programs have proved expensive and difficult to implement, and many have not been particularly successful in encouraging large-scale or sustained return. They also lead to tension with nonmigrants, particularly if financial incentives are offered to returnees, but are not available to nonmigrants.

A number of issues remain as governments continue to explore migration for development options. Three key considerations include:

  • Identify evidence of the impact of migration and return on poverty reduction and sustainable development. Governments need to ensure that migrants are able to make real contributions to the country’s development. Returnees do not often invest their remittances to create widespread employment or larger benefits for others. Instead, they tend to be used for consumer spending, payment of debts, long-term investments such as individual education, and the building and improvement of homes. Governments need to better document positive multiplier effects of return such as the development of returnee-initiated programs that build local skills among the general population.7
  • Work with nongovernmental partners to implement policies to overcome constraints to reintegrating return migrants and investing their resources. In addition to these government policies, a number of nongovernmental approaches can help harness migration for development options. Some sending-country NGOs have worked with their government to establish networks of expatriates in a host country that support migrant savings and alternative investment programs. In the Philippines, for example, local NGOs have helped migrants establish small-business ventures and local churches have launched microenterprise activities. These efforts reveal how important it is for social development workers, policymakers, and implementers, as well as migrants and their families, to work together to ease reintegration and harness development potential.
  • Generate new alternative strategies to mobilize emigrants’ knowledge and expertise in support of development. Governments need to explore ways to invest in the infrastructure of the professional sectors from which the migrants originally came. For example, while Ghana badly needs nurses, lack of infrastructure and inadequate investment in that country’s health sector means that Ghanaian nurses who have qualified abroad are unable to find employment back home.8

On Sept. 14 and 15, 2006, high-level representatives of all UN member states gathered in the General Assembly to explore migration’s relationship to development. This dialogue will serve to examine the relationship between migration and development, especially poverty reduction, and to identify the best examples of where migration has worked for development.

The current wave of globalization is facilitating and intensifying return migration by encouraging flexible mobility and lifestyle patterns across borders, often among skilled migrants. Hopefully, these UN discussions will lead to policies that recognize the context of these new migration complexities. Governments need not take steps to promote widespread return migration because it will take place anyway, often for noneconomic reasons.9 The onus is on governments of sending countries to find effective ways to facilitate the long-term reintegration of emigrants who plan to return and to capitalize on the development potential of skilled migrants who shuttle between sending and receiving countries.

Roger-Mark De Souza is technical director of the Population, Health, and Environment Program at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Robert B. Potter and Dennis Conway, “Experiencing Caribbean Return: Societal Contributions, Adaptations and Frustrations,” in The Experience of Return Migration: Caribbean Perspectives, ed. Robert Potter, Dennis Conway, and Joan Phillips ( Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2005): 283-87.
  2. Said Quaked, “Transatlantic Roundtable on High-Skilled Migration and Sending Countries Issues,” International Migration 40, no. 4 (2002): 153-66.
  3. International Organization for Migration (IOM), Second Annual Report: Return and Reintegration Programme of Qualified Jamaican Nationals for Development (Washington, DC: IOM, 1996).
  4. UN General Assembly, International Migration and Development. Report of the Secretary-General (May 2006).
  5. Roger-Mark De Souza, “Trini to the Bone: Return, Reintegration and Resolution Among Trinidadian Migrants,” in Returning to the Source: The Final Stage of the Caribbean Migration Circuit, ed. Dwaine E. Plaza and France Henry (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006).
  6. Economic Resource Center for Overseas Filipinos, The Development Potential of Migration (2000), accessed online at, on Nov. 28, 2002.
  7. Quaked, “Transatlantic Roundtable on High-Skilled Migration and Sending Countries Issues.”
  8. Quaked, “Transatlantic Roundtable on High-Skilled Migration and Sending Countries Issues.”
  9. Roger-Mark De Souza, “No Place Like Home: Returnee R&R (Retention and Rejection) in the Caribbean Homeland,” in The Experience of Return Migration: Caribbean Perspectives, ed. Robert Potter, Dennis Conway, and Joan Phillips (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2005): 135- 56.