The expansion of BRICS that entered into force in the beginning of 2024 raised multiple questions regarding the unifying theme behind the composition of the enlarged grouping. One of the more popular unifying themes discussed in the context of the 2024 BRICS expansion was the rise in the weight of the bloc in global oil production on the back of the accession of such oil producing heavy-weights as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The hope, however, is that there is more behind the BRICS expansion than merely building more geopolitical muscle and magnifying the bloc’s role in commodity markets. Perhaps even more important may be the role of the expanded BRICS in the migration flows and the human capital development across the Global South. With each BRICS+ member featuring as an important regional hub of “human capital” reserves and labour resources in the developing world, there may be scope for the expanded grouping to look into targeted economic policies to address the widening labour shortages and greater coordination in the sphere of migration.
The role of BRICS in migration flows has been significant well before the 2024 expansion. In particular, India being the world’s most populous economy, featured as an economy with the largest migrant diaspora in the world, the largest remittance flows in the world (USD 125 bn) and sizeable migration flows into developed and developing economies. China, the second most populous economy in the world, also featured as one of the largest sources of migrants and as of 2020 was estimated to have the fourth largest migrant diaspora in the world and third in terms of the size of remittances (USD 50 bn). Russia is one of the largest recipients of labour migrants in the world according to the UN and is also the source of sizeable remittances to economies such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan (according to the World Bank the share of remittances to GDP in 2022 exceeded 50% for Tajikistan). At the same time Russia is one of the largest sources of highly qualified migrants in the world economy, with its migrant diaspora estimated to be the third largest in the world as of 2020.
All three Eurasian BRICS economies (Russia, China, India) represent a sizeable share of the world pool of IT specialists, including those working abroad. South Africa features as Africa’s top migration destination and attracts the highest number of international migrants on the continent. The only exception on the migration front within BRICS5 appears to be Brazil, with relatively low inflows of international migrants. At the same time, Brazil has the largest African diaspora in the world – something that makes the country’s relationship with Africa special.
The addition of new members to BRICS further reinforces the role of the grouping as the source/destination of key migration flows across the Global South. In particular, the UAE and Saudi Arabia feature as the first and the third largest destinations for migrants from India. Both Arab newcomers to the BRICS+ are the major destinations of migration flows in their Gulf/Middle East region. The United Arab Emirates has the highest share of immigrants in the world (at nearly 90% of the population), with the UAE and Saudi Arabia serving as the second and third largest sources of remittances in the world after the US. Ethiopia, another newcomer to the BRICS club, is the second largest recipient of migrants in Eastern Africa and the second most populous economy in Africa. It is also a major source of migrants for such BRICS economies as Saudi Arabia and South Africa. Finally, Egypt and Iran are the most populous nations in the Middle East, with Egypt also forming the largest community of non-citizens from the Arab world in the UAE. Egypt is also in the top 5 of the world’s largest recipients of remittances with USD 24 bn.
So why is labour migration so important for BRICS? One of the key reasons is the worsening demographics in some of the key BRICS members such as China and Russia. The UN’s demographic figures suggest that China’s population may drop from more than 1.4 billion to 1.313 billion by 2050 on the back of a decreasing birth rate. In Russia declining fertility is projected by the UN to result in a population decline from 148.1 million in 1995 to 121.3 million in 2050. China in particular is faced not only with a sizeable decline in its population due to earlier years of “one-child policy”, but also with an increasingly determined drive to attract top talent across the global economy to be able to compete in the technological race with the West. Another important reason why migration is crucial for BRICS is the mutual dependency of some of the bloc’s economies as sources and destinations of migration flows – in particular across such trajectories as India-UAE/Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt/Ethiopia-UAE/Saudi Arabia. Still another factor is that the development of a coordinated policy framework for migration could enable the BRICS to strengthen their economic and regional cooperation and serve as a platform for closer trade and financial ties with regional neighbors as well as BRICS+ partners.
What does the migration track offer the BRICS+ grouping in the future? One possible area is the New Development Bank looking into the possibility of increasing the share of investment projects directed at “human capital” development and migration-related infrastructure. There may also be a case for some of the BRICS economies with sizeable migration flows to explore the possibilities of issuing “diaspora bonds”. The BRICS CRA could look into evaluating the macroeconomic aspects of labour migration and remittances for BRICS economies and their regional partners. The migration dimension may prove important not only for BRICS, but for the broader global economy as competition for attracting labour resources and talent intensifies amid demographic pressures. At the end of the day, the development potential harboured in the human capital reserves of the Global South exceeds the dividends from oil or other mineral resource wealth. A growing prominence of the migration/labor agenda may serve to shift the focus for BRICS away from geopolitics and commodity platforms towards greater economic cooperation and “human capital-centricity” in launching new initiatives.
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