Indonesian diaspora: Mapping the road to brain gain

Published : 01 May 2013

By: Ariane J Utomo

On July 6-8, the first Congress of Indonesian Diaspora was held in Los Angeles. Organizers proposed that the primary motivation behind this admirable initiative was to pave the way for Indonesian diaspora communities “to connect and to unite themselves into one big community and create a tangible force in order to achieve a better Indonesia.”

We must ask how such heterogeneous communities can help improve our country, but it is equally imperative to begin mapping the four underlying dimensions of the Indonesian diaspora itself: its changing context, scale and spatial distribution, and its country-specific composition.

Understanding the changing context of the diaspora begins with identifying the changing forces that drive the trends in the international population mobility of Indonesians. For example, the politically motivated and/or ethnically selective “Indo diaspora” in the Netherlands characterised the early, large waves of diaspora in the post-independence period (1945-1965).

In the 1990s, the increase of state-coordinated temporary migrant workers, mainly to the Middle East, began to take place. More recently, there is an emerging trend of independent migration of highly skilled Indonesians to countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

The changing nature of the Indonesian diaspora over time is further supported by recent estimates of spatial distribution, the stock and the inflows of Indonesian-born people across OECD countries. In 2010, the OECD said that there were approximately 330,000 Indonesian-born people living in 12 member countries that reported such statistics.

Owing to the long history of the Indonesian diaspora, the Netherlands hosts the largest stock of first-generation Indonesian migrants, with an estimated 42 percent of the Indonesian-born population within the 12 reporting OECD countries residing there. Of course, the above estimates excluded second and third-generation residents and people of mixed heritage, who make up a large bulk of diaspora communities in the Netherlands.

However, as the independent migration of skilled workers to OECD nations begins to increase in its scale and proportion, the landscape of top destination countries and subsequent diaspora pockets is likely to change. For example, the OECD’s annual flow data suggested that in 2010 the number of residence permits granted to Indonesian nationals in Australia was doubled that of the Netherlands.

Demographic transition theory frames the demand and supply mechanism of contemporary skilled migration of individuals from developing nations. The world as it is now consists of countries at different stages of demographic transition.

OECD countries are facing population aging due to low fertility rates and high life expectancies. On the other hand, like many other developing nations, while Indonesia is also experiencing a decline in its fertility and mortality rates, it is still relatively “young.”

Estimates from the World Bank indicated that in 2010, the age-dependency ratio for Indonesia was relatively low, with 8 people aged 65 and older to every 100 people of working age. In contrast, the corresponding ratio in Australia was higher at 20 people and in Japan it was 35.

In a number of OECD countries, the imminent prospect of population and labor force aging has been addressed by recent changes in their respective immigration regimes. Programs targeting skilled migration are currently high on the agenda to counter skills shortages and an anticipated decline in productivity.  

Correspondingly, the demand for skilled migrants to work and settle in developed economies presents an opportunity for the increasing stock of young and educated Indonesians to relocate and secure better salaries and quality of life.  

Additionally, the increasing intakes of skilled migrants by countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada can be partly attributed to a step-migration process. In the case of fast growing Asian economies, the growth of the middle class had been followed by an increase in the demand for overseas tertiary education.

Since the late 1990s, leading destination countries for Asian overseas students launched general skilled migration programs that channel those trained in their universities to work and settle permanently.

Having demonstrated the changing context, scale and width of the Indonesian diaspora, the next step in mapping it is to highlight the heterogeneity within each of the diaspora communities. An extract from the country profile on Indonesia published by Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship exemplifies how examining the socio-demographic composition of migrants of Indonesian origin would enable us to gauge deeper into the pertaining economic and strategic implications of the recent changes within the diaspora.

The 2010 Australian Census suggested that about 73,500 Indonesian-born persons resided in Australia, though its scope limited the diaspora to first-generation Indonesians. The number is inclusive of non-permanent Indonesians, such as those on student visas at the time of the census. On average, the Indonesian-born population is relatively younger, has a similar labor force participation rate and a slightly higher rate of unemployment than the general population.

While Indonesian-born residents made up only 0.3 percent of Australia’s population as of 2010, Indonesia is increasingly becoming an important source country for the recent stream of skilled migrants into Australia. Between 2010 and 2011, Indonesia ranked 13 among source countries for skilled migrants.

Out of more than 113,000 skilled migrant worker visas granted by Australia between 2010 and 2011, 1,621 went to Indonesian nationals, mostly under the general skilled migration schemes. The number of Indonesians granted skilled migrant visas rose by 66 percent between 2009 and 2011.  

Recent streams of general skilled migrants from Indonesia work in a range of occupations that correspond to the specific list of skills in demand by the Australian government. The categories include accountants, software and applications programmers, architects, landscape architects and chemists.

Mapping the occupational outcomes of recent flows of skilled migrants is important to identify the characteristics of skilled Indonesians abroad. In the case of Australia, the occupational distribution of general skilled migrants from Indonesia is different to that of the Philippines, for example, where registered nurses make up a significant bulk of skilled migrant labor.

Understanding the demand-responsive occupational composition of skilled migrants in their specific host countries would improve the design of future policy initiatives. For example, strategies to tap into the networks and brain pool in a country where most skilled migrants are employed as IT professionals are different than those in a country where the bulk of the diaspora is entrepreneurial in nature.

Demographic transition and globalization concurrently act to grease the flow of skilled worker migration out of developing countries. In the face of global demand for talent, the propensity of skilled Indonesians to independently move abroad is at an historical high.

It seems likely that in the near future, individual-determined mobility will outweigh state-organized or workplace-facilitated migration that has been the norm. With the number and proportion of skilled migrants increasing, it is inevitable that we ponder whether we are facing the prospect of an Indonesian brain drain, or rather a beneficial alternative of a brain gain and/or brain circulation from such a migration phenomenon.

Before debates and policy suggestions on what we can make out of the emerging pool of Indonesians abroad are launched, this article underlines the importance of making the first step to identify the context, scale, spatial distribution and socio-demographic composition of our potential talents abroad.  In general, an efficient and data-driven mapping of the diverse communities of Indonesian diaspora would greatly assist policymakers in outlining potential strategies to leverage the positive momentum from the presence of Indonesian overseas talent.

Ariane J Utomo is a research fellow at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute at Australian National University.

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