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Countries are competing for skilled migrants fleeing crackdowns in Hong Kong and Belarus

Reuters/Leah Millis
A protester waves a U.S. and a colonial Hong Kong flags during the “Lest We Forget” rally in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2019. REUTERS/Leah…
  • Mary Hui
By Mary Hui



In his seminal 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert O. Hirschman laid out the three different ways an individual might react to a situation they’re unhappy with: leaving; complaining and protesting; or remaining silent. While Hirschman presented the three as mutually exclusive, researchers in the decades since have argued that “exit” and “voice” can actually reinforce one another. That’s especially the case when it comes to migration.

Political upheavals in Hong Kong and Belarus this year have led people in both places to flee from heavy-handed crackdowns and authoritarian rule. In Hong Kong, where a new national security law is rapidly dismantling civil liberties, polling shows that nearly one in two people would emigrate if they had the chance, with many citing dissatisfaction with the government and concerns over diminishing freedoms as primary reasons for leaving. And in Belarus, widespread internet shutdowns amid the state’s brutal suppression of protests has sparked an exodus of the country’s tech workers.

Numerous countries are opening their doors to these migrants, both for humanitarian reasons as well as the opportunity to attract high-skilled workers. And from a distance, these migrants may also help refuel the struggles that spurred their departure in the first place.

Belarus’s neighbors, for example, have rolled out a bevy of policies in a bid to draw its tech companies. Earlier this month, Ukraine signed a decree making it easier for IT firms and their employees to relocate there, including speeding up the approval of residence and work permits. Lithuania set up a dedicated website to help IT workers apply for work visas; Poland launched a 24-hour hotline to help with relocations; and Latvia established a dedicated unit to woo businesses. As of September, a dozen Belarusian tech firms were already in the process of moving their operations to another country, and more than 170 companies had either already relocated part of their staff out of Belarus or are looking at options of doing so.

Similar efforts are underway to make it easier for Hong Kongers to emigrate, with one immigration lawyer describing the likely exodus as being part of “the greatest human capital harvest in recent memory.” The UK has offered a pathway to British citizenship for people with British National Overseas status, which Hong Kongers could register for in the decade up to the 1997 handover, and as many as three million people could be eligible. Two economists at the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research have estimated that UK GDP could be boosted by as much as £40 billion ($52 billion) from the migration of skilled Hong Kongers.

Australia has also offered new and extended visa options to students and skilled workers from Hong Kong, while the US is considering a bill that would expedite asylum applications from Hong Kongers who were involved in the protests, including first-aid responders.

Hong Kong and Belarus are just two contemporary examples of political crackdowns creating migrants whose arrivals represent potential economic windfalls for their adoptive countries. Historically, mass migration sparked by political upheavals have in numerous instances led to human capital boons for the receiving countries: Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Germany who revolutionized US innovation; highly-educated Iranian immigrants who left after the 1979 revolution; skilled Chinese immigrants who left after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre; and waves of skilled Russians leaving an unstable Soviet Union for Israel in the early 1990s.

And while it might have been true at one time that émigrés forego their “voice” by choosing to “exit,” as Hirschman, the economist, argued in the 1970s, advances in communication have made it far easier for people to remain actively engaged with the places they leave than ever before. More recently, Devesh Kapur, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on international migration, has written that those who feel forced out are especially likely to remain politically involved.

Some of the people who have fled Hong Kong as a result of political persecution—activists Nathan Law, Simon Cheng, and Roy Wong, for example—are continuing high-profile advocacy work from abroad. Law’s presence in the UK, in fact, has helped to establish the country as a base for Hong Kong’s campaign for freedoms. And Belarus’s opposition leaders in exile, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, have met with top European leaders and formed a shadow cabinet, successfully pressing for sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko’s regime with perhaps even more leverage than if they had remained in their home country.

Still,  while countries appear keen to introduce policies to attract high-skilled workers, it’s less clear how receptive individual citizens will be. Kapur said there are “two contradictory trends,” where at the national level attracting high-end talent forms a key part of industrial policy, “but the population at large is much more ambivalent.” The economic crisis sparked by the pandemic adds another complicating factor, said Kapur.

And if a mass outflow continues, it can ultimately hollow out an economy and lead to permanent reductions in affluence, particularly in an aging society like Hong Kong.

John Hu, founder of John Hu Migration Consulting, said that by this summer, his number of clients looking to leave Hong Kong had doubled compared to last year, and demand had picked up another 20% to 30% by October. A lot of middle-class families are applying for the UK’s British National Overseas passport, and many young professionals are also looking to leave, he said.

“We have what we call a brain drain situation,” said Hu. “People were brought up in Hong Kong, trained in Hong Kong, enter the workforce as professionals, and now they’re leaving Hong Kong.”

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