Chile - Overview of the history of international migration in Chile


Migration to and from Chile is tied to both internal factors, such as economic growth, political stability and social peace, and external factors, including neighbouring a territory in social conflict, social and political problems, economic crises and the closure of other spaces.  

A good starting point to understand the current migration phenomenon in Chile is to provide a brief overview of the history of migration to and from Chile over the nineteenth, twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. This first section will therefore broadly describe the migration patterns during the period indicated based on census records from those years.

Evolution of migration flows from the Nineteenth to Twenty-First Century

Foreign population residing in Chile

During the mid-nineteenth century, foreigners residing in Chile did not exceed twenty thousand persons. Towards the beginning of the Twentieth century, this figure reached 132 thousand, decreasing to a little over sixty thousand in the 1982 census.  In the last two censuses (1992 and 2002) the number of foreign residents exceeded 100 thousand persons, reaching just over 184 thousand foreigners in 2002; a figure that is more than double the number observed twenty years ago (table 1).

In relative terms, the percentage of foreigners has increased since 1854 –with exceptions– until 1907, when the greatest percentage of foreigners was reached in the period studied. Of the total national population at this time, approximately four out of every one hundred persons were born abroad. As of 1907, the percentage of foreigners decreased until 1982, reaching less than 1%. In 1992, this population increased slightly, and to a greater extent in the 2002 census, at which point there were 1.2 foreign residents for every 100 Chileans (table 1).

Table 1 Número y porcentaje de población total y extranjera. Censos 1854-2002

  Población extranjera residente (a)
Censo Población total Número Porcentaje
1854 1.439.120 19.669 1,4
1865 1.819.223 21.982 1,2
1875 2.075.971 25,199 1,2
1885 2.527.320 87.077 3,4
1895 2.687.985 79.056 2,9
1907 (b) 3.231.022 132.312 4,1
1920 (c) 3.730.235 114.117 3,1
1930 4.287.445 105.463 2,5
1940 5.023.539 107.273 2,1
1952 5.932.995 103.878 1,8
1960 7.374.115 104.853 1,4
1970 8.884.768 90.441 1,0
1982 11.329.736 80.479 0,7
1992 13.348.401 105.07 0,8
2002 15.116.435 184.464 1,2

(a) A partir de 1952 los datos corresponden a la población nacida en el extranjero. Los censos anteriores presentan únicamente cifras sobre la población de nacionalidad extranjera.
(b) Se excluye el Departamento de Tacna.
(c) Se excluyen los Departamentos de Tacna y Tarata.
Fuente: Censos de Población 1854-2002. INE.

With regard to gender, the percentage of male foreigners was greater than female foreigners in the censuses taken from 1907 to 1972; the trend over this time represented a greater decrease in the percentage of men than women. The 1982 and 1992 censuses observed a similar percentage of foreign men and women in the country, while in 2002 the number of women slightly exceeded the number of men (1.3% and 1.2%, respectively). In absolute terms, there were 8,216 more women than men born outside of Chile (table 2).

Table 2 Número y porcentaje de población total y extranjera en relación al total del país, por sexo. Censos 1907-2002

  Extranjeros Total país Porcentaje
Censo Hombres Mujeres Ambos sexos Hombres Mujeres Ambos sexos Hombres Mujeres Ambos sexos
1920 (b) 73639 40478 114117 1851908 1878327 3730235 4,0 2,2 3,1
1930 68131 37332 105463 2122709 2164736 4287445 3,2 1,7 2,5
1940 65570 41703 107273 2489926 2533613 5023539 2,6 1,6 2,1
1952 60886 42992 103878 2912558 3020437 5932995 2,1 1,4 1,8
1960 58917 45936 104853 3612807 3761308 7374115 1,6 1,2 1,4
1970 48098 42343 90441 4343512 4541256 8884768 1,1 0,9 1,0
1982 40655 39824 80479 5553409 5776327 11329736 0,7 0,7 0,7
1992 52380 52690 105070 6553254 6795147 13348401 0,8 0,8 0,8
2002 88124 96340 184464 7447695 7668740 15116435 1,2 1,3 1,2

(a) Se excluye el Departamento de Tacna.
(b) Se excluyen los Departamentos de Tacna y Tarata.
Fuente: Censos de Población 1854-2002. INE.

This increasing trend of the feminisation of immigration to Chile can also be observed in table 3, which provides an overview of the figures for female and male immigrants in each census, as well as the shift that occurred in this trend as of the 1992 census.

Table 3 Índice de feminidad y de masculinidad de los extranjeros residentes en Chile. Censos 1907-2002

Censo Índice de feminidad (por 100 h.) Índice de masulinidad (por 100 h.)
1907 (a) 45,0 222,0
1920 (b) 55,0 181,9
1930 54,8 182,5
1940 63,6 157,2
1952 70,6 141,6
1960 78,0 128,3
1970 88,0 113,6
1982 98,0 102,1
1992 100,6 99,4
2002 109,3 91,5

(a) Se excluye el Departamento de Tacna.
(b) Se excluyen los Departamentos de Tacna y Tarata.
Fuente: Censos de Población 1907-2002. INE.

Evolution of immigrants in Chile according to country of birth

Upon analysis of the ten principle source countries by volume of foreigners in each census, the prevalence of five countries is observed: Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, together with Spain and Germany. Between 1920 and 1970, Spain contributed the greatest number of foreigners, between 23% and 18%, respectively. On the other hand, in the 1982, 1992, and 2002 censuses the majority of immigrants came from Argentina, representing approximately 24%, 30%, and 26%, respectively. In turn, the highest historical contribution by percentage of foreign residents came from Argentina, representing 30% in 1992; while, the greatest absolute amount was observed in the 2002 census, with 48,176 Argentine residents in Chile.

Considering the immigrants in Chile by continent, between 1907 and 1970 immigration from Europe prevailed as the dominant source region. It was not until the 1982 census that a change in the countries of origin is observed; at this point, immigrants from South Africa made up the largest share. It is worth pointing out that, according to the 2002 census, 53% of immigrants in Chile came from countries that share a border with Chile.

Follow-up of most frequent immigrants in Chile according to the 2002 census

In the censuses of the first half of the Twentieth century, men clearly prevailed in the ten countries studied, with the exceptions of Peru in 1920 and Argentina in 1940 and 1952, when there was a greater immigration of women. By the censuses taken between 1960 and 1970, the predominance of male foreign residents in Chile declined. As of the 1982 census, immigration from the ten largest source countries became predominantly female, with the exception of immigrants from Spain and those born in the United States. Of the eight countries with predominantly female immigration, Peruvian gender rates stand out with 66 male immigrants for every one hundred women in the 2002 census.

With regard to the relative importance of immigrants, the evolution of foreign residents in Chile who were born in border countries must be highlighted. According to the 1907 census, approximately 21% of immigrants residing in the country were Peruvian. However, subsequent censuses show a substantial drop to this percentage, only to recover to the same level a century later. On the other hand, a decreasing trend of immigration from Bolivia to Chile is demonstrated, going from 15% in 1907 to 6% in 2002. The opposite situation, however, is observed among Argentine immigrants; who, throughout the censuses, demonstrate they are a growing group ─although their numbers decreased somewhat in the 2002 census─ and have maintained their dominance.

On the other hand, Spaniards were the most populous group of immigrants between the 1920s and 1950s, with percentages that oscillated around 22%. However, that relative importance decreased as of the 1960s, dwindling to 5% of the total immigrant population in the 2002 census.

Another important group to highlight is German immigrants. From the censuses that took place between 1930 and 1960 they represented over 10% of the total residents born outside of Chile; a contribution that gradually decreased until reaching 3% in the first census of the Twenty-First century. 


Immigration to Chile has had a minor influence on the total population of the country. In Chile, in terms of percentages, the foreign-born population has fluctuated between 0.7 and 4.1% of the national total. In other words, at the time of the lowest presence of immigrants (1982) there was one immigrant for every 100 inhabitants; at the time of the greatest presence of immigrants (1907) in Chile there were approximately four immigrants for every 100 inhabitants.

Immigration to Chile, throughout these years, is a result of economic and political stability; peak immigration rates can be observed at times in which the country went through economic booms and social peace. According to data submitted by the INE, during the saltpetre boom (1880-1910), Chile had, in terms of percentage, the greatest amount of immigrants; a number that began to decrease with the 1982 crisis, and which did not increase until the economic rejuvenation of the 1990s.

Immigration to Chile historically comes from its bordering countries (Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru) and some European countries (Germany, Spain, and Italy); these countries represent the ten greatest contributors to the population of foreign citizens in Chile.