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Argentina - Overview of the history of international migration in Argentina

Migration towards the Republic of Argentina in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century can be characterized as overseas migration, with the majority of migrants coming from Europe, leading Argentina to become the second most important country in receiving European immigrants after the United States.

Overseas immigration was essential for populating the country, adding approximately 4.2 million individuals to the overall population between 1881 and 1914. The largest immigration waves occurred before World War I. In 1914, the number of immigrants reached its highest historical level in relative terms, making up 30% of the entire population.[

Throughout the 20th century, immigration towards Argentina diminished and lost its relative weight as of the 1947 national census. The volume of international migration decreased, and, what is more, there were changes in its composition; from a predominantly non-neighbour country migration to a sustained increase of immigrants originating from within the same region. Towards the beginning of the 21st century, two-thirds of immigrants were from bordering countries. 

Beginning in the 1960s, mainly due to the different political and socioeconomic crises that impacted Argentina’s society at the time, the country combined its capacity of attracting continental and extra-continental migration flows, with that of the out-migration of qualified human resources to different destinations.

Immigration history

The first record of European visitors to Argentina dates back to the year 1516, when Juan Díaz de Solis arrived at Río de la Plata to claim the territory for Spain. In 1526, Sebastián Gaboto – an Italian in the service of Spain – sailed upstream and established the first temporary European settlement near the current site of Rosario. After Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan Empire in Peru in the year 1532 other settlements were founded. From the colony of Asunción, modern-day Paraguay, settlers moved and founded Tucumán in 1565 and Córdoba in 1573. Finally, in 1580, Juan de Garay founded a permanent settlement in what is today Buenos Aires. For generations it was a small city as the Spanish concentrated their focus further north. The crown’s limited oversight contributed to the independent spirit in the Argentine territories. Strict trade restrictions and merchandise shipping encouraged illegal commerce and Buenos Aires became a smuggling and black market centre.

In 1776, Spain created the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata with Buenos Aires as its capital. The city was declared a free port and with the increase of imports and exports it started to prosper and its population expanded. In 1778, the Atlantic coast was opened thanks to a free trade policy, which, without a doubt, contributed to the growth of Buenos Aires. This growth attracted more people to the city, including the first immigrants from Germany, Holland and Italy (Hintz, 30).

After obtaining its independence from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century, Argentina adopted an open immigration policy and encouraged immigrants to adopt the country as their own. For a brief period of time at the end of the 1880s, the government subsidized passage tickets for immigrants. It is estimated that the country received more than seven million immigrants between 1870 and 1930, mainly from Spain and Italy (Jachimowicz, 1). The reasons for this mass exodus from Europe are several. José C. Moya, in his study of Spanish migration, favouring general trends, lists the tendencies of early-stage capitalist modernization as the main causes: demographic expansion; liberalism; agricultural commercialization; industrialization; and advances in transportation (Moya, 44). In the case of the Italian immigrants, Argentina promised to be a new opportunity as they left behind a country impoverished by the unification of the Italian states where unemployment, overpopulation, and serious political conflicts prevailed.

Massive immigrations from Europe responded in part to the offer of better wages. On average, a farm worker earned in four or five months of harvesting, between five and ten times more than what he/she earned in his/her country of origin (Veganzones, 52). Another point of attraction was government programmes. In 1862, Congress authorised the hiring of immigrants to colonize national territories, specifically the regions external to the constituted provinces that were governed from Buenos Aires. The Office of Migration (Dirección de Migraciones), established in 1869, appointed agents in Europe to recruit colonists. The new arrivals enjoyed free accommodations, tax exemption on their possessions, and also, as time evolved, free rail transportation (Rock, 141). Many of the first immigrants achieved quick social mobility; although very few were able to acquire lands.

In 1854, Buenos Aires had a population of 90,000 inhabitants; towards 1869, the population increased to 177,000, including 41,000 Italians and 20,000 Spaniards; in 1895, the number rose to 670,000 (Rock, 142). In 1914, the immigrant population represented 30% of the total population (Devoto, 49). In Buenos Aires, estimates of the immigrant population vis-a-vis the native born population vary between 60% and 80%. Italian and Spanish communities continued dominating until the 1940s, with 42% and 38%, respectively.  During this period the presence of Russian (93,000) and ex-Ottoman Empire (65,000) immigrants is also noteworthy (Devoto, 294).

In the 1920s, immigration to Argentina decreased due to an immigration policy that made it difficult for foreigners to enter the country. The fear of the governing classes of an immigrant revolt increased security measures at disembarkation ports (Devoto, 356). Meanwhile, in Europe, productivity and wages increased, which represented stronger competition. The 1929 crisis put an end to the massive European immigration that had prevailed at the beginning of the century. The economic recession hit Argentina very hard, making its wages uncompetitive with wages in Europe (Veganzones, 52). With the exception of a brief period after World War II, European immigration continued to decrease. Immigration concentrated mostly between 1947 and 1951 and was more varied than in previous years, it included: Germans, Russians, Yugoslavs, Armenians, Ukrainians, and other European ethnic groups, in addition to the customary Spaniards and Italians. 

In the second half the 20th Century, European migration was replaced by immigration from bordering countries. For a while, wages in Argentina were the highest in the region. Between 1950 and 1980, Paraguayan immigration represented between 40% and 65% of migration flows coming from bordering countries (Veganzones, 52). Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay also supplied migrants in the 1980s. Even though this regional migration was not historically significant for the population as a whole (it only represented between two and three percent of the total), with time it became considerable compared to immigration from non-bordering countries, with regional immigration achieving a significant increase of the total foreign-born population. At the beginning of the 1990s, regional immigration came to represent more than 50% of the total immigrant population in Argentina (Devoto, 434).  

The causes of theses migrations are various; however, economic and political instability in neighbouring countries appear to be the predominant push factors. In Paraguay, the Chaco war of 1936 and the civil war of 1947 can be considered causes. In the case of Bolivia, the collapse of the sugar industry and several agricultural products that started in the 1960s triggered the migration of many of these workers towards the construction industry, principally in Buenos Aires. With regards to Chilean immigration, the greatest influx coincided with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (Devoto, 457).

Likewise, the main cause for the increase of regional immigration towards Argentina and its consolidation as an attractive centre for migrations from bordering countries half way through the 20th century is explained by the country’s high standard of human and economic development relative to the migrants’ countries of origin. This generated, over time, migration chains that facilitated the processes of finding employment and migrant integration within foster communities. Labour migration from bordering countries was mainly concentrated in seasonal activities, housekeeping, construction, and commerce.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the beginning of the 1980s, there was an enormous emigration of Argentines to other Latin American countries (for example, Venezuela and Mexico) and also towards the United States, Canada, and Europe. Many of the emigrants were highly qualified professionals, technicians, and scientists. The main reasons for this out migration were the economic decline and the open hostility of the military regime against universities. This situation reached its peak in 1967. Under the regime of General Juan Carlos Onganía, 1,305 faculty members of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (University of Buenos Aires) were expelled after an intervention ordered by the government (Gracierena, 1986). After an interlude of democratic governments at the beginning of the 1970s, the political situation worsened yet again with a military coup in 1976. Industrial protectionism gave way to policies that opened national markets to international trade, which triggered a significant decline of industrial participation in the gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, the military regime made enormous budget cuts to universities, which delayed developments in research, education, and culture in the country (Pellegrino, 11). 

In recent years, a great number of Argentines have emigrated to Spain and the United States, among other destinations. This is associated with the economic policy of the 1990s, which led to a decline in the Gross Domestic Product, a high unemployment rate, and a financial crisis (Solimano, 5). A strong demand for foreign labour and favourable naturalization policies in Spain (applicable to Argentines with Spanish ancestry) partially explains why this country has received, in general, a large number of Argentine and Latin American immigrants. 

However, it is important to highlight that, considering the flow of Argentine travelers (entries and exits) through the country’s main international airports from 2003 to the present, the trend of Argentine nationals exiting the country has decelerated.

Finally, remittances historically have not weighed very heavily within the Argentine economy, representing only 0.03% of GDP in 2009.

Conclusions

Migration flows towards Argentina have been a constant element in the country’s history since the beginning of the 19th century.  Population contributions, first from Europe, and later from bordering countries and the rest of Latin America have contributed to the formation of Argentina as a nation and its later development.

The combination of two processes marked a new stage on the regional migration map: a) the deceleration of transatlantic migration and the return of a considerable portion of immigrants to their countries of origin, and b) the continuous renewal of migrant flows between the Southern Cone countries, as well as the establishment of Argentina as the regional pole of attraction for immigrants from Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Uruguay. These processes, without a doubt, altered the composition of migration patterns, giving rise to a significant increase in regional immigration in the total foreign born population. To the previous can be added the fact that in recent decades, the country combined its capacity to attract regional migration flows with the emigration of its nationals towards different destinations, principally Spain and the United States.