Belize - Overview of the history of international migration in Belize

Belize was part of the Mayan empire of Central America which flourished between 300 and 900 AD. The country changed hands between Spain and Britain from the early 1600s until 1862 when it became British Honduras. The country was renamed Belize in 1973 and gained independence in 1981. Apart from its heterogeneity, one of Belize’s most prominent features is its small size and population. Latest figures show the total population to be around 312,698 (2010 Census). In relative terms, Belize is also the Central American country that has received the largest foreign population since 1983. In 2010, foreigners constituted 14.8 percent of the population. A national census the same year concluded, however, that the net migration rate was -2.3 migrants per 1,000 population (IOM, 2010). These factors have caused a massive shift in Belize’s socio-cultural landscape over the last three decades, as massive influxes of neighboring Central Americans coincided with large emigration rates. These movements caused much of the English-speaking population to be replaced by a Spanish-speaking one, a process now referred to as ‘latinization’, whose far reaching consequences are only now coming to light.

Migration History

The Maya were the first to inhabit the land referred to as La Ruta Maya, whose territory also included Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. At the peak of the Mayan empire, archeologists estimate that 1 to 2 million Mayans lived within the borders of Belize. Though far less in number, many Maya were still in Belize when the Europeans came in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The first reference to an informal European settlement in the colony was in 1638, when Belize was used as a hide out by pirates from Scotland and England. The population grew with the addition of disbanded British soldiers and sailors after the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. While territorial skirmishes with the Spanish crown would continue till the end of the century, in 1763 Spain allowed the British settlers to engage in the logwood industry through the Treaty of Paris. The British introduced slavery to Belize and imported thousands of slaves from Africa (through Bermuda and Jamaica) to cut logwood and later mahogany. According to a 1790 census, 75 percent of the territory’s residents were slaves, 10 percent were whites, and the rest were free blacks. Ignored by the census were the Mayan Indian communities.

The early 1800’s marked the arrival of the Garifuna people. The Garifuna, also known as the Garinagu, were descendants of Carib peoples of the Lesser Antilles and of Africans who had escaped from slavery. They initially came to Belize from Honduras as a result of conflicts with European settlers. Some worked alongside slaves in the mahogany trade, while others set up fishing villages. Living largely in exclusive societies, the Garinagu now comprise about 4.6 percent of Belize’s population.

Shortly after, Mestizos fleeing from the Caste War of Yucatan, modern day Mexico, arrived at the northern regions of Belize. They originally arrived in Belize in 1847 when over 70,000 Maya revolted against the 20,000 Spanish throughout the Yucatan. The survivors fled over the border into British territory. Additionally, many refugees of the Caste War eventually reached western Belize by way of Peten, Guatemala, establishing communities in Benque Viejo del Carmen, San Ignacio, and San Jose Succotz. This is considered the first of two major migratory influxes to Belize.

Another major group to settle in Belize during its early history was from the East Indies. The first group of East Indians arrived in the West Indies in 1838 as indentured servants, to fill a gap in the labor force created by the abolition of slavery. Indentured workers were encouraged to come to the Caribbean to work, under a signed contract, for about five years; after which time they were free to return to India, or remain in the Caribbean as laborers on their own terms. Statistics show that between 1844 and 1917, over 41,000 East Indians were indentured to work in British colonies in the Caribbean. The East Indians that came to Belize again in the 1880s were from Jamaica, and and worked mainly on the sugar estates established by wealthy Americans who had settled in the Toledo District after fleeing the Civil War in the United States.

Two other important groups are the Chinese and the Mennonites. In 1865, 480 Chinese immigrants were brought to Belize as indentured laborers. Over the years they continued to migrate to Belize, most of them coming from the Kwangtung Province of Southern China. While they comprise less than one percent of the population, they have contributed significantly to the country’s economy. In 1958, some 3,500 Canadian Mennonites arrived in Belize. Now comprising 3.8 percent of Belize’s population, they have their own schools, churches, and financial institutions in various communities throughout the upper reaches of the Belize River.

A large part of immigrants who came to Belize were integrated into its monoculture economies.  As occurred elsewhere in the Caribbean, over the centuries the colony's administrators had based its economy on a succession of single raw commodities; logwood in the 1600s and 1700s and mahogany in the 1800s. When the supply of accessible timber dwindled and logging became too unprofitable half way through the 20th century, the country's economy shifted to cane sugar as the principal export and later diversified into cultivation of citrus, bananas, seafood, and apparel. Also important is the country’s booming tourism economy. However, a small work force, limited capital and an export economy bound to price fluctuations in the international market have made it difficult for the economy to accommodate many Belizeans seeking work. Many have chosen emigration in response to these adverse conditions.

By the time Belize gained its independence in 1981, emigration had established itself as a central characteristic of Belizean society. The first large-scale emigration occurred during the 1940s and 1950s, when over 1,000 Belizean men were recruited for work in agriculture and industry in the United States. Many other Belizeans worked in construction in the Panama Canal Zone (Miller, 1993). During World War II many Belizeans were recruited to fill the gap left by labor shortages, also in the US. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie devastated large swaths of Belize, causing large-scale emigration throughout the sixties. The 1970’s were also a period of emigration as Belizeans, especially women, were attracted by the low-wage service sector in the United States.  But the largest and most significant emigration of Belizeans occurs in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and coincides with the second massive influx of immigrants to the country.

During the 1980s, a large flow of migrants from Central America entered Belize, due to political and economic crises in neighboring countries. In 1993, an estimated 28,500 immigrants were living in Belize, most from Guatemala and El Salvador, with approximately 9,000 officially recognized as refugees (UNCF, 1995). At that time this represented 13% of the total population. Of this amount 35% were legal refugees, 25% legal migrants, and 40% were undocumented (Murillo, 2005). Much of this was due to policy in the Belizean government to accept migrants, as they provided agricultural labor in jobs unattractive to urbanized Afro-Belizeans (both creoles and Garifuna) (MPI, 2006).

The influx of Central Americans was complemented by an emigration of Afro-Belizeans to the United States. Other Top destination countries were: Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Cayman Islands, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The yearly rate of emigration averaged 3,050 per year in the 1980s and 2,181 per year in the nineties. On average, eighty-four percent left for the United States, while five percent went to other Central American countries (MPI, 2006).

The relationship between the large scale movement out of the country and the influx of Central Americans is complex, but it has been suggested that a direct displacement occurred, as newcomers were willing to work for lower wages (Moberg, 1993). By the time the Central American influx had begun the country had also already been experiencing large rates of emigration due to economic crisis following independence. Whatever the root cause, it is undeniable that a major demographic shift happened, now referred to as the “latinization” of Belize. These large movements in and out of the country have caused a sudden shift in the socio-cultural landscape of Belize.  By the mid 1980’s it was estimated that one-forth of all persons born in Belize resided in the United States (Pastor, 1985). Much of this population has been replaced with Central Americans from neighboring countries. One of the effects had been declining rates of literacy in English (UNCF, 1995).

The nineties also brought on an influx of immigrants from Taiwan and mainland China. Between 1990 and 1994, 13,000 permanent residency papers were approved for Asian immigrants (about 6 percent of an estimated 1996 total population of 222,000) (UNCF, 1997). The approval of residency papers, alongside amnesty programs offering resident status to illegal immigrants reflect Belize’s stance on encouraging immigration, partly to correct imbalances created by emigration.

The net effect of migration caused the population to increase at a rate of 2.6% per annum. The 2010 Census recorded 46,226 foreign born, up 34.8 percent from 34,279 in 2000. Central Americans represent almost three-quarters of these foreigners, 41 percent of which were from Guatemala, 15.2 percent from El Salvador, and fifteen percent from Honduras (2010 Census). The percentage of foreign born in the total population reached a high point in 1995, with international migrants making up 17.5 percent of the total population. While a dip to 14.5 percent occurred in 2000, most recent statistics have shown an upward trend, with the most recent data recording international migrants at 14.8 percent of the total population (2010 Census). 

Though the emigration rate has fallen, more and more educated Belizeans are leaving. As noted in the country's official 2000 census report, half of emigrants held high school degrees while the percentage with post-high school education rose 64 percent above the rate recorded in 1991 (MPI, 2006). Furthermore, in 2000, the emigration rate of tertiary-educated population was 65.5% of the total (World Bank, 2011). This has brought on fears of a potentially dangerous brain drain.


Belize is a small country that has recently undergone massive shifts in the composition of its population. Much of this is due to its proximity to countries with high emigration rates on the one hand, and to an economy that has not been able to accommodate important sectors of its citizenry on the other. Recently, however, the Belizean economy has been improving, as unemployment has dropped mostly due to its quickly expanding tourism (CEPAL, 2007).

Another growing sector has been remittances. Remittances per capita in Belize are the third-highest in the region and account for about 7% of GDP, amount to more than the half of the income from tourism and represent almost twice the value of two main exports products: 181% of total shrimp exports and 193% of total sugar exports.

A recent Inter-American Development Bank report indicated that in 2005 Belizeans in the United States sent remittances to Belize at the value of 160 million Belizeans dollars (IADB, 2005). While remittances will increasingly play a part in the development of Belize, the question is whether the losses incurred by skilled migration are greater than what is earned by related remittances.

However, while losses incurred by skilled migration may translate into a ‘brain drain’ and the dangers of an export economy remain a real threat, Belize’s willingness to let foreigners in has proven to be a point of important development and may become even more so in the near future.