Recent Trends in International Migration


Until the 20th century, migration in the Americas was largely a matter of immigration. Countless thousands arrived in search of refuge or opportunities in the New World while many others were forcibly transferred to provide cheap slave labour for the plantations and mines of the new colonies. The movements continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, after most of the former colonies had acquired their independence and slavery had been abolished. Immigration was officially encouraged almost everywhere in the Americas, to settle the sparsely settled hinterlands and to attract specific skills and know-how from the Old World. 

This is not to say that emigration from the Americas was non-existent. Migration always and forever is a two-way process, with many coming to settle definitively, while others come with specific plans for a temporary stay and still others return when their plans and dreams are not realised (2008). But persons returning have generally remained a fraction of those arriving, until the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War essentially put a strong brake on inward movements in many countries of the Western Hemisphere.
Immigration into Latin America resumed following the end of the war, with post-war refugees and displaced persons from Europe making their way across the Atlantic. By the mid-fifties, however, the tide had turned, and most countries in the Americas, with the notable exception of Canada and the United States, became countries of emigration. Outward migration in almost all countries of Latin American and the Caribbean became predominant, with only Argentina, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Venezuela still drawing in immigrants (Figure 1a). At the aggregate level, net migration for Latin America and the Caribbean declined steadily from above zero in the nineteen fifties until the mid-nineteen eighties when it stood at about a 22-person outflow per 10 thousand persons in the population. Since then the outflow has stabilised at between 15 and 20 persons per 10 thousand persons in the population, although the situation varies considerably across countries and regions (Figure 1b).

GRAPH 1a Average annual net migration in the Americas, per 100 persons in the population, by countries / regions of emigration, 1950-2010.

GRAPH 1B Average annual net migration in the Americas, per 100 persons in the population, 1950 - 2010. 

The Southern Cone (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) as a whole has seen scarcely any net movement since the late 1950s, but this reflects generally a cancelling out of movements out of Brazil, on the one hand, and of immigration into Argentina and more recently, into Chile, on the other. The Andean region (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela) has also seen more limited emigration than in other parts of the Americas over the period, with an interlude during the seventies characterised by high immigration into Venezuela following the first oil crisis and the abrupt increase in oil prices. Over the past fifteen years, Ecuador and Peru have been the source of significant emigration, due in large part to unfavourable domestic economic conditions in those countries. 

It is essentially in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America that out-migration has been the most prevalent in recent decades, with greater proximity to the United States explaining in large part this phenomenon, as well as the fact that in general small countries and island states have high expatriation rates (OECD 2004), a consequence of the often more limited educational and job opportunities in such countries. Following a precipitous increase in emigration in the Caribbean during the fifties and in Mexico and Central America in the late sixties and seventies, all three regions have seen their net migration rates stabilise at an outflow (net) of between 40 and 60 persons per 10 thousand inhabitants. 

These are very high levels indeed, in a comparative perspective. They represent the loss of some 8 to 12 percent of a country’s population over a 20-year period. However, such outward movements have scarcely been a drain on the population of this area, which has continued to increase by more than 30 % over the past twenty years. Still, many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have been losing annually the net equivalent of more than one third of a single-year youth cohort in recent years (2005-2010, see Figure 2)). This is the case in Guyana and El Salvador (> 50%), in Saint Vincent, Jamaica and Grenada (40-50%) and in Mexico, Ecuador and Nicaragua (25-35%). In only a handful of countries in the Americas is immigration actually contributing to increases in the size of the working-age population and it is doing so significantly only in Canada and the United States. Migration thus in Latin America and the Caribbean remains a story of emigration in recent times, despite the decline in rate of outflow observed over the past decade.

GRAPH 2 Net migration as a percentage of the average size of a youth (20-24) cohort, 2005-2010.


While not yet in recession, most countries in the Americas were seeing a slowing down in the rate of growth of GDP in 2008. Canada and especially the United States, the main destination countries of migrants in the western hemisphere, were already close to zero growth over the year. While Latin America and the Caribbean continued to grow strongly, the observed rate of growth was on average the lowest observed since 2004. In 2009, it plunged below zero in many countries, with employment falling almost everywhere.

The fact that the financial crisis would spread across the planet was not fully evident until September 2008, so that migration movements continued in 2008. They increased by 7% for the countries covered in Table 1 (see Box 1), with Latin American countries showing a 39% rise. This represented a slowing down of entries following the 51% increase observed in 2007 compared to 2006. Immigration into Canada and the United States rose by a more modest 4% in 2008. Almost all of the increase observed in the Latin American countries of Table 1 in 2007 and 2008 occurred in Argentina.

TABLE 1 Legal international migration inflows in the Americas, 2009, selected countries.

  2006 2007 2008 2009 2009 2009/2008
  Permanente + Temporal Total flujos de entrada como % de la población % cambio (flujos de entrada totales)
Argentina Permanente 24900 49700 80400 95000 210200 0.52189402542076 -4.7144152311877
  Temporal 24100 80200 140200 115200      
Canadá Permanente 251600 236800 247200 252200 634500 1.8898852477762 -1.8713269409217
  Temporal 321900 357500 399400 382300      
Chile Permanente y temporal 48500 79400 68400 57100 57100 0.33647084044111 -16.520467836257
Colombia Permanente na na 150 260 30260 0.06627287090244 1.5436241610738
    na na 29650 30000      
Ecuador Permanente 40300 49400 52900 57800 99700 0.73173941357655 7.7837837837838
  Temporal 35400 38100 39600 41900      
El Salvador Permanente 330 590 590 430 2830 0.045918822660858 13.654618473896
  Temporal   2100 1900 2400      
Mexico Permanente 6900 6800 15100 23900 56400 0.051455142301021 15.102040816327
  Temporal 40200 27800 33900 32500      
Estados Unidos Permanente 1266100 1052400 1107100 1130800 2550100 0.81043344794002 -6.3908670435357
  Temporal 1457900 1606800 1617100 1419300      
Uruguay Permanente y temporal 1200 1300 4000 3800 3800 0.11306650035973 -5
América Latina (países listados anteriormente) Permanente y temporal 221830 335390 466790 460290 3644890 0.1953150849352  
      51.192354505703 39.178270073646 -1.3924891278734      
Canadá y Estados Unidos Permanente y temporal 3297500 3253500 3370800 3184600   0.91450462369156  
      -1.3343442001516 3.6053480866759 -5.5239112376884      
Total (de los países listados arriba) Permanente y temporal 3519330 3588890 3837590 3644890   0.62423444625586  

Notas: The statistics for Ecuador refer to admissions or entries rather than persons. Thus persons who entered more than once on the same permit are counted each time they enter. For this reason statistics for Ecuador are inflated relative to other countries in the table. For Chile and Uruguay, no breakdowns by temporary / permanent are available. Statistics for Mexico do not include all temporary movements; only seasonal workers are covered. In the final column, the change shown for Chile and Uruguay concerns all flows, both permanent and temporary.
Sources: National residence permit statistics, except for Colombia and temporary movements for the United States, for which the statistics are based on visas.

The statistics in Table 1 have been compiled according to national definitions and official sources and do not reflect international definitions (UN 1998). According to the latter, an immigrant is a person who changes his/her place of residence for a period of more than one year. As is evident, this definition while simple does not take into account the destination country’s view of the potential immigrant’s situation, in particular his/her rights with regard to the possible duration of stay in the country or with respect to access to public services and transfers. It may consider as immigrants, for example, both persons who enter with the right of permanent residence and international students who may be in the country for only a few years. On the other hand, it has the advantage of simplicity and clarity and the one-year cut-off coincides with the period of demographic accounting commonly used in national and international statistics. 

Nevertheless, the distinction that has been adopted for Table 1, is that between “permanent” and “temporary” migration, because most countries in the Americas compile administrative statistics on entries according to this distinction and it is the one which most nearly reflects differences in the conditions governing entry and stay of different types of migrants.
By a “permanent” migrant is meant a person who has been granted the right of settlement by the country of destination at the time of entry or who entered the country as a temporary migrant and became a permanent or settled migrant. The definition refers only to legal migration and the statistics for a given year may include persons who actually entered the country in a previous year. The “right of settlement” is generally manifested by the granting of a permit which, if it is not permanent, is more or less indefinitely renewable, although the renewal may be subject to certain conditions. The right to permanent residence per se may be accorded only after a number of years of residence in the country. 

A temporary migrant, on the other hand, enters the country with a permit that is either not renewable or only renewable in a limited way. Included in this group are such persons as international students, trainees, posted workers, installers, persons on exchange programmes, working holiday makers, seasonal workers, asylum seekers, etc. Virtually all countries distinguish between these two types of migration at entry and the legal rights accorded the two groups are different. In particular, those who enter temporarily with the right to work must usually have a job offer prior to arrival and are not generally allowed to change employers. In addition, in many cases they may not be allowed to enter with their families. They are also not generally eligible for social transfers, such as unemployment insurance or social assistance benefits. 

All countries in Table 1 except Chile grant the right of definitive residence upon entry to some migrants. In Chile, all immigrants receive a visa of one year, renewable for one year, at the end of which (or earlier) they must apply for definitive residence or leave the country. The exception is students, whose permits are renewed until they complete their studies, after which they can request permanent residence. For this reason, the visa statistics presented for Chile cover not only persons who enter temporarily but also those who will eventually be granted the right of permanent residence. For one other country, namely Uruguay, the migration system distinguishes between temporary and permanent immigrants, but the available statistics do not disaggregate by entry status. Hence, the statistics presented combine both permanent and temporary migration. 

In order to show comparable statistics on migration flows on a comparable basis for all countries, flows for both permanent and temporary movements have been added together in the fifth column of Table 1, as well as in the subtotals. This is not an entirely satisfactory state of affairs, because it combines migration movements of very different kinds, some of which represent additions to the long-term resident population, while others consist of movements of persons whose stay could be relatively short. In this first year of Migration in the Americas, combining temporary and permanent movements is a statistical expedient which should not be construed to imply that persons entering on a temporary visa or granted a temporary permit are deemed to be permanent immigrants or are expected to remain or obtain the right to remain in the destination country where they temporarily reside. 
Statistics for all countries are based on either residence permits or entry visas (the latter in the case of Chile and Colombia or for temporary migration in the United States). However, it is not known whether the statistics refer to permits formally issued or to permits issued and actually used by the persons to whom they were granted. For Chile and Colombia, the statistics refer to visas granted for both permanent and temporary admissions; for the United States, the temporary migration numbers refer to visas issued at foreign-service posts. For all other countries, the statistics concern residence permits issued.

With 2009 and the crisis firmly in place, migration movements began to decline in the countries showing the most inflows, but increased in others. Declines in Argentina, Canada and the United States showed up essentially in temporary movements rather than in permanent migration, which increased in all three countries, if only slightly. The declines in Argentina, however, essentially reflect decreases in the number of persons regularised under the Patria Grande regularisation programme. If one excludes these, then permanent migration into Argentina increases by about 85% from 2008 to 2009 and temporary migration by about 9%. Mexico saw a 42% increase in permanent inflows, but from a low level. 

Chile saw the largest proportional decline, with a fall of 17% compared to 2008. This decline largely reflects the impact of the end of the regularisation programme which began in October 2007 and ended in early 2009. Overall immigration in the Americas fell by almost 5 percent in 2009, with a decline of 1% in Latin America.

As a percent of the total population, immigration in the Latin American countries in Table 1 is low, especially in Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay. Argentina and Chile are the most significant immigration countries among the countries shown, but with levels still considerably below those of Canada and the United States. Argentina alone accounts for 46% of immigration flows among the Latin American countries in Table 1. By way of comparison, permanent migration flows into Argentina are proportionally of the same magnitude as those into France or Germany among OECD countries and three times greater than those for Japan. The latter are the three OECD countries which had the lowest permanent immigration per capita in 2009. Overall, the level of inflows for Canada and the United States is in proportional terms over seven times that of the Latin American countries as a whole in the table.


Permanent migration is that form of migration which tends to be the most closely regulated in most countries. The reason is clear: permanent immigrants tend to have rights that are comparable to those of citizens in many areas, and in particular with respect to public services and social transfers. Their presence tends to have a lasting impact on the economy and society of the destination country.

Governments, however, do not have complete discretionary control over this form of migration, for several reasons. The first concerns the fact that signed international treaties sometimes specify the nature of movements which are allowed; such movements cannot be restricted or stopped without revoking the underlying treaties. Examples are the treaties signed by the Mercosur countries and their associates (Bolivia and Chile) facilitating movements among each other, or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allows certain types of movements of highly skilled persons by the signatory countries of Canada, Mexico and the United States. Another example concerns the Geneva Convention, in which signatory countries commit themselves to examining requests for asylum on their national territories and to grant refugee status to those persons satisfying the necessary conditions. Still a fourth example concerns the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), in which signatory countries have generally committed themselves to allowing the entry of high-level corporate managers and specialists of multinational enterprises from affiliates in other countries. 

Other kinds of non-discretionary migration are associated with generally recognised human rights, namely the right of citizens to marry or adopt whom they want or of permanent residents to live with their families. The latter is sometimes subject to certain conditions, such as having adequate living quarters and a certain level of income, but these cannot be made unduly restrictive without imposing conditions that a significant proportion of nationals would not be able to satisfy and without calling into question the commitment of the country to the human rights in question.

Labour migration that is not governed by a treaty is discretionary and can in principle be revoked. It can be demand-driven (that is, at the request of the employer), such as in most countries, or supply-driven (at the invitation of the destination country), as in the skilled migration programmes of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, in which candidates for immigration are assessed on the basis of their personal characteristics (age, education, occupation, etc.) and those satisfying certain minimum requirements are invited to immigrate. Resettled refugees are another discretionary category and consist of persons selected for admission by candidate countries from refugee camps around the world. There is, however, no obligation on the part of destination country governments to resettle refugees in their countries. Entries of retired persons or of persons of independent means are other forms of discretionary migration.

Migration laws and regulations generally specify the categories of migration which are allowed and the conditions of entry and stay governing each category. The categories defined in visa or residence permit statistics tend to mirror those defined in the laws, indeed there is generally a one-to-one correspondence between the two. The same kinds of categories tend to appear in the laws and statistics of each country, because all countries are faced with the same kinds of situations, with some variations.

Figure 3 provides a distribution of permanent immigration for the countries shown, disaggregated by category of entry. The individual national categories have been grouped into a more limited number of general ones. The first thing to note is the rather low proportion of (legal) labour migration in proportional terms in the United States and even in Canada, the former of which is the main destination country for Latin American migrants.

GRAPH 3 Permanent immigration by category of entry, selected countries, 2009.

Notes: See Table 1.
Source: Sources: National residence permit statistics, except for Colombia and temporary movements for the United States, for which the statistics are based on visas.

The reason for the low Canadian labour migration numbers is that they do not include the family members of persons selected under the skilled migration stream and entering Canada at the same time as the skilled migrant; these appear under the family category. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, the United States admits few permanent labour migrants (some 70 thousand per year) and most of these are highly skilled. Migration to the United States tends to be family-oriented, with that country having the most liberal family migration policy among OECD countries, facilitating among others the immigration of adult siblings and children of (foreign-born) United States citizens, subject to a numerical limit. Most countries provide for the admission of immediate family (spouse and minor children), subject to certain conditions , but not of other family members.

Even if the total migration levels are low, the Latin-American countries in Figure 2 have more labour migration in relative terms than their North American counterparts. Argentina is only an apparent exception. Its Mercosur migrants consist largely of labour migrants, some of them regularising their situation and others entering in the context of a multilateral accord facilitating movement within the Mercosur zone.

In addition to permanent migration, countries tend also to have temporary migration regimes, in which persons are allowed to enter for specific activities and limited periods. Table 2 compares permanent and temporary labour migration for recent years as well as providing statistics on migration for study or training purposes, another form of temporary migration which is growing steadily around the world.

TABLE 2 Labour and study migration in the Americas, selected countries 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, annual averages.

  Permanente Migración laboral 
  2006-2007 2008-2009 2006-2007 2008-2009 2006-2007 2008-2009
Argentina 19100 31200 48100 123000 1100 1150
Canada 54750 62650 144650 175800 72900 82350
Chile 32400 36050 na na 1650 2250
Colombia na 150 na 16950 0 2100
Ecuador 20150 22550 20050 24150 2100 2100
United States 72100 70700 506950 439150 297100 348600
Uruguay 800 2150 na na 50 200

Notes: Data for Chile and Uruguay under “permanent” cover both permanent and temporary labour migration. No data are available for 2006-2007 for Colombia. For the purposes of this table, migration which occursunder international agreements (e.g. Mercosur) is considered to be labour migration. See also Table 1.
Fuentes: National residence permit statistics, except for Colombia and temporary movements for the United States, for which the statistics are based on visas.

For countries in the table for which the comparison is possible, namely Argentina, Canada, Ecuador and the United States, temporary labour migration exceeds permanent labour migration by a wide margin except in Ecuador : two to three to one in Canada, six to one in the United States and more than ten to one in Argentina. Most of the temporary labour migration in Argentina, consists of workers from Mercosur countries and is likely not employer-driven. Many of these workers have undoubtedly entered the country in search of work, rather than having been recruited directly by employers from abroad. Some of it may consist of unauthorised workers (see below under “Unauthorised migration”.

As is evident, the decline in labour migration in the United States as a result of the crisis occurred entirely in temporary movements, which saw a 13 percent drop in 2008-2009 compared to the levels of 2006-2007. Permanent migration was not affected, essentially because most of this (almost 90%) consisted of changes in status, that is, persons who were already employed in the United States as temporary workers and who were sponsored by their employers for a Green Card. This is the reason they do not show the drop in recruitment efforts one would normally associate with a downturn. 

Finally it is apparent that international study is far less developed in Latin America than in Canada and the United States, where it constitutes an entry channel for young persons who wish to stay on to work, and perhaps to settle, after the completion of their studies. Retention rates for international students have been estimated to range between 15 and 30 percent for a number of OECD countries (OECD 2011), many of whom allow finishing students to look for work and to stay on if they find employment commensurate with their qualifications


Latin America and the Caribbean are not commonly regarded as major countries of destination for persons seeking asylum from persecution, and this indeed is borne out by the data, with many countries in the region receiving fewer than 20 claims per million inhabitants (Table 3). Still, asylum claims in Latin America and the Caribbean numbered about 43 000 in 2009, a 73 percent progression compared to 2008 and a quadrupling since the year 2000. By contrast Canada alone received about 34 000 claims in 2009 and the United States 38 000. 

TABLE 3 Asylum seekers in the Americas, by country of destination, 2009.

  Número promedio Número Cambio
  2000-2004 2005-2009 2009 2009/2008 Por millón de habitantes
Argentina 375 587 765 89 19
Belize 29 8 24 343 78
Bolivia (Estado Plurinacional de) 18 69 42 93 4
Brasil 620 603 389 65 2
Canada 35095 28154 33970 98 1012
Chile 97 645 .. ..  
Colombia 16 148 372 418 8
Costa Rica 2775 763 1184 123 259
Cuba 57 22 10 100 1
Ecuador 6242 16606 35514 202 2607
El Salvador 11 26 100 1429 16
Guatemala 38 32 31 221 2
Haiti .. .. 20 .. 2
Honduras 60 48 38 86 5
Jamaica .. .. .. ..  
Mexico 326 508 680 215 6
Nicaragua 17 91 272 383 47
Panama 157 355 423 209 122
Paraguay 9 19 19 127 3
Peru 93 237 187 89 6
Saint Lucia .. .. 3 .. 17
Trinidad and Tobago .. .. 147 .. 110
Estados Unidos 49410 39646 38080 97 121
Uruguay 11 27 37 231 11
Venezuela (Rapública Bolivariana de) 928 2418 2873 97 101
Total 96382 91014 115180 116 125
Total menos Canada y Estados Unidos 11878 23214 43130 173 75

Source: UNHCR for asylum data and United Nations Statistics Division (World Population Prospects 2008) for population data.

The principal receiving countries were Ecuador with almost 36 000 claims and Venezuela with close to 2 900. These claims came largely from nationals of Colombia fleeing civil conflict zones near the border regions of that country. Indeed overall, claimants from Colombia accounted for almost 90 percent of all claims in Latin America and the Caribbean and a third of all claims in the Americas. China and Mexico also appear as important origin countries, with more than 10 000 claims each, China especially for the United States and Mexico for Canada.

Persons from the horn of Africa are beginning to appear as claimants in some Latin American countries, in particular Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. Other African countries appear sporadically. Cuba also appears frequently as a source country, with more than 2 000 claimants overall.

Still, if one excludes claims from Colombia, asylum seeking remains a rare phenomenon in Latin American and the Caribbean. However, there have been recent although limited claims from nationals of African countries, which may suggest that Latin America is beginning to seem a hospitable and attractive destination for asylum seeker


In all countries there is a certain amount of immigration that takes place contrary to the laws and regulations of the destination country. Not all of this migration is, strictly speaking, illegal, because some eventual immigrants actually enter legally, with a tourist or visitor visa or under visa-free provisions, but then overstay the conditions of the visa or entry. Others may enter with false documents or surreptitiously, across land or water borders. Nor are all of the migrants “undocumented”, since many will possess passports, identity cards, or visas and even undergo inspection at border control points. In any event, at some stage, whether at entry or following entry, the stay violates the laws and regulations of the destination country and the immigrant becomes subject to arrest and detention and in some cases, expulsion or imprisonment.

The primary motivation underlying such unauthorised movements is generally employment, although some persons may arrive to join friends or relatives already present, whether legally or not. In principle, employers do not have the right to hire unauthorised migrants, but many nevertheless do so. Such hirings do not always occur “under the table”. Some employers may request proof of identity or of the right to work and may even declare unauthorised immigrants on their payrolls. Indeed, it has been estimated that more than 75% of unauthorised migrants in the United States pay payroll taxes (Porter 2005), using false or borrowed Social Security numbers. Since income taxes are deducted at source, they are also in principle paying these. It is not known to what extent this unusual situation of quasi-legal employment exists in other countries. Normally, unauthorised migration is associated with employment in the informal economy, although the employer’s activity may be partially or even largely declared and formal.

Few if any countries have current statistics on flows of unauthorised immigrants. Estimates are produced periodically for the United States, however. They show that from an average of 850 000 unauthorised immigrants entering annually between 2000 and 2005, the numbers have plummeted to approximately 300 000 per year between 2007 and 2009 (Passel and Cohn 2010). Those from Mexico are estimated to have dropped from 500 000 to 150 000 per year. This decline is attributable in part to enforcement, but as well to the unfavourable employment climate in the United States, which has resulted in fewer potential migrants attempting the trip north.

In other OECD countries, the largest crisis-related declines in migration occurred in free-circulation movements of nationals of new member states within the European Union, rather than in regulated labour migration. Although unauthorised migration to the United States can scarcely be designated as “free circulation”, it does bear some similarities to it in that it has been to a large extent supply-driven and concerned workers who arrived to search for work, rather than being hired from abroad by employers. In both cases as well, workers arrived to fill largely lesser-skilled jobs.
The size of the unauthorised population in the United States in January 2010 is estimated to have been about 10.8 million, a fall of one million compared to the estimated level for January 2007 (Hoefer et al. 2011). This amounted to about 3.5% of the total population of the United States at the time and approximately 28% of the foreign-born population.

There have been a number of attempts during the past decade to reform the labour migration system in the United States, with the objective of introducing a stronger labour migration component, coupled with a regularisation of unauthorised immigrants, subject to certain conditions, and incorporating a path to permanent residence and citizenship. However, these attempts have not been able to muster enough support to pass Congress. Although the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression has reduced employer dependence on unauthorised immigrants to a certain extent, as evidenced by the high unemployment rates among Latin American migrants in the United States, it has not driven many of them back to their origin countries. They thus appear to have become a relatively stable presence in the labour market (and society) of the United States and it seems likely what with economic recovery, employers will be drawing on thos still without work as a convenient and readily available source of labour.

Unauthorised migration is not confined to the United States. It is a part of migration in every country and other countries in the Americas are subject to the phenomenon as well, but clearly not on the same scale as the United States. One might expect it to be a widespread phenomenon in Latin America, because of the common language and the large informal sector which exists in most countries (Vuletin 2008) and which make it easier for unauthorised migrants to subsist outside of formal legal structures. However, the large wage disparities which exist between, for example, Mexico and the United States, are not so present, so that the economic pay-offs to unauthorised migration are less evident.

Many countries in Latin America have carried out regularisations episodically, so that the unauthorised resident population has not accumulated and become large relative to the total foreign-born population, let alone the total population. The numbers in any event are limited.

TABLE 4 Recent regularisations in selected Latin American countries.

  Año Número Estado Países de origen significativos
Argentina 2007-2009 215840 Personas regularizadas Paraguay 119 000, Bolivia 59 000, Peru 27 000
Chile 2007-2008 49000 Solicitudes Peru 32 000, Bolivia 6 000
Colombia 2008-2009 1910 Solicitudes Ecuador 770, China 670
Mexico 2009 3840 Personas regularizadas Guatemala 1290, Honduras 970

Source: National statistics

Table 4 show the figures for recent regularisations in a number of Latin American countries. Argentina has carried out a significant regularisation programme since 2007, known as the Patria Grande Programme. Over the 2007-2009 period, close to 216 000 persons were regularised, amounting to some 10-15 percent of its total immigrant population. About 43% of applicants received permanent residence status, the rest receiving temporary permits. The most significant countries of origin were the neighbouring countries of Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. Persons regularised under this programme are included in Argentina’s inflow statistics, but are not explicitly identified. In addition to those regularised, there were an additional 188 000 persons who did not complete the documentation requirements for the regularisation. 

In Chile, the 2007-2008 regularisation programme received 49 thousand applications. This amounted to about 15 percent of the resident foreign-born population in that country. The most important origin country for Chile was Peru, which has accounted for more than half of all immigrants in recent years.


Outside of Canada and the United States, immigration in the Americas in 2009 remained essentially a regional affair, a fact which is illustrated in Figure 4. As one moves north in the Americas, the importance of South America in the inflows of the countries shown reduces and that of Central America and the Caribbean increases, before declining again in the United States and Canada. For the latter two countries, migration from Asia and for Canada, from Africa as well, are more prominent. 

GRAPH 4 Permanent and temporary immigration, by region/continent of origin, 2009.


Notes: Statistics for Ecuador are based on admissions, rather than persons. Persons more than once are counted each time they enter.
Sources: National residence permit statistics, except for Colombia and temporary movements for the United States, for which the statistics are based on visas.

In all of the Latin American countries, at least seventy, and in the case of Argentina and Chile ninety percent of immigration originated in the Americas, often from neighbouring countries (Table 5). For the two Mercosur countries in the group, namely Argentina and Uruguay, between fifty and sixty percent of all immigration came from other Mercosur countries (including Chile, an associate member). Most immigration into Chile (almost 70%), on the other hand, came from the Andean Region, especially Peru.  

TABLE 5 Permanent and temporary immigration for selected countries in the Americas, by continent/region of origin, 2009

Percent of total (permanent and temporary, respectively).

Permanente Argentina Canada Chile Ecuador El Salvador Mexico Estados Unidos Uruguay
Total (personas)   95 020 252 180 57 060 57 800 430 23 850 1 130 820 3 830
Africa   0.1 12 0.2 0.2 0.5 0.9 11.2 na
Asia   7.8 56.7 4.2 7.2 6.2 12.5 36.6 na
Europa   1.5 15.3 5.4 13.2 10.6 14.1 9.3 15.2
Oceania   0 0.8 0.4 0.2 0 0.2 0.5 na
Americas (personas)   85 640 36 430 51 260 45 750 360 17 240 478 110 3 120
    90.1 14.4 89.8 79.1 82.7 72.3 42.3 81.5
De las cuales: America del Norte 0.8 3.9 4.3 10.6 12 14.5 1.4 7.5
  Caribe 1.1 4 2.2 20.3 1.6 8.6 13.5 na
  America Central 0.4 1.9 2.4 3 53 20.7 18.8 na
  Region Andina 45.8 3.3 69.9 34.6 11.8 17.9 6.3 na
  Cono Sur (incluido Brasil) 42 1.4 11 10.6 4.4 10.5 2.2 56.8
  America otros na na na na na na na 17.2
No especificado   0.5 0.7 0 0 0 0 0.1 3.3
    100 100 100 100 100 172.3 100 100

Temporal Argentina Canada Chile Ecuador El Salvador Mexico Estados Unidos Uruguay
Total (personas)   115 170 382 330 na 41 910 2 360 30 680 1 419 280 na
Africa   0.1 2.4 na 0.3 0.1 0 4.4 na
Asia   0.5 25.6 na 9.5 6.3 0 46.2 na
Europa   1.1 16.9 na 20.5 9.1 0 26.7 na
Oceania   0 3.6 na 0.5 0.2 0 1.8 na
Americas (personas)   113 230 91 740 na 29 040 1 990 30 680 295 520 na
    98.3 24 na 69.3 84.3 100 20.8 na
De las cuales: America del Norte 0.4 9.7 na 21.8 9.1 0 0.3 na
  Caribe 0.2 3.4 na 4.8 1 0 1.8 na
  America Central 0.7 8.7 na 3.8 55.7 100 10.3 na
  Region Andina 46.6 1 na 28.6 13 0 3.4 na
  Cono Sur (incluido Brasil) 50.4 1.2 na 10.3 5.6 0 5 na
No especificado   0 27.5 na 0 0 0 0 na
    100 100 na 100 100 100 100 na

Notes: “na” indicates not applicable or not available. Flows indicated as permanent for Chile and Uruguay cover both permanent and temporary entries. Guyana, Suriname and Guyane are considered to be Caribbean for the purposes of this table. Data for Canada only disaggregate temporary migrants by nationality for workers, students/trainees and humanitarian migrants. “Not specified” includes persons with no nationality or whose nationality is unknown or was not specified in the data. Statistics for Ecuador measure admissions rather than persons granted permits; the same persons therefore can be counted more than once, which can introduce distortions both with respect to the levels of entries, but also with respect to their distribution by country or region of origin.

In comparative and relative terms, the countries of the Americas were less important as source countries for Canada and the United States, although they still represented over 40% of permanent immigrants into the United States, even without taking into account unauthorised migration into that country (assuming that the latter is indeed generally permanent in intention). Canada, on the other hand, had a higher proportion of temporary than permanent immigrants from the Americas, with Central America and the United States being about equally represented in the flows.  


If immigration is a growing phenomenon in Latin America and the Caribbean, emigration remains the dominant theme with respect to movements of populations throughout the region. From 2003 to 2009, almost 950 thousand persons per year emigrated from the Americas towards OECD countries (Table 6).  The average number of movements per year actually increased overall in 2008-2009 compared to 2003-2007. Close to  half of these movements were to the United States and about one quarter to Spain. The share of the United States and the number of persons moving there have increased by four percentage points and 50 000 persons, respectively, since 2003-2007, with the opposite trend occurring in Spain.

TABLE 6 Emigration from the Americas towards OECD countries by country of origin and country/region of destination, 2003-2007, 2008-2009, annual averages.

Region/Pais de origen Promedio anual 2003-2007 Promedio anual 2008-2009
  Estados Unidos Resto de la OCDE fuera de Europa España Resto de la OCDE Europa Total Estados Unidos Resto de la OCDE fuera de Europa España Resto de la OCDE Europa Total Porcentaje de cambio en el promedio
Canada   16 500 9 130 470 9 920 36 020   15 620 12 630 560 11 040 39 850   11
Estados Unidos   160 54 150 3 740 61 150 119 200   200 67 440 4 670 63 840 136 150   14
America del Norte   16 660 63 280 4 210 71 070 155 220   15 820 80 070 5 230 74 880 176 000   13
Antigua and Barbuda   430 30 0 10 470   440 60 0 0 500   6
Bahamas   660 30 0 10 700   720 60 0 10 790   13
Barbados   730 110 0 20 860   590 150 0 20 760   -12
Cuba   28 150 1 180 7 100 2 470 38 900   44 230 2 920 8 190 2 590 57 930   49
Dominica   290 60 110 230 690   470 70 130 200 870   26
Dominican Republic   30 050 320 12 360 2 730 45 460   40 650 700 14 300 2 630 58 280   28
Grenada   750 300 0 10 1 060   770 310 0 20 1 100   4
Guyana   7 550 1 290 0 180 9 020   6 750 1 140 0 130 8 020   -11
Haiti   18 730 1 730 40 2 970 23 470   25 140 2 360 80 2 520 30 100   28
Jamaica   18 090 2 070 10 170 20 340   20 130 2 590 20 190 22 930   13
Saint Kitts and Nevis   350 10 0 10 370   340 30 0 0 370   0
Saint Lucia   820 180 0 90 1 090   990 290 0 120 1 400   28
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines   530 360 0 10 900   580 470 0 20 1 070   19
Suriname   230 20 10 1 960 2 220   220 20 10 1 710 1 960   -12
Trinidad and Tobago   6 350 850 10 100 7 310   6 100 1 170 10 90 7 370   1
Caribe   113 710 8 540 19 640 10 970 152 860   148 120 12 340 22 740 10 250 193 450   27
Belize   930 40 0 20 990   1 060 130 0 30 1 220   23
Costa Rica   2 190 280 340 280 3 090   2 240 470 440 390 3 540   15
El Salvador   26 460 600 860 170 28 090   19 780 1 720 1 060 200 22 760   -19
Guatemala   18 440 270 680 220 19 610   14 180 1 900 1 020 280 17 380   -11
Honduras   6 600 180 4 170 150 11 100   6 470 1 330 4 880 210 12 890   16
Mexico   154 970 3 070 4 950 3 820 166 810   177 450 4 100 5 520 5 040 192 110   15
Nicaragua   3 850 110 1 650 140 5 750   3 880 460 2 950 200 7 490   30
Panama   1 750 110 410 120 2 390   1 740 250 460 130 2 580   8
America Central   215 190 4 660 13 060 4 920 237 830   226 800 10 360 16 330 6 480 259 970   9
Bolivia   2 390 280 47 360 640 50 670   2 640 630 11 800 830 15 900   -69
Colombia   27 100 5 690 26 980 4 340 64 110   29 030 7 130 33 860 4 860 74 880   17
Ecuador   11 410 620 31 360 3 870 47 260   11 900 990 27 980 4 530 45 400   -4
Peru   15 260 2 610 20 040 5 490 43 400   16 070 3 900 23 710 6 880 50 560   16
Venezuela   8 580 1 420 11 780 1 410 23 190   10 830 3 030 8 840 1 280 23 980   3
Region Andina   64 740 10 620 137 520 15 750 228 630   70 470 15 680 106 190 18 380 210 720   -8
Argentina   5 600 1 850 23 460 3 240 34 150   5 570 2 440 13 190 2 270 23 470   -31
Brazil   13 150 31 700 23 440 24 560 92 850   13 450 12 860 20 860 19 070 66 240   -29
Chile   2 110 740 8 110 1 810 12 770   2 130 1 210 5 490 1 990 10 820   -15
Paraguay   460 260 14 200 260 15 180   510 380 17 010 330 18 230   20
Uruguay   1 100 290 8 760 200 10 350   1 610 470 3 930 250 6 260   -40
Cono Sur (Incluido Brasil)   22 420 34 840 77 970 30 070 165 300   23 270 17 360 60 480 23 910 125 020   -24
Total por pais/region de destino   432 710 121 940 252 440 132 800 939 890   484 470 135 820 210 990 133 890 965 170   3
Distribucion en porcentajes   46 13 27 14 100   50 14 22 14 100    

Notes: The statistics are rounded to the nearest ten.The figures are based on aggregations of national statistics which may differ with respect to their coverage of short-term movements.
Source: OECD International Migration Database.

It is the Southern Cone which has seen the largest decline in emmigration over the period considered, at 24%, with the Andean Region following with a decrease of 8%. Although large proportional decreases are observed in all of the countries of the Southern Cone except Paraguay, it is essentially Bolivia which absorbed all of the decline in the Andean Region, while Colombia and Peru actually increased their migration towards OECD countries. Migration from the Andean Region and the Southern Cone, however, tended to go preferentially to Spain, a country which was hit very hard by the economic crisis. Indeed, permanent migration from the Andean Region and the Southern Cone to the United States actually increased from every country of the region without exception. This would undoubtedly not be the case if temporary migration were to be included, where most of the crisis-induced decline in immigration into the United States occurred.

By contrast with the overall results for South America, migration from the Caribbean and Central America towards OECD countries rose by almost a quarter over the period. Note, however, that this may reflect the impact of a rebound from the somewhat depressed levels in the United States which followed in the years after September 11th. Only a few countries did not share in the rise, in particular Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, El Salvador and Guatemala.

It is striking to observe the extent to which legal migration levels from the Americas to OECD destination countries have generally maintained themselves in the midst of the most severe economic crisis of the post-war years. There are exceptions to this, in particular in migration levels to Spain and for those countries whose nationals were emigrating largely to Spain. It has also been documented for authorised migration into the United States (Passel and Cohn 2010), which has seen a substantial decline since the middle of the decade.

GRAPH 5 Remittance outflows from Spain and the United States, 2006-2010, $US billion

Source: World Bank (2010) up to 2009 and authors’ calculation for 2010.

Economic downturns tend to affect labour migration the most, both because employers are making fewer requests to recruit from abroad as a result of lower levels of demand but also because persons under free or facilitated movement regimes remain at home rather than risk an uncertain labour market abroad. Indeed, it is free-movement migration which has been seen to be the most sensitive to the economic crisis and to have declined the most (OECD 2010a and 2011). Discretionary labour migration, particularly when it concerns high-skilled occupations, may often involve occupations which are structurally in shortage, a situation which the higher unemployment and layoffs observed during an economic crisis does not necessarily eliminate.

Family and humanitarian migration may be affected by a crisis as well, in so far as they depend for their financing on resources supplied by immigrants already resident in destination countries and who may lose their jobs and join the ranks of the unemployed. However, many of these movements may have been planned for some time or may already have been in the pipeline. Migrants may well consider that there is a greater risk in delaying or postponing the movements to a future date than in dealing with the prevailing uncertainties in the labour market.


Latin American and Caribbean countries received about 20% of overall officially recorded remittance flows to developing countries in 2009, which corresponded to US$ 57 billion (Table 7). In absolute terms, Mexico was the most important receiver in the region with US$ 22 billion in 2009. It was also the third most important receiving country worldwide after India (US$ 49 billion) and China (US$ 48 billion). In 2009, other important recipients in the region were Brazil, Columbia and Guatemalawith almost US$ 4 billion each followed by El Salvador and the Dominican Republic (US$ 3.5 billion).

In relative terms, it is in Honduras, Guyana, El Salvador and Haiti that remittances represent the highest percentage of GDP, between 15 and 20%. By comparison this percentage reaches 50% in Tajikistan (2008) but was less than 3% in about half of the Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Mexico.

Remittances play an important role in the region as a source of foreign currency but also to fight poverty as well as to foster households’ investments in education and health. However, their impact is generally modest and varies across countries and over time.

An in-depth World Bank study considering 11 Latin American countries has shown that for each percentage point increase in the share of remittances in gross domestic product (GDP), the fraction of the population living in poverty is reduced by about 0.4 percent on average. In addition, data from household surveys suggest that migration and remittances reduce the number of persons living in poverty in 6 out of the 11 countries for which data are available—the exceptions being Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and the Dominican Republic (World Bank 2007).

TABLE 7 Remittances inflows in Latin American and Caribbean countries

  (millones de US$) % de cambio a–o a a–o Porci—n del PIB, 2009 (%)
  2008 2009 2010e 2008-09 2008-10 2009
Antigua and Barbuda 26 24 27   -4.1 4.3   2
Argentina 698 660 682   -5.4 -2.2   0.2
Belize 78 80 88   3 12.5   5.7
Bolivia 1 144 1 061 1 064   -7.3 -7   6.1
Brasil 5 089 4 234 4 277   -16.8 -16   0.3
Chile 3 4 5   76 81.2   0
Colombia 4 884 4 180 3 942   -14.4 -19.3   1.8
Costa Rica 605 574 622   -5.2 2.8   2
Repœblica Dominicana 3 556 3 477 3 373   -2.2 -5.1   7.3
Ecuador 2 828 2 502 2 548   -11.5 -9.9   4.5
El Salvador 3 804 3 531 3 648   -7.2 -4.1   15.7
Guatemala 4 460 4 026 4 255   -9.7 -4.6   9.8
Guayana 278 253 280   -9.1 0.4   17.3
Haiti 1 370 1 376 1 499   0.4 9.4   15.4
Honduras 2 869 2 553 2 662   -11 -7.2   19.3
Jamaica 2 180 1 924 2 020   -11.8 -7.4   13.8
Mexico 26 304 22 153 22 572   -15.8 -14.2   2.5
Nicaragua 818 768 803   -6.1 -1.8   10.3
Panama 196 175 198   -10.6 0.8   0.7
Paraguay 579 555 573   -4.2 -0.9   3.7
Peru 2 444 2 378 2 494   -2.7 2.1   1.8
Trinidad and Tobago 109 99 109   -9.2 -0.6   0.4
Uruguay 108 101 104   -6.5 -3.6   0.3
Venezuela, RB 137 131 129   -4.4 -5.6   0
Surinam 2 2 2   -7.9 -8.5   0.1
Aruba 15 19 20   25.8 34.4    
Barbados 168 149 161   -11.3 -4   3.8
Granada 55 54 59   -3 5.9   8.7
St. Lucia 31 28 30   -12.2 -5.5   2.8
Total de los anteriores 64 839 57 071 58 246   -12 -10.2   5.6
Total LDCs 324 832 307 088 325 466   -5.5 0.2    

Source: World Bank (2010). 


After several decades of almost continuous growth, remittances flows were severely affected by the recent financial and economic crises. Table 7 shows that on average, remittances flows to Latin American and Caribbean countries dropped by 12% between 2008 and 2009 and did not fully recover in 2010. In contrast, the decline in remittances to other developing countries, notably in Asia, was much more modest in 2009 (-5%) and was followed by a steep recovery in 2010.

Between 2008 and 2010, remittances flows declined most notably in Colombia (-19%), Brazil (-16%) and Mexico (-15%). Sizeable decreases are also recorded in Ecuador (-10%) and to a lesser extent in Bolivia, Jamaica and Honduras (-7%). Some richer Latin American and Caribbean countries, on the contrary, actually observed an increased in remittances (e.g. Belize, Chile, Costa Rica).

Reductions in remittances were observed in 2009 among other reasons because of a reduction in migration flows and stocks, lower migrant incomes in host countries and in some cases unfavorable trends in exchanges rates. On the other hand, some migrants may have sent more remittances to support their families back home during the economic downturn. In the case of most Latin American and Caribbean countries the negative effects have clearly dominated. This is partly due to the fact that Latin American migrants are highly concentrated in the United States and in Spain, two countries which were particularly hard hit by the 2008 financial crisis. In the wake of the latter, these countries experienced a significant drop in remittance outflows (Figure 6).

GRAPH 6 Emigrant workers from the Americas in Europe and the United States, by region of origin, 2008-2009 average.

Source: European Union Labour Force Survey and Current Population Survey. 

Latin American workers particularly suffered from the worsening of the labour market situation because of their concentration in the construction sector. According to United States data (from the Current Population Survey) the unemployment rate of Mexican workers reached 13% in 2009 and 10% for other Latin American workers. Corresponding figures were respectively 5.5% and 4.5% in 2007. These evolutions have strongly affected remittance flows. In the case of Mexico and of the Dominican Republican there was even anecdotal evidence of reverse remittances flows to the United States in 2009 as migrants used their savings back home to make mortgage payments in the United States.

A study by the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) estimated that in 2006 Latin American migrants living in the United States sent $45 billion remittances back home (IDB 2006). Remittances flows to Latin America have decreased significantly in the past two years, however. For example, overall remittances received by Mexico and El Salvador, the two most important Latin American communities in the United States, have been reduced by 18.6% and 4.2% respectively in 2009. Recent figures for Mexico indicate a reversal of the trend with a 6% increase in remittances flows in January 2011. This has had a limited impact on households receiving dollar transfers, however, because it was offset by the appreciation of the peso against the US dollar currency and by inflation in Mexico.

The economic situation is also very difficult in Spain, which was home to almost 2.3 million persons of Latin American origin in 2009, including large communities from Andean countries . Despite the difficult conditions, few appear to have returned .. As unemployment reached a record high level in Spain in 2011, with almost 5 million workers looking for a job and an unemployment rate of 21.3%, Latin American migrants are having a difficult time in the Spanish labour market. At the end of 2010, their unemployment rate reached 26%. In this context, remittances flows were negatively affected. In the case of Ecuador for example, remittances received from Spain declined from 1.28 $US billion in 2007 to 944 million in 2010 (-27%). Spain is currently going through a severe economic crisis and employment opportunities for migrants, notably for low-skilled workers, will most probably remain well below what they were just a few years ago for some time.

Japan in 2007 also had a significant number of migrants from Latin American countries, in particular from Brazil (317 000) and Peru (60 000) (MOJ 2010). According to the Inter-American Development Bank, remittances from the Brazilian migrants living in Japan reached US $2.6 billion in 2006, accounting for more than a third of all remittances received by Brazil. However, since 2008 Brazilians and Peruvians have fewer employment opportunities in Japan, notably in the manufacturing sector where most of them are concentrated. In addition, the Japanese government has also decided to encouraged returns of unemployed migrants . Consequently, between 2007 and 2009, the total number of Brazilian and Peruvian workers in Japan decreased by 16% and 4%, respectively. The earthquake and the tsunami that hit the archipelagos in 2011 will probably have additional detrimental impacts on the labour market and both migration and remittances flows are expected to decline further in the short run.

Finally, Portugal should be mentioned as it is the third main country of destination for Brazilians after the United States and Japan, with a community of 117 000 long-term residents in 2009. At the end of 2010, their unemployment rate reached almost 15% compared to around 11% for the native-born. Net remittances sent from Portugal to Brazil reached Euros 301 million in 2009, a 6.5% decline compared to the previous year and almost 12% compared to 2006. The forthcoming trends will depend on the outlook of the Portuguese economy, which remains uncertain.

In most cases the trends in remittances were mostly affected by the situation in destination countries, but this was not entirely the case in Haiti where large increases of remittances have been recorded in 2010, following the devastation caused by the earthquake that struck Haiti in January. Total remittances received in February 2010 represented a 30% increase compared to what was received a year before. In total the World Bank estimates that Haiti received US$ 1.5 billion in 2010 or 15% more than in the two previous years.