Increased international migration of health professionals is weakening healthcare systems in low-income countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa. The migration of nurses, physicians and other health professionals from countries in sub-Saharan Africa poses a major threat to the achievement of health equity in this region. As nurses form the backbone of healthcare systems in many of the affected countries, it is the accelerating migration of nurses that will be most critical over the next few years. In this paper we present a comprehensive analysis of the literature and argue that, from a human rights perspective, there are competing rights in the international migration of health professionals: the right to leave one's country to seek a better life; the right to health of populations in the source and destination countries; labour rights; the right to education; and the right to non-discrimination and equality. Creative policy approaches are required to balance these rights and to ensure that the individual rights of health professionals do not compromise the societal right to health.