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Migratory patterns in the Caribbean: impacts and perspectives for Caribbean countries

Par Aymeric Faure, directeur adjoint de la rédaction

· Migrations,Caribbean,Brain drain

The Caribbean countries have historically experienced large-scale incoming and outgoing migration. Today, the region is subject to fluid internal as well as external movement of persons that migrate because of various causes : economic situation, human rights respect, government stability, and living conditions. It results in a very complex migratory system that encompasses intra-regional and extra-regional migrations, economic and forced migration, migration policies and socio-cultural adaptations. Given the proximity and the weight of Latin American migration flows, and more particularly the Mexican emigration, Caribbean migration flows are often overlooked. However, in relative terms, in 2017, 22% of the Caribbean population lives abroad whereas this rate reaches 10% of the Mexican population (International Monetary Fund - IMF, 2017).

While half of the Caribbean expatriates migrated to the US, Canada, United Kingdom, other Caribbean Countries such as the Bahamas, the British and US Virgin Islands, as well as the Turks and Caicos are the main receiving countries of Caribbean migrants. Since the 1990s, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are the main sending countries (Audebert, 2011; IMF, 2017).

In this complex migratory system where the relatively small number of people represents howbeit a consequent proportion of the population, what are the main migratory patterns and what are their impacts on the Caribbean countries themselves?

Unity and Fragmentation of the region

Caribbean cultures are marked by the heritage of the economy of plantation since the 18th Century (sugar, coffee, cotton), generating highly hierarchised socio-economical structures, and share an identical geographical situation comprising insularity, geographical and demographical smallness and strong exposure to natural disasters. Caribbean countries also share the same history of pre-Columbian indigenous population, colonisation, decolonisation and migrations. It results in a mix of cultures between, European, West-African, Indian and Pre-Columbian influences, in which many vernacular languages emerged such as Papiamento on the islands of Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire, Kreyol in Haiti or even Jamaican Patois (Audebert, 2011).

Map of the Caribbean. Credits: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook

Nevertheless, the different areas of colonial influence (British, French, Dutch and Spanish) are still tangible, and other fracture lines do exist between Caribbean countries. The standards of living measured by GDP per capita (International Labour Organization, 2016) vary within the region from very rich fiscal paradises such as Caiman Islands, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and the Virgin Islands; other rich countries that beneficiate from the exploitation and trade of hydrocarbons in the Caribbean sea such as Trinidad and Tobago; islands that are supported by rich metropoles such as the French and Dutch islands; and poorer countries like Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica, the most populated Caribbean countries that suffer from economic, political and social problems, despite their strong demographic potential (World Bank).

Regional integration

It could be argued that unitary and fragmentary factors contribute to a de facto regional integration, fostered by the dynamism of migrations within the region (Audebert, 2011).

In a time when immigration is often a factor of division in developed societies, as exemplified by the tensions in Europe concerning the seconded workers, the Caribbean case evidences that migrants could be a key stone in the regionalisation process in the region as well as in the building of a Caribbean unity among the peoples in the region. Audebert (2011) demonstrated that migration solidifies the common historical and social basements and acts as a driver of the construction of a Caribbean sentiment.

Even though internal migration is hidden by the important emigration outside the Caribbean, it acted as a bottom-up regional integration before the institutional top-down attempts of the Governments and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to create a coherent ensemble. The economic differences between the Caribbean countries have been reinforced by the new focus areas for national and international investors that beneficiated to only a certain number of countries (finance and tourism in the Caiman islands, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Dutch islands and British Virgin Islands; hydrocarbons in Trinidad and Tobago), perpetuating the regional economical hierarchy. Thus, migrations in the region follow a geo-economic logic of international division of labour thanks to the new complementarities between the Caribbean economies (Audebert, 2011).

Through time, those economic migrations have generated cultural hybridity in the Caribbean countries (Raab and Butler, 2008, Claval, 2011). For instance, Haitian sellers called Madan Sara are present in all the Caribbean countries. They are supplied from commercial frank zones and some regional logistic hubs and form a real transnational network (Hartog and Desse, 2009). The past emigration waves gave birth to a second generation, multi-national and multi-lingual. In the public schools, children are mixed together, live together, and by through cohabitation emerges a multi-cultural Caribbean identity.

In the 2000s’ CARICOM established the free movement of the populations between the member states in the Article 5 of the Chaguaramas Treaty[1]. This has progressively been implemented despite the scepticism of some nationals all over the region to see migrants coming and becoming a charge on public funds. However, as they already had a collective sentiment that was progressively built from the bottom through migration flows, the Caribbean governments have to act carefully. This pushes to think migration differently, not in a binary way, but taking in consideration the fluidity and humanity of the process. Governments cannot control all population flows and political crispation towards migration issues is counter-productive.

CARICOM Secretariat in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Credits: CARICOM

Brain Drain vs Remittances

Docquier and Marfouk (2005) identified that between 1965 and 2000 about 12% of the labour force of the Caribbean region has emigrated to OECD countries, which is almost twice the rate for Central America (i.e. 7%), and six times the average rate for developing countries (i.e. 2%) (IMF 2017). All the Caribbean countries are mostly affected by high-skilled emigration and by the departure of the most productive workforce, the 20-25 years-old segment. And thus, vulnerable to brain drain.

According to theoretical models on brain drain, emigration of highly educated people generates a quadruple loss for the origin country. Firstly, the net loss of educated people impacts the economy by maintaining the average qualification level low. Secondly, this loss has an externality effect. The departure of qualified people impedes any kind of training and knowledge sharing for lower-skilled workers within the country, maintaining a certain inertia in the average level of qualifications. Thirdly, this represents an indirect loss as governments such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados for instance, invested considerable amounts on educating their emigrants (Thomas-Hope, 2002). Fourthly, it represents a tax loss for origin countries that lose the population that is expected to contribute more (Desai et al. 2002).

This loss is theoretically fully or partially compensated by positive effects of migration on origin countries. Financial remittances are the most obvious and material one. They play key financing and stabilizing roles in facilitating private consumption through a multiplier effect[2], supporting the stability of the financial sector and fiscal revenues and help reduce poverty and inequality, offering a complementary non-taxable source of revenue for the households (Durand et al. (1996). Migrant networks also foster to trade and investment and can increase human capital training through experience sharing and return migration. According to the International Organization for Migration, return migration of retirees to the Caribbean is increasing except in Cuba and Haiti (IOM 2017). Social remittances are also a compensating factor (Levitt, 1998).

However, the compensation seems not to happen in the region. Mishra (2006) showed that the Caribbean countries lost between 10% (Haiti) and 55% (Grenada) of their labour force owing to the emigration to OECD countries and that many countries of the region have seen their high-skilled labour force decreasing by 70% in average, and even by more than 80% in several countries such as Jamaica, Guyana, Si Vincent and the Grenadines and Haiti. She evidenced that the loss of labour resources and productivity, as well as other brain drain effects have not been outweighed by the benefits of remittances despite this region is the largest recipient of remittances as a share of GDP reaching more than 18% of GDP in the region in average in 2002, and even 21.1% of the GDP in Haiti which is the most dependant country on remittances (2014) (IOM, 2017).

View of St Georges, Capital of Grenada, an Island that has lost 55% of its labour force due to outmigration

(Mishra, 2006). Credits: larsen9236

To reduce the negative net impact of high-skilled migratory flows, Caribbean states need to develop policies creating and maintaining a balance between the positives and the negatives consequences (Thomas-Hope, 2002). Such policies could retain high-skilled migrants, foster their return or even adopt a diaspora policy to engage them.

In the 1990s, Jamaica successfully created the Return of Talent Programme and the Returning Residents Programme advocating return along with a Skills bank facility that tried to balance labour market demand and supply. The government developed incentives to return providing tax concessions and other in-kind incentives to the returnees such as full medical insurance (Thomas-Hope, 2002). Today the Government is actively handling the brain drain issue by formulating a specific policy on linking international migration and development and aiming at making “Jamaica the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business” (Government of Jamaica, 2015). This policy tends to have a comprehensive approach to migration and encompasses several themes such as remittances or diaspora engagement. Cuba is another example of a country that developed policies to contain the negative effects of brain drain. In 1993, the Cuban government authorised the dollar possession, created state-linked dollar stores to spend the money of remittances. The Government signed bilateral agreements with the US to allow the migration of 20,000 Cubans annually and reframed the diaspora as a real “Cuban community abroad” (Eckstein, 2010).

Jamaica experiences a strong brain drain in the healthcare sector. 65% of Jamaican immigrants to the US are nurses and healthcare practitioners (IMF, 2017). To re-build the sector, Jamaica developed a bilateral agreement with the Cuban authorities. Indeed, Cuba has a surplus of nurses since the migration opportunities are rarer (Thomas-Hope, 2002).

On the multilateral scale, member states of the CARICOM signed agreements in order to structure the governance of migration in the region. For instance, in 2004, CARICOM member states signed the Caribbean Community (Free-movement of skilled persons) Act and developed a Certificate of Recognition of CARICOM Skills Qualification; two instruments to manage skilled migration and reduce the brain drain effects (CARICOM, 2004). They also signed the CARICOM Agreement on Social Security that ensures reciprocal equality of treatment and continuity of social coverage of immigrants (Government of Jamaica, 2017).


Forced migration

Caribbean countries also face various causes of forced displacement. The region is subject to violence of organised crime groups and natural disasters.

Due to the decrease of the dynamism of traditional economic activities of mining and plantation and the focus on tourism only, an informal sector emerged, accompanied with a strong social marginalisation (Fernández-Alfaro and Pascua, 2006). In this context, networked and local criminality increased as well as social tensions (ibid.). Moreover, the Caribbean Region is one of the main drug routes from Central America to Europe due to the long unpatrolled coastlines and the weakness of their control capacity (UNODC, 2008). The Caribbean region thus suffers from the very high murder rate (among the top-20, according to the World Bank’s latest data (2015)). As evidenced by many authors such as Clemens (2011) and Wood et al. (2012) for instance, violence is a factor pushing nationals to emigrate. Policies to reduce criminality and violence in general would have positive effects on migration, going against an important reason to emigrate.

The Caribbean region is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and more precisely hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods. According to the IMF (2016), 2% of GDP is lost due to natural hazards. According to Ginetti (2015), today, a person who lives in one of the Small Island Developing States is three times more likely to be displaced because of a disaster than someone that lives elsewhere. Caribbean countries thus suffer from multifaceted challenges: destruction, internally displaced populations, relocation, as well as problems during recovery, problems in the tenure system that give stage to disputes, reconstruction in unsafe locations with substandard materials and techniques, informal nature of settlement and property, lack of insurance schemes, no social safety nets, destabilisation of the local societies.

The Haitian Presidential Palace after the earthquake of January 12, 2010. The original structure had 2 floors, the second one completely collapsed. Credits: Logan Abassi/United Nations Development Programme

Evacuation, relocation and resettlement are the most common so-called risk-reduction activities in the region. However, it is not a sustainable solution since the entire region is vulnerable to natural disasters and the side-effects of relocation are destabilising the entire society as described supra. Moreover, categories like homeless, displaced, evacuee are not clearly defined. This complexifies the Caribbean Governments’ policy-making and emergency plan-making (Hamza et al. 2017).

Displacement management in the Caribbean is thus only reactive. Prevention is not developed enough and there is no sustainable solution to reduce the effects of relocation. Governments need to understand that disaster-linked displacement is a real, complex phenomenon that requires a comprehensive preparation and response encompassing disaster and post-displacement risk reduction, protection of the people affected by displacement, and strengthening of the internal legal and administrative systems. International frameworks do also exist to build a policy on internal displacement such as the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change or even the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Hamza et al. 2017).


Migrations represent an important challenge for Caribbean countries. People flows have always played a role in the construction of the region and have impacted its economic, social and political developments. Migration, and more particularly brain drain, represents also a huge challenge to Caribbean countries’ development as well as to the management of forced migration. Unilateral, bilateral and multilateral political action seems to be required to take the maximum advantage of those migratory flows.

  • The continuation of institutional regionalisation that follows the pre-existing informal one will help to find collective solutions to collective problems.
  • The development of diaspora engagement policies, as well as return and remittances incentives will allow the Caribbean countries to limit the impediments of brain drain – keeping in mind that high levels of remittances could economically, socially and politically destabilise the country.
  • The signature of bilateral and multilateral agreements will enable States to attract immigrants that could re-balance the national workforce and limit the effects of brain drain as well.
  • The reinforcement of security on the islands as well as on the Caribbean Sea will refrain the potential emigrants to leave.
  • The development of post-hazard comprehensive policies in line with international agendas on protection and internally displaced people will limit the negative impacts of forced migration.

[1] Note that free movement is only for certain categories of workers (university graduates, media workers, sportspersons, artistes, musicians, professional nurses, qualified teachers, artisans with a Caribbean vocational qualification, etc.)

[2] Durand et al. (1996) demonstrated that 1$ remitted generates 4$ in demand for goods and services as they are directly injected in the real economy.


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