Lecturer: Robert Buddan

Topic Eight



Immigration is a central theme of Caribbean history. Virtually the entire population of the region is of immigrant post-Columbian origin. But emigration is also a central theme. Mary Chamberlain says few, if any, people are more global and migratory than those from the Caribbean.[1] Robert Pastor says that while the United States sees itself as a nation of immigrants the Caribbean might be seen as a region of emigrants.[2] He says that only the islands in the Caribbean have been stationary. The people have been continuously on the move.[3] Dawn Marshall has said that it is a fact of life that the Caribbean people have a basic propensity to migrate.[4] De Souza agrees that people in the Caribbean have always looked outward, partly because they inhabit geographically limited space and partly because their ancestral and ethnic links come from other places.[5]

Immediately, this raises many questions about  Caribbean peoples, nationhood and nationalism. It raises questions about whether Caribbean peoples, many of whom came by force or deception, have ever really seen the islands as their home, or as transient places or places of temporary exile instead; and whether, if they are fundamentally a migratory people, Caribbean people have any definite and permanent loyalty to their respective territories and 'home' governments.

These questions take on added importance in the present context of globalism. One may wonder if, in a global setting, the modern revolution in transportation and communication has not made space and distance, location and territory, come to have less meaning than in the past. Nations can no longer be separated by territory. Territory can now be transcended by nations leading to what international relations scholars call 'transnationalism'. Are Caribbean people a transnational people in the sense that they are not restricted to territory but defined by culture across territories?

Nationhood, culture and identity are at the core of nationalism. But these come to take on a different meaning when applied to global peoples.

Conceptualizing the Caribbean.

This fact might require that we reconceptualize the Caribbean. The traditional definition stresses the location of people in Caribbean territories. However, conceptions like those of Chamberlain's see the modern Caribbean as defined by a global identity - one that is inclusive of the Caribbean people wherever they may live.

The Caribbean has always been defined by geography, history and culture. It is within this matrix that different races have come to be 'West Indian' or 'Caribbean'. Traditionally, the definition of the Caribbean has been restricted to the islands of the Caribbean Sea and a few other mainland countries of the Americas that share a similar history and culture.

Yet, a reconsideration of the definition of 'Caribbean' according to a new historical, cultural, global perspective is suggested by Mary Chamberlain. She says:

AFrom the start, the Caribbean was global, linking as it did Europe and the Americas, Africa and Asia. It was diasporic; both the resting place and the launch pad for migrants...Caribbean culture itself is global, a melange of European, and native Indian, African and Asian. Elements of each, old and new, have forged, and continue to forge, a unique syncretic cultural form which continues to adapt, incorporate and transform the local with the global. Where once the local and the global interchanged with fresh arrivals from Africa or Europe, India or China, Syria or the Lebanon, now the global influences come from satellite TV, or in the hand-luggage of family visiting - or returning- from sojourns elsewhere. For one of the features of Caribbean migration is not only its historical longevity, but its impermanence...its circularity, and the informal contacts maintained with 'home' by generations of migrants."[6]

In short, when we speak of Caribbean people we should mean those of the territorial societies and those belonging to enclave societies elsewhere.  The Caribbean, in this conception, becomes both the territorial areas of the home societies and the overseas communities of the host societies. The 'Caribbean' becomes a cultural export across territorial boundaries. It is a phenomenon that is aptly described by what Louise Bennett called 'colonization in reverse.'[7]

Migration Patterns.

The Caribbean was very much a part of global migration patterns that accompanied the opening up of the new world. Post-slavery Caribbean migration occurred in two main phases: between emancipation and the Second World War and after the Second World War.

Post-emancipation Migration.

Cheap labour and racism combined to determine the pattern of migration after emancipation. This happened on such a large scale that the population of the region became very unstable and continuously shifting. There was both inward migration and outward migration. Between 1838 and 1917, about 500,000 Asians (80 per cent East Indians) entered the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations.[8] This was the most important change in the composition of the Caribbean population after slavery.

At the same time there was an outward movement of mainly African descendants to the Americas.[9] Between 1834 and 1860, an average of 1,000 persons migrated each year from the Caribbean to the United States. This increased to an average of 3,000 per year between 1880 and 1900 and 10,000 per year between 1900 and about 1930.[10] 

British Caribbean peoples migrated to build railroads in Panama in the 1850's and the Panama Canal at the turn of the century; to Central America, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti to work on banana and sugar plantations up to the 1930's and oil fields in Venezuela, Aruba and Curacao up to the Second World War. But by the 1930's, these sources of employment were being closed off. Panama, Cuba and Costa Rica, for example, passed laws that limited further labour migration from the British colonies.[11] 

Post-war Migration.

The dominant pattern of out-migration has occurred since the Second World War and it is that pattern which most strongly defines Caribbean migration and Caribbean identity today. The most important host societies have been the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Caribbean migration to the UK, during the heyday of 1948-1973, numbered approximately 550,000.[12] Also, between 1960 and 1982 there were about 266,000 people of Caribbean origin going to France and between 1960 and 1988, some 308,000 going to the Netherlands.[13] Canada received approximately 300,000 between 1967-1992.[14] The United States received approximately 2.2 million between 1930-1989.[15]

The direction of migration was influenced mainly by the nature of the colonial or dominant metropolitan power, the labour needs of the host society and the changing immigration policies of the host society. For instance, most of those going to the UK were from the Anglo-Caribbean while of those going to the US, 56 per cent came from the Spanish Caribbean and 33 per cent from the Anglo-Caribbean.[16] Virtually all of those who went to France and the Netherlands were from the French and Dutch dependencies.

The UK was the main source for British Caribbean migrants between 1948 and about 1970 when the post-war labour needs of Britain led to an open immigration policy. But its Immigration Act of 1965 tightened immigration. The United States ( and Canada) became the main destinations for all of the Caribbean - British and non-British thereafter. For instance, by the 1980's the Caribbean was the source of about one-third of America's immigrants from the Western Hemisphere and 200,000 more emigrants from the Caribbean went to the US than to all of Europe.[17]

Explanations of Migration.


The world system perspective on globalism is based on an economic model. In this model the industrialized countries exist as the centre of this global system and the less industrialized countries make up the periphery - so that there is a Caribbean periphery. The centre's labour needs and racial policies are regulated by immigration laws which determine the movement of people in and out of this centre from the periphery - who comes, from where, how long they stay, what conditions they come and live under, and when they return.[18]

The general argument is that the centre became industrialized by exploiting the periphery - that sugar and slavery made Europe rich for instance - and then the centre's level of development was used to attract those labour skills needed from the periphery at the times they were needed in the centre itself for the centre's further development. It is this very exploitation and consequent underdevelopment of the periphery that makes the periphery unable to satisfy its population leading its people to migrate. But in so doing these migrants consider that the centre has saved them from the poverty that their own societies had doomed them to and even come to feel a sense of gratitude to the industrialized countries.

Studies do show that, on a world scale, migrants are predominantly those people who move from poorer countries to richer countries.[19] These studies show that migration was encouraged by metropolitan countries when they had a labour shortage. After the Second World War, the US, France, the Netherlands and Britain established migration divisions or departments to recruit cheap labour for metropolitan industries.

Most of these migrants went to the urban centres of the metropole where both manual labour in manufacturing and more skilled labour in the public sector were most needed. The first Caribbean communities abroad therefore developed around urban centres like Paris, London, Amsterdam, New York and Miami and these remain the main centres of Caribbean communities abroad today.

Unemployment was also a factor. Migrants from Puerto Rico, the Dutch and British Caribbean were leaving countries where the rate of unemployment was at least twice that of the receiving country. A wide disparity in employment rates existed. The Caribbean had surplus labour and became an exporter of this surplus.

Many migrants were also rural, of lesser skills and lower education, especially among the first generation of migrants.  


Emigration also served as an outlet for overpopulation. Many Caribbean countries like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Haiti have birth rates that are higher than that of the US. Nearly all of the Caribbean countries have population densities that rank among the highest in the world, a feature which is typical of small island states. High birth rates mean that a large portion of these populations are young. In many Caribbean countries, including Trinidad and Barbados, the age group under the age of 15 can range from 33 to 45 per cent.[20] The need for job and educational opportunities for the young create further pressure to migrate.


There is another reason for migration- the pull of modernity. Some individuals migrate to obtain education and cultural exposure and experience of modern life that is gained by moving from country to town and city life or from less developed to more developed countries. When people migrate to seek 'a better life', this means a better life not only in economic terms but in a broader sense of exposure to a new consciousness. People might migrate to areas of greater tolerance for their religious or political beliefs. Some Indians who came to the Caribbean did so to escape the social trap of the Indian caste system.


The movement of refugees fleeing political persecution is the best example of political reasons for migration. The notable case is Cuba. However, the same applies to many Haitains who fled Haiti during periods of military repression or some who left Guyana because of racial discrimination. In Jamaica in the 1970's many in the middle class migrated out of fear of communism or because of the policies of socialism.

Taking these reasons together, migration occurs from countries with high population densities, young populations, high unemployment, low levels of modernisation, political repression or discrimination. 

The Impact of Migration.

Migration impacts on both the home and the host societies. Our main concern is with the impact on the home societies of the territorial Caribbean.

Brain Drain.

One of the major impediments to economic growth in the Caribbean is the lack of skilled manpower resulting from the relatively less developed state of quality education, and the migration of skilled manpower. Pastor cites the following:

- a study in 1975 showed that 40 per cent of the private sector firms surveyed in Trinidad said that the shortage of skilled and professional labour, due to migration, was hindering their plans for expansion;

- Professional and technical workers who migrate to the US from the Caribbean constitute between 10 and 20 per cent of all those who migrate. Thirty seven percent of all migrating professional and technical workers from the Caribbean came from Jamaica in 1962 and this was as high as 70 per cent in 1970. In 1967/68, 4,140 technical and professional workers migrated from Jamaica. This category constituted only 4 per cent of the Jamaican labour force but 17 per cent of all Jamaican migrants.[21] 

De Souza points out that from 1962 to 1968, Trinidad and Tobago lost 143 doctors and dentists, 170 engineers, 629 nurses, 784 teachers, and 909 other professionals, mostly in the productive 20-34 age group. He adds that in the 1970's, the Caribbean as a whole was losing 14,000 skilled persons per year. This represented a loss of skilled investment monies, expertise and talent that could shift these societies to services and higher technology economies.[22]


This means that Caribbean nations are exporting scarce skills. The investments made in education, training and experience is lost to these countries and gained by other countries. Today, professionals ranging from nurses to computer programmers are attracted by the higher salaries being offered broad.

Yet, while this is a loss of skills for nationally-driven development, it is not a loss of economic wealth. Caribbean overseas communities provide earnings that are repatriated to the home economies in the form of remittances. This is invaluable for those economies suffering from foreign exchange shortages. Jamaican remittances range between US$500 and US$600 million dollars a year, which is more than what is earned from traditional agricultural exports like sugar and bananas. Cuba earns anywhere from US$600 to US1 billion from remittances. In the mid-1970's, it was estimated that remittances from Belizean workers was equal to its earnings from its sugar industry. Very small countries like St. Vincent can earn as much as 3 to 6 percent of  GDP from remittances or as much as one-quarter of  export earnings from that source.[23]

Yet, it must be reiterated that remittances do not compensate for the loss of human resources. Money does not substitute for people. Segal reminds us that, AHaiti has experienced a massive outflow of doctors, nurses, engineers, and all other categories of scarce professionals. Remittances do not come close to compensating. Smaller islands such as St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, and Dominica have become 'remittance societies' with large numbers of children and elderly dependent on transfers from abroad."[24]

Social Pressure. 

Migration definitely releases population pressure. One study estimated that migration between 1960 and 1970 reduced the natural population increase in the Caribbean by half.[25] Jamaica's population growth in 1998 for instance was under one per cent because of migration. Lower population growth makes social problems more manageable when economies are suffering low or negative growth rates. In fact, studies have shown that countries like Belize, St. Kitts and Guyana have actually experienced declines in population because of emigration. This means that countries are spared the possible outbursts of frustration caused by larger populations unable to be satisfied by scarce local opportunities.

However, it should be noted that the region has entered the end of one cycle of emigration to the UK where there is net return migration occurring. The Jamaican and Barbadian communities in Britain have declined by 17 per cent between 1981 and 1991.[26] The phenomenon of the 'returning resident' is now apparent. Between 1992 and October 1999, just under 15,000 Jamaicans had returned home, mainly from Britain and the US, to live.[27]

These returnees would not be expected to contribute to overpopulation relative to resources since they would have brought resettlement resources and new investments with them. In this way, return migration would be positive. In another sense, return migration has brought back human resources to the region. De Souza points out that up to 1998, AAll of Trinidad's past prime ministers, more than half the current members of its parliament, and most of the professors at the country's University of the West Indies campus are return migrants."[28]

However, there is a negative impact in the case of deported migrants ( or returned migrants). Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have complained about the US policy of deporting nationals charged with crimes abroad and who add to the crime problem back home. For instance,  3,860 persons were deported to Jamaica from the US in 1997 and 1998. About 40 per cent had been charged with drug crimes and another 25 per cent were illegal aliens. Networks between home and host societies are responsible for crimes such as murder and drug trafficking, gun trafficking, money laundering, migrant trafficking, immigration fraud (visa and passport rackets). Many persons learn more daring and sophisticated crimes abroad and introduce them to their home societies placing a strain on the local justice systems and on government relations between the home and host countries. Jamaican authorities believe at least one-third of murders in Jamaica are committed by deportees.


Of course many migrants develop their own businesses abroad often selling Caribbean products in foreign markets. Major activities include crafts, food, clothes and of course visits home represents a source of foreign exchange earnings. At the same time the large informal economies of the region are built by importers of foreign goods. As Caribbean people carry Caribbean tastes abroad they create the potential for niche markets for ethnic goods from the region. Probably the best example is that of Jamaican popular music where it is estimated that billions of dollars could be earned if a stronger local industry with copyright protection could be developed.

Caribbean emigrants have already created a vibrant cultural economy in New York where many are concentrated. Catherine Sunshine paints a colourful picture of the scenario: ANostrand Avenue cuts across the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the heart of New York's West Indian community. Lilting Jamaican and Grenadian English mingles with Haitian Kreyol on the street. Groceries offer coconuts, plantains, yuca root, mangoes and meat patties. The small businesses which line Nostrand Avenue are West Indian-owned and cater to the immigrant community. Ever Ready Caribbean shipping will send stateside goods by the box or barrel to families back home. Alken Group Tours offers chartered flights to Trinidad at carnival time. Dozens of eateries cook up cow foot soup, curry goat and callaloo."[29] New York itself has become the largest Caribbeanised city in the world.





[1] Mary Chamberlain (ed), Caribbean Migration, 1998, p.1. For Caribbean people, she says, the nation is 'unbound' and the city is 'boundless'.

[2] Robert Pastor, ACaribbean Emigration and U.S. Immigration Policy," in Jorge Heine and Leslie Manigat (eds), The Caribbean and World Politics,1988, pp.300-323.

[3] Ibid, p.302.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Roger - Mark De Souza: AThe Spell of the Cascadura: West Indian Return Migration," in Thomas Klak (ed.), Globalization and Neoliberalism: The Caribbean Context,1998, pp.227-253.

[6] Ibid, pp.4-5. Other attempts have been made at redefining the Caribbean. The Report of the West Indian Commission, Time for Action,1992, speaks of the 'wider Caribbean'. But this only refers to the English and non-English speaking countries. The term, Caribbean Basin was introduced in the early 1980's to include the countries of Central America but serves United States strategic conceptions. (Pastor, op cit, p.302). The American President has even refereed to the US as a Caribbean country (at least those states that share the Caribbean Sea), and others suggest that the Caribbean might be regarded as 'middle America'. See, Mark Rosenberg, AInterdependence Between Florida and the Caribbean," in Caribbean Affairs, 6,1, 1993.

[7] Jamaica's comic poet, Louise Bennett, Jamaica Labrish,1966, plays on this theme of migration and the confusions of identity in classic poems such as AColonization in Reverse," AColour-bar", APass fe White", ABack to Africa".

[8] Verene Sheperd, AIndians and Blacks in Jamaica in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries: A Micro-Study of the Foundation of Race Antagonisms," in Howard Johnson (ed), op cit, pp.95-112, gives the actual figure as 543,914 Indians. Look Lai, op.cit, says that 536,310 immigrants entered the Caribbean between 1834 and 1918, 83.5 per cent coming from Asia, 80 per cent from India and 3.5 per cent from China.

[9] There was also active inter-island movement as is shown by Dennis Conway, AThe Complexity of Caribbean Migration," in Caribbean Affairs,7,4, 1994, pp. 120-133. This is also noted in Look Lai, op cit, p. 14.

[10] Pastor, op cit, p.303

[11] Sheperd in Johnson, op. cit, p.105

[12] Chamberlain, op. cit, p.6.

[13] Ibid. pp.6-7.

[14] Dwaine Plaza, AStrategies and Strategizing: The Struggle for Upward Mobility among University Educated Black Caribbean-Born Men in Canada," pp.248-266, in Chamberlain (ed). op.cit, p.248.

[15] Alvar Carlson, ACaribbean Immigration to the U.S., 1965-1989," Caribbean Affairs, 7,1, 1994, pp.142-171.

[16] Ibid. p.143.

[17] Ibid., p.142.

[18] Mary Chamberlain, Narratives of Exile and Return,1997, pp.5-6.

[19] Carlson, op.cit. pp. 148-150.

[20] Carlson, op.cit., pp.144-146.

[21] Pastor, op.cit., p.317.

[22] De Souza, op.cit., p.230.

[23] Ibid., p.316.

[24] Aaron Segal, AThe Political Economy of Migration," Thomas Klak (ed.), Globalization and Neoliberalism: The Caribbean Context,1998, p.233.

[25] Pastor, op.cit., p. 317.

[26] Chamberlain, Caribbean Migration...p.8; Narratives of Exile...p.2.

[27] This is according to a 1999 statement from Jamaica's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[28] De Souza, op.cit., p.233.

[29] Sunshine, op.cit., p.76.

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