Overview of the history of International Migration

The ethnic composition of the Jamaican population is linked to the nation’s socio-economic history and has its roots deeply embedded in slavery and colonization.  The first inhabitants were the Amerindians (Arawaks and Tainos). However, with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1494, the aboriginal population strongly decreased. In 1655, the English occupied the island. Apart from the presence of the British, immigrants from China, India and West Africa provided labor for the mercantile trade and sugar production sectors during the 17th to early 20th centuries (Thomas-Hope et al., 2009). Sugar cane was grown in plantations on the island through a system which was underpinned by the institution of slavery. Jamaica remained a British colony until it gained independence on August 6, 1962.  Since independence, there has been a shift in migration patterns. Formerly an immigration country before independence, albeit in a limited way, Jamaica began losing population to emigration, with persons emigrating to destinations such as the United States of America (USA), Canada and the United Kingdom (UK), in search of greater job opportunities and the promise of a better standard of living.


Immigration to Jamaica has been limited. Data during the years 1953 and 1955 classified immigrants into six categories: 1) Employment, 2) Study, 3) Medical Aid, 4) Holiday, 5) Business, and 6) Other. The majority of immigrants were in the Employment category and were mostly males from the United States (576), followed by the United Kingdom (558) and Canada (192).  Most were professionals. Immigrants receiving work permits increased almost three times as fast as the overall labor force during this period, and men contributed most to this rapid increase (IOM, 2010).  The spouses of male professionals, however, accounted for one third of immigrating women during this time (Roberts and Mills, 1958).

Data on the immigration of non-nationals, a category which includes Commonwealth Citizens and nationals of other countries (Aliens) has been collected since 1970 and the publication of aggregate data concerning this category commenced in 1998 (Thomas-Hope, 2004).

The immigration of Commonwealth Citizens and Aliens has gradually increased due in part to the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which gave rise to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Single Market and Economy (CSME) and allowed for the free movement of persons within CARICOM. The treaty provides for and encourages the intra-regional movement of skilled community nationals and service providers to conduct economic activities in any CARICOM member state. More recently, increases in immigration can be attributed to the 2008 global recession, which created a further influx of Caribbean nationals to Jamaica as workers sought non-traditional job markets for employment.

The foreign-born population constituted less than 1.0 per cent of the total population by 2011. The total foreign born population recorded for the 2011 census was 23,477, seven per cent below the count of 2001. Immigrants are usually highly educated (technicians, professionals and senior technicians) and tend to be on short-term work permits. The data collected does not make it possible to determine if the permits are renewed or if short-term stays are the rule (IOM 2010).  

Immigration has occurred in part because of skill shortages within certain sectors, such as the health sector, with nurses being recruited from Cuba and Nigeria to fill these vacancies. Additionally, the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti resulted in an influx of refugees from that country fleeing the resulting poverty and civil unrest.


International migration has been a significant component of the historical and indeed contemporary experience of most Jamaicans.  During the late 19th century into the early 20th century, emigration was a dominant feature of the country. Many Jamaicans migrated to Panama and other countries of Central America as well as Cuba. They provided labor for, among other things, the construction of the Panama Canal; the development of the trans-Isthmian railway; the plantation operations of the United Fruit Company; and the expansion of sugar production (Thomas-Hope, 2009).

The postwar flow of Caribbean immigrants to the U.S., however, was limited with the passage in 1952 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act. This bill drastically reduced the numbers of Caribbean farm workers allowed to enter the U.S., a situation that persisted until the passage of the 1965 U.S. immigration liberalization law.

Until that year, migration movements were largely towards Britain, which received approximately 300,000 Caribbean immigrants between 1948 and 1966 (African-American Migration Experience, Schomburg Center, 2005). A large number of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled laborers were hired to work in hospitals and within the industry and transport sectors, especially during the United Kingdom’s postwar reconstruction efforts. Eventually, with the implementation of restrictive immigration policies in the United Kingdom in 1962, however, a change in the selection pattern of immigrants has favored skilled laborers as opposed to immigrants selected on the basis of labor needs for reconstruction.

Amendments in Canada and United States legislation, in 1962 and 1965 respectively, stipulated that foreigners were to be allowed into these countries based on occupational and educational criteria in order to meet local labor market demand (Thomas-Hope et al., 2009). These changes in legislation caused a reduction in the movement of Jamaicans to the United Kingdom and Western Europe but increased their movement to the United States and Canada.

Over the last four decades, the total number of emigrants to the United States has amounted to 77 per cent of all emigrants from Jamaica while emigrants to Canada and the United Kingdom over the same period represented 17.3 per cent and 5.7 per cent, respectively, of all emigrants.

Data for the United States and Canada reveal that since 1970 more than 50 per cent of all emigrants from Jamaica were women, usually of working age, 18-44 years of age in the United States and 25-44 in Canada (Thomas-Hope, 2004; PIOJ, 2014). Most of the emigrant women were nurses and teachers, for which there was a high demand in the United States and Canada, which offer better opportunities than Jamaica.

This history of emigration has created a large Jamaican diaspora which is similar in size to the current Jamaican population (almost 3 million). Data on Jamaicans with permanent resident status in the United States indicate that the majority of Jamaicans reside in the New York and New Jersey Metropolitan areas and in Miami and Fort Lauderdale in Florida (IOM 2010).  In Canada, Jamaican migrants are concentrated in Toronto and other cities of Ontario (IOM 2010), while in the United Kingdom they are located mainly in the Midlands and London.  

Legal Framework Governing International Migration

The framework governing international migration in Jamaica is based on several pieces of legislation including:

  • The Jamaican Constitution
  • The Foreign Recruiting Act (1875)
  • The Emigrants Protection Act (1925)
  • The Recruiting of Workers Act (1940)
  • The Deportation (Commonwealth Citizens) Act (1942)
  • The Immigration Restriction (Commonwealth Citizens) Act (1945)
  • The Aliens Act (1946)
  • The Employment Agencies Regulations Act (1957)
  • The Criminal Justice Act (1960)
  • The Foreign Nationals and Commonwealth Citizens (Employment) Act or Work Permit Act (1964)
  • The Passport Act
  • The Nationality Act
  • The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Free Movement of Persons Act (1997)
  • The Child Care and Protection Act (2004)
  • The Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Suppression and Punishment) Act (2007)

These Acts include all legislation which affect immigration, the granting of passports and the control of movements of non-Jamaicans who enter and remain in the country. These Acts also provide the general framework for border management and security in Jamaica.

Based on the Foreign Nationals and Commonwealth Citizens (Employment) Act or Work Permit Act (1964), employers can recruit workers from abroad to meet local labor market needs. The Act stipulates criteria for determining whether a person upon entry into Jamaica should be granted a stay of six months or less, landed status or a work permit.

Regulations Governing Entry and Stay

The general requirements for entry into Jamaica are: a passport with at least 6 months validity; a return ticket to the country of residence; an entry visa (where applicable); proof of financial support for the duration of the stay; and a completed Immigration card. There are two broad groups who qualify for entry and stay:

  • Jamaican passport holders – (Returning Residents and Returning Residents on a Visit)
  • Non-Jamaican passport holders – Visitors; Workers (Work Permit Holders and Work Permit Exemption Holders); Students; Persons with a Marriage Exemption; Dependents; Persons accepted for Permanent Residence or Unconditional Landing.

Permit durations and restrictions depend on the category of entry:

  • Permanent residents (this includes retired persons who have attained the age of retirement in Jamaica and can satisfactorily demonstrate their means of subsistence) – up to 24 months
  • Persons on work permits –  3 months, 1 year, 3 years
  • Students – the duration of the study program
  • Marriage exemption certificate holders – The endorsement granted in this case is renewable every three years for males and indefinite for females.

Persons seeking to obtain a work permit are required to make an application to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security through their prospective employer or contractor, Trade and Investment Jamaica (JAMPRO, for investors), or through legal representatives. Categories of persons eligible for receiving exemptions from work permits are outlined in the Act. In cases where there is no intention to work but the applicant wishes to remain in the country for a period in excess of six months, landed status may be granted by the Ministry of National Security. Any other person may remain as a visitor, up to a maximum of six months at any one time, subject to being in possession of a Jamaican visa in those cases where the individual is a citizen of a country to which the visa requirement applies. These regulations reflect a general strategy to manage national borders while denying permission to remain in the country to any person who falls outside the guidelines governing entry related to work or visitor status.  

Under the CSME Free Movement Initiative, university graduates and other designated categories of workers are permitted to move and work throughout the region. This freedom of movement is granted through a Certificate of Recognition of CARICOM Skills Qualification offered by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. This certificate replaces the Work Permit for CARICOM nationals.

The exit regulations of the country require a completed Immigration Card, a valid passport, the applicable visas and permits for the country of destination.

Acquisition of Nationality and Citizenship

In the Jamaican context, the terms nationality and citizenship are used interchangeably. Under Chapter 2 of the Jamaican Constitution, persons born in Jamaica and persons born outside Jamaica to Jamaican parents have an automatic right to Jamaican citizenship. Women who have married Jamaican men and former citizens of the United Kingdom and its colonies who have become naturalized or registered as British subjects in Jamaica can also register as Jamaican citizens. The Jamaican Parliament is given power in the Constitution to make further provision for the acquisition, deprivation and renunciation of citizenship. The Governor-General is given power to deprive of Jamaican citizenship those Jamaican citizens who acquire citizenship or the rights of citizenship of another country.

According to Section 3 of the Nationality Act, a citizen of any country mentioned in the First Schedule, or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, of full age and capacity, may be registered at the discretion of the Minister as a citizen of Jamaica if he/she is:

  • “ordinarily a resident in Jamaica
  • in Crown service under the Government of Jamaica
  • partly the one and partly the other, through the period of Eve years ending with the date of his application, or such shorter period ending as the Minister may in the special circumstances of any case accept.”

Jamaican citizenship may be granted to persons on the following basis as outlined in the Jamaican Nationality Act and Chapter 2 of the Jamaican Constitution:

  • Descent
  • Marriage
  • Naturalization (non-Commonwealth Citizens)
  • Registration (Commonwealth Citizens)
  • Registration (Minors)
  • Cases of doubt (whether on a question of fact or law or based on a certification that a person is now a citizen of Jamaica)

Data provided by the Immigration Section of the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) indicated that 1,493 foreigners were granted Jamaican citizenship between 2006 and 2010 (IOM, 2010)

Irregular Migrant

Most irregular immigrants in Jamaica entered the country legally and were officially authorized to stay based on their purpose of visit, but stayed beyond the duration of their permit. There is no information regarding any estimates of irregular immigrants in Jamaica. However, as the law now stands, any immigrant who remains in Jamaica beyond their authorized period is subject to deportation by the Immigration Section of the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) (IOM).

Refugees and Complementary Protection

Jamaica has signed and is party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Convention) and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (The Protocol).

The Ministry of National Security has recently adopted a Refugee Policy (2009) to ensure its compliance with and meeting the obligations of the Convention and Protocol. It also has established the procedures for managing the determination of refugee status.

Recent trends in migrant’s flows and stocks and in labor market outcomes of emigrants

Migration inflows (foreign nationals) Persons Per 1000 inhabitants Percent change
  2010 2011 2012 2013 2013 2013/2010
Permanent and temporary 4762 4813 8883 9055 3.2526452213595 90.15119697606
Total migration inflows (foreign nationals) by type Persons   % distribution      
  2011 2013 2011 2013    
Family 279 238 5.796800332433 2.6283821093319    
Work 2913 3907 60.52358196551 43.147432357813    
Study na 1487 na 16.42186637217    
Unknown 1621 3423 33.679617702057 37.802319160685    
Total 4813 9055 100 100    
Migration outflows (nationals) Persons       % of total % change
From unstandardised destination country data 2009 2010 2011 2012 2012 2012/2009
All countries 42683 40878 42462 43732 100 2.4576529297378
United States 31706 29485 30896 31217 71.382511661941 -1.5422948337854
Canada 10057 10505 10560 10505 24.021311625354 4.4546087302376
United Kingdom na na na 1000 2.2866550809476 na
Barbados 401 372 454 456 1.0427147169121 13.715710723192
Asylum seekers and refugees Per million inhabitants         Number of persons
          Average 2010-2013  
  2010 2011 2012 2013   2013
Inflows of asylum seekers 0 0 0.36114890133087 1.4368394130798 0.44949707860268 4
Refugees resident in the country 7.6614374315943 7.2604004328651 7.2229780266174 7.5434069186691 7.4220557024365 21
Components of population growth Per 1000 inhabitants          
  1985-1990 1990-1995 1995-2000 2000-2005 2005-2010  
Total 5.83 8.03 9.53 7.59 4.38  
Natural increase 19.602 17.282 15.334 13.374 11.751  
Net migration -13.772 -9.252 -5.804 -5.784 -7.371  
Foreign-born population Percentage of the total population       Persons % change
  1990 2000 2010 2013 2013 2013/2010
  0.87772296002344 0.95468277477627 1.1833732447925 1.2538938348094 34.907 5.9592854855612
Remittances Millions of dollars       % of GDP % change
  2010 2011 2012 2013 2013 2013/2010
  1911 2025 2038 2065 14.1 8.0586080586081
Macroeconomic indicators Annual growth in %       Average annual growth Level
  2010 2011 2012 2013 2010-2013 2013
Real GDP -1.481043218224 1.7007521976858 -0.56710033862046 0.56161180197301 0.053555110703582 -
GDP/per capita ((PPP ) in constant 2011 international dollars) -1.8 1.4 0.4 1 0.2 8607
Labour market outcomes of emigrants in Europe and the United States Percentages          
  Men   Women   Total  
  2010-11 2012-13 2010-11 2012-13 2010-11 2012-13
Participation rate 81.17951 80.64847 80.32154 80.19319 80.70801 80.38612
Employment rate 68.42409 69.21698 71.48286 72.25175 70.10511 70.96579
Unemployment rate 15.71262 14.17447 11.00413 9.902888 13.13735 11.71884


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