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Czech Republic: Brain Drain -- For Czechs, There's No Place Like Home (Part 1)

During the last decade, the migration of skilled workers, more popularly called a "brain drain," has affected the Central and Eastern European countries. But its extent is a matter of conjecture. While there is some anecdotal evidence and much talk of losing some of the "brightest and the best," accurate information is unavailable. This is not surprising. Some specialists who have gone abroad are living there illegally, some intend to return soon, most have not notified the authorities of their departure.

Not all countries have been equally affected. Countries that are economically better off, have good growth prospects, and attract more foreign investment have greater chances of retaining skilled professionals. In relatively successful countries, like the Czech Republic, there are doubts whether it makes sense to talk of a brain drain at all. Since many specialists return home, "brain circulation" may be a more proper term. In contrast, in Southeastern Europe, where intractable social and economic problems -- even war -- have been part of everyday life, the outward migration has been substantial.

It is impossible to foresee if the brain drain will wax or wane. Membership in NATO and the EU, increased foreign investment, and improving economic conditions will increase the number of attractive jobs. But it will take another decade to see whether this will be enough to dim the allure of the West. In this first of a series of three articles on the brain drain, RFE/RL takes a look at the situation in the Czech Republic.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many Czechs, mostly the young and relatively well-educated, go abroad for work, seeking experience and -- most of all -- better salaries. But it's not all one-way traffic. Some do choose to stay abroad but many others come back, bringing with them their experience and know-how.

"This is our department. You can see it's quite small and there are lots of children, lots of beds, but as far as equipment goes we provide what you get elsewhere in the world. It's not like we can't do something because we're in Eastern Europe, in Prague. So that's a little bit of a source of pride," said Vit Razek, a children's heart specialist, who took our correspondent on a tour of his clinic at a hospital on the outskirts of the Czech capital Prague.

Three years ago Razek took a career step familiar to anyone who's heard of Central and Eastern Europe's "brain drain" of poorly paid doctors and other highly qualified workers. He took a job in Hamburg, Germany. But this year he did something perhaps less expected -- he returned to the Czech Republic.

Razek said he had expected German hospitals to be of a higher quality, professionally speaking, than those at home. But he said he soon realized the difference was more in terms of presentation -- Czech hospitals look much shabbier as they lack the cash for furnishings and hospital upkeep, but medical care and equipment are often just as good.

Razek said he returned simply because he got an offer of a job and it was a good career move. He is evidently proud of his colleagues -- any one of them he said is good enough to head a clinic abroad. And he has few regrets about leaving Germany. "Salaries are not that much higher [in Germany,] and the cost of living is also higher. I'm not saying the salaries here are high, but it's about options. A foreigner, if he's not in a top position, remains a foreigner who has a limited chance of developing [in his career.] What's demanded of Eastern Europeans isn't demanded of foreigners from other European Union countries. There's a certain amount of discrimination."

To be sure, not all return and there are some signs a brain drain is under way even in the Czech Republic. The Czech Academy of Sciences says poor wages for scientists means they have shortages, particularly in physics and technical subjects. Doctors' associations say "dozens" have left and they fret that others will follow suit. Razek himself came to Motol after a senior doctor won a place at a prestigious London hospital.

But there are also plenty of examples of returnees. And of trained professionals from further east -- such as Slovak doctors -- to fill in the gaps.

As in other countries, it's hard to say just how many people are leaving permanently for the bigger salaries of Western Europe and North America. Emigration figures are typically lower than those given by countries on the receiving end. A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for instance, found that Czech authorities counted only 345 Czech emigrants in Germany in 1998. Germany said the number was more than 8,000.

There's also no overall Czech "brain drain" study. The closest is a survey last year by Prague's Research Institute for Labor and Social Affairs showing that migration for work is on the decrease. One of the survey's authors, Jana Vavreckova, said Dr Razek's case is not that surprising -- her research shows that most people who leave do so temporarily, for a year or so. "Most [of the migrants] are young people, relatively well-educated. Sixty percent or so are high-school- or university-educated. They choose foreign migration as something temporary, for one or two years making money and getting experience, learning and perfecting a language. Then as a rule they return to the Czech Republic and have much better possibilities. Thanks to their languages they can work in foreign firms and their career options are much greater because you have to realize that abroad they work in inferior jobs."

A large number of Czechs in the survey said they have no intention of seeking work abroad -- a source of solace, perhaps, to Germany and Austria. They fear an influx of eastern workers after EU enlargement and pressed the EU into imposing restrictions on free labor movement after expansion.

Vavreckova said Czech emigration also appears to be dropping because people are increasingly debating whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. She said she was taken aback at the emphasis Czechs place on family ties and a familiar "home" environment.

Her institute says Czech migration is likely to drop even further, as the prime age group for migration -- 18-24 -- is shrinking as a share of the total population.

The Czechs' relative economic success has also helped to keep at home professionals who might otherwise have left -- and to lure well-qualified incomers. So said Jean-Christophe Dumond, co-author of an OECD paper "Trends in International Migration." "In this respect, foreign direct investment is very important especially for Central European countries, because foreign direct investment changes the opportunity in the origin country and also attracts some highly qualified people from abroad who are complimentary to the investment. And this changes, maybe, the incentive to migrate also for those highly qualified [people.]"

Dumond said the bigger picture appears to be one where highly skilled people "circulate." It's a trend that's on the rise across the OECD region. "People go abroad for some time, maybe for studying or because they have a good job opportunity and then maybe they go to another country or they come back to their origin country. Maybe they will move again in their lifetime, but this is part of circulation and not necessarily permanent emigration, the emigration of the highly skilled."

Doctor Razek said he wouldn't rule out going abroad again in the future. The work is the same everywhere these days, he said, and moving about is "just life."