Ecuador - Overview of the history of international migration in Ecuador

Despite the changes that Spanish conquest caused to native population, migratory flows towards and from Ecuador remained relatively constant until the second half of the Twentieth century. It is during the last fifty years that Ecuador has experienced large migratory movements, both within and outside its borders. The greatest movements within were from the Sierra region towards the Coast, and from rural areas to urban centers. These mobilizations were a result of changing successes in exports of cocoa, bananas, and oil.

Emigration, on the other hand, increased to unprecedented level within a context of intense urbanization, poor performance of export economics, and an acute financial crisis (Jokisch, 2007).

Ecuador has experienced two large migratory processes; the first started in the 50’s in the South Sierra region (mainly in the provinces of Azuay, Cañar and Loja), and had as primary destination the United States; the second came about at the end of the 90’s, and went to Europe, especially to Spain and Italy. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC, for its initials in Spanish acronym), during this period emigrated around 1,500,000 persons.

The information provided by Ecuador’s consulates –although requiring a careful reading- indicates that the total reaches some 2,500,000 persons (data updated to January 2008), which constitutes 17.6% of the country’s total population on that date.

During the last decade the country also received important immigrantion flows coming from its bordering neighbors, Colombia and Peru. In the case of Colombia, immigrants arrived in great measure/ mostly?? in search of refugee protection and safer and more stable life conditions, as a result of the internal armed conflict[L2] ; while Peruvians were attracted to by the??? ‘dollarization’ of Ecuador’s economy, and the adverse economic circumstances in their country.

Migration History

During the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries, the native populations suffered the Incan invasions coming from current Peru, and the arrival of Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar, in 1534. Towards the end of the Sixteenth century, 70 percent of native population had died as a result of illnesses or wars (Newson, 1997).

In addition to Europeans and natives, Ecuadorian society composition incorporated African-native population in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. The African slaves were mainly taken to Ibarra, Guayaquil, and the gold mines located in what today is Colombia  (Popayán). A lesser number of slaves were taken to Quito, Cuenca, and other urban areas. The colonial district of Quito, which extended towards the south of Colombia, had a slave population of around 12,000 persons. The province of Esmeralda also sheltered a community of slaves freed after a shipwreck of a vessel coming from Panama destined to Peru (Jokisch, 2007). The African descendants from this group currently represent approximately 5% of the population (INEC, 2001 Population Census).

With independence, the socioeconomic structure established during the colonial period lived on in subsequent centuries. Descendants of European families concentrated land holdings and other natural resources, which were labored by a large peasantry. The highest socioeconomic strata is divided between the elite landowners of the Sierras (interior region, with agricultural-livestock production, rubber, and oil as of the 1970’s); and the elite landowners of the coast (coastal region, concentrated on agricultural exports, such as cocoa and bananas).

Between the end of the Nineteenth century and the beginning of the Twentieth century, Ecuador’s economy prospered based on the production of Panama hats[i] and cocoa exports. This brought another important group of Ecuadorian society called “the Lebanese”, who escaping from Ottoman oppression in their country, rapidly integrated as shopkeepers and salespersons. The term “Lebanese” is applied in broad manner to persons of Arabic language, predominantly Christian immigrants with Syrian, Palestine, or Lebanese ancestry origin (Roberts, 2000).  While difficult to specify the figures of this immigration, its social impact is broadly recognized, because among its descendants are two presidents of Ecuador, and also some families of high socioeconomic level established in various provinces (Roberts, 2000).  

During the Nineteenth century, although on a lesser scale, entered the country Armenians, Basque, British, Greek, French, German, and Italians. In general, the majority of families of European ancestry arrived with capital, and became a part of the highest socioeconomic levels, occurring the peculiarity that marriages were celebrated in the majority within these same groups.

An even lesser number of Chinese and Japanese migrants arrived in the country at the end of the Nineteenth century, occupying jobs as miners, laborers, and fishermen.

In the first decades of the Twentieth century, and driven in part by the surge in the banana and cocoa agro-industry, the highest socioeconomic groups started to send their children to study abroad. The main destination, until the 1920’s, was France. In the 1930’s and 1940’, started to generate an important flow towards the United States.

It wasn’t until the 50’s that Ecuador started to have an emigration of considerable proportions. In this period, emigration was primarily linked to young men from the south Ecuadorian areas that, due to the crisis in production of Panama hats (‘paja toquilla’), emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Venezuela (CEDHU, 1997).  A great part of them used their commercial contacts to emigrate to New York and, in general, without legal documentation. The majority worked in restaurants as busboys or dishwashers, and a lesser number in plants or construction (Jokisch, 2007). The majority of these emigrants did not return to the country, but created expatriate networks that caused greater migratory flows. During the same period, the native population kichwa otavalo started to emigrate to the United States and certain European countries. Their emigration, however, was temporary of commercial character, related to the sale of craftworks (CEDHU, 1997).

At the internal level, the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil were the major figures of massive urbanization. The exodus came from the poor highlands to the commercial plantations of the coastal lowlands, and from rural to urban areas. This process was characterized by the quickness and amount of flows, as is the case of the city of Guayaquil, which doubled its population in less than 12 years, from 1950 to 1962. (IOM, 2008). 

In the 1950’s and beginnings of the 1960’s, the expansion of banana cultivation and the increased need of port installations, stimulated the growth of medium-size cities, such as Santo Domingo, Quevedo, Esmeraldas, and Machala. In the 1970’s and the beginning of the 1980’s, Santo Domingo continued growing, while plantations of African palms were spread throughout the interior. Other coastal cities grew based on the fishing industry, such as shrimp farming and tourism. This created the development of small Chinese and Japanese communities, dedicated specifically to the fishing industry. Toward the mid-1970’s, salaries paid in urban areas due to the influx of the blooming oil industry were more attractive than the incomes for agricultural products. This caused peasant workers to opt for urban jobs instead of agricultural labor, saturating even more urban centers that were not prepared to receive significant contingents of internal migrants (Kluck, 1989).

Many cities confronted a series of common problems as a result of the enormous influx of internal migrants. The amount of persons in poverty status employed in marginal sectors and occupations increased to such a degree that it exceeded the capacity of local governments to provide basic services and employment. The degradation process of territory generated informal densely populated settlements around the central areas of cities. These settlements were then another consequence of internal migrations that resulted in the occupation of extensive strips of marginal lands. The settlements expanded in the 1970’s and towards the mid-1980’s, and represented between 10 and 15% of Quito’s population (Kluck, 1989).

Migration remained slow but persistent during the 1970s; migrants from numerous communities in Azuay and Cañar provinces (previously associated with the Panama hat trade) joined the clandestine migration networks that led people through Central America and Mexico en route to the United States. A small number of Ecuadorians migrated to Venezuela, whose oil-led economy was strong through the 1970s (Jokisch, 2007).

The oil boom lived by Ecuador during the 1970’s suddenly slowed down due to the drop in oil prices in the 80’s. Ecuador became trapped by the recession, high inflation, and unemployment. The emigration that followed was until the late 1990’s principally comprised of persons from the countryside, rural artisans, and males from Azuay and Cañar migrating to the United States. The majority of men became temporary laborers or acquired jobs in the service industry, while the women found work in the garment industry, at restaurants, and as domestic servants. The Kichwa Otavalo population continued its migratory pattern characterized by temporary emigration for purposes of artisan commerce. This period also saw the hardening of U.S. immigration policy (CEDHU, 1997). At the beginning of the 1990s, emigration from Loja to Spain also began as a consequence of the military conflict with Peru (1995-1998). This migration created the first real migratory network to Europe (Abott, 2000).                                                        

Spain proved to be an attractive destination due to an existing agreement that allowed Ecuadorians to enter the country as tourists, without the need of a visa. Spain also offered plentiful, low-skilled work in the informal economy and migrants did not have to worry about language differences. This openness lasted until 2003, when in that year Spain started to require a visa for Ecuadorians, and at the same time made significant reforms to its Immigration Act, that tends to evermore restrict the entry of foreigners to its country. In lesser degree, there was also emigration to Italy and Australia.

Low oil prices and floods that damaged export crops, coupled with political instability and financial mismanagement, caused a second economic crisis in the late 1990s. The national currency, the sucre, lost more than two-thirds of its value, and the unemployment rate rose to 15 percent and the poverty rate to 56 percent (Jokisch, 2007). In addition, in the year 2000 Ecuador experienced a political crisis that culminated with the overthrow of the country’s head of state. The migration wave that followed affected all sectors of society.

From the years 2000 to 2008 it is calculated that a million and a half Ecuadorians left the country, many towards the European Union as a response to the adverse conditions at home (OIM, 2008). The principal destinations were Spain, the US and Italy, and to a lesser extent France, Holland, Germany, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Chile and Venezuela. According to a study published by CEIEME (La Comisión Especial Interinstitucional de Estadísticas de Migraciones en el Ecuador), approximately 11 percent of the total population and 30 percent of its economically active population lived abroad towards the end of 2007 (ECLAC, 2010). 

Regarding Immigration, Most recently immigration to Ecuador has come from either Colombia or Peru. A large part of Columbians came as refugees seeking asylum from political turmoil at home. The UNHCR estimated between 130 and 140 thousand Colombians residing in Ecuador in 2008 (ACNUR, 2008). Peruvians are the second largest group and have been attracted in large part by adverse economic circumstances at home and Ecuador’s decision to switch its currency to the US dollar in the year 2000. Estimates vary, but it is likely that between 60,000 and 120,000 Peruvians now resided in Ecuador in 2007, most without legal permission (Jokisch, 2007). Other migrant groups recently attracted to Ecuador include Chinese and North Americans who come either for business or as retirees. The presence of Cuban citizens also has recently increased. In 2009, was verified an increase of approximately 4,000 national Cubans (National Migration Police - Policía Nacional de Migración). 


Despite the differences existing regarding estimates of the number of Ecuadorians that have emigrated to other countries, the magnitude of the phenomenon –especially accelerated as of the end of the 90’s - has brought a situation in which, for the year 2008, 17.6% of the population lives outside the borders, generating a deep impact on the Ecuadorian social fabric.          

According to the Central Bank of Ecuador (Banco Central de Ecuador), remittances sent by Ecuadorians to their families reached US$2.324 million in 2010. Despite that remittances have decreased as a result of the world economic crisis that affected the levels of employment and income of those that had emigrated to countries, such as Spain and the United States, they continue to be significant to the Ecuadorian economy.