El Salvador - Overview of the history of international migration in El Salvador

El Salvador is the smallest republic of Central America, and the country with the greatest population density in the region. It has the highest percentage of multiracial population in the Americas, as 94% are mestizos (mixed-race), a result of a mixture of Indigenous peoples, Africans and Europeans. Only 5% of the population is indigenous and the remaining 1% is of European descent, primarily Spanish, German, and British. There are also inhabitants of Palestinian and Chinese origin that live in the larger cities and towns (Williams, 2001).

Immigration to El Salvador can be divided into two stages: the first represents the country’s situation before the Twentieth century, when it was a net importer of immigrants; the second, identified now in the Twentieth century, is characterised by emigration, El Salvador has become a net-exporter country of migrants. Important internal movements also took place, a result, more than anything else, of the internal armed conflict that occurred between 1980 and 1991.

Emigration flows during the Twentieth century are divided into four large periods: 1920 to 1969; 1970 to 1979; 1980 to 1991; and from 1992 to the present (UNDP, 2009).

As a result of this large process of emigration, one out of every five Salvadorans currently lives outside of the country (Andrade-Eekhoff, 2006). This has provoked a parallel exhaustion of qualified human resources which has caused a scenario in which less than 11% of Salvadorans has tertiary education; a percentage lower than the Latin American average of 13.5% (BID, 2007).

Salvadoran emigration is not only a “brain drain” problem, but a problem with economic and development implications as well. Remittances sent by Salvadorans residing abroad represented in 2009, 16.1% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (BID-FOMIN, 2010), which implies a great dependency on this type of resource.

Immigration History

When Spaniards ventured to Central America in the early Sixteenth century, the territory that later would become El Salvador was primarily populated by natives of the Pipil tribe. The pipiles, a sub-group of a nomadic people known as Nahual, migrated to Central America around the year 3000 BC. Pipil culture has been compared, though at a minor scale, with that of the Aztecs in Mexico. Even though they were principally an agrarian people, the pipiles built large urban centres, some of which turned into cities, such as the current Sonsonate and Ahuachapán (Haggarty, 1988).

Conquest and subsequent colonisation by the Spaniards started in 1524, with the arrival of an expedition from Guatemala, led by Pedro de Alvarado. The Spaniards arrived in El Salvador in search of precious metals, and found a native population estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000 inhabitants (Fowler, 1995). Disappointed because of the lack of gold, the region was relegated and forgotten within the Spanish empire. In this situation of abandonment and isolation the seed of the country’s political and economic structure was planted (Haggarty 1988)

The backbone of the Salvadoran economy was a flourishing agricultural system focused on indigo, sugar, and livestock, and to maintain these activities migration within the region was encouraged. Towards the late Eighteenth century, the population was primarily concentrated in three areas: around the haciendas, under the North range; in the central lowlands; and along the coastal plains (Gammage, 2007).

Coffee became a valuable export crop due to its rising price, and as of the mid-Nineteenth century, a large part of the humid subtropical forest was replaced by coffee plantations which currently cover about 10% of El Salvador’s territory (Gammage, 2007). In the early Twentieth century some Chinese and Middle Eastern immigrants arrived and established small commercial enterprises (UNDP, 2009). The arrival of independence met with the legacy of a group of European landlords, an export-based economy, and a highly segregated society.

Coffee plantation owners constituted an economic and political oligarchy to ensure preservation of their lands and riches. Therefore, in the early Twentieth century, the majority of Salvadorans lived in rural areas under different forms of labour relations, whether rural workers (settlers), tenants of small parcels of marginal land, or seasonal day labourers.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s the price of coffee dropped. The already depressed wages of rural workers decreased even more. Furthermore, since much of the subsistence land had been converted into private coffee plantations, basic crops had been reduced considerably, worsening the living conditions of settlers, tenants, and seasonal day labourers. Unemployment also increased, as many coffee producers decided not to harvest their crops. In addition, many small farmers, who were unable to survive this drop in prices, lost their land at the hands of the rich, further concentrating land ownership.

Some farmers migrated to Honduras in search of better wages; the majority, however, remained in the territory where a rebellion began to brew. This process culminated in the 1932 peasant uprising, called “la matanza” (the slaughter), in which around 30,000 persons died at the hands of government troops. 

Salvadoran migration patterns that persisted until the decade of the 1970s were established during this period. As previously mentioned, the scarce or inexistent access to land and unemployment led many Salvadorans to emigrate to Honduras, primarily to United Fruit Company banana plantations. Some 25,000 persons emigrated in the 30s. This figure increased to 40,000 late in the following decade (UNDP, 2005).

The World War II period initiated two important trends in migration. The first was towards Panama and the second towards the United States through Mexico. The latter originated in the demand for labour in the well-paying manufacturing plants where positions were vacated as men were recruited by the armed forces. On the other hand, migration to Panama was associated with the transportation of military supplies (UNDP, 2005).

In the 1950s and 1960s the emigration of Salvadorans to the United States was not very significant. This population came from the highest economic strata who went abroad to study and to work. Some household employees, gardeners, and manual labourers also complemented this small flow (Gammage, 2007).

The majority of Salvadoran migration occurred at the regional level. Seasonal migration of Salvadoran communities to work harvests became a lifestyle for many rural inhabitants ever since coffee production came to dominate El Salvador’s economy (Haggarty, 1998). Between 1945 and 1969, the increase in population and decrease of available lands, especially in favour of cotton plantations, led some 350,000 workers and landless peasants (around 7% of the population) to emigrate to the neighbouring country of Honduras (UNDP, 2005). About half of them returned after the Honduran government implemented agrarian reform policies. This generated an exodus that culminated with the so-called “Guerra del Fútbol” (or Soccer War) of 1969 between the two countries.

In 1961, about 12% of the rural population was landless. Towards 1971, the figure had reached 20%, and in 1975 was estimated at 41%. Similarly, from 1950 to 1970, rural unemployment was situated between 40 and 50%.

In 1975, only 37% of the rural labour force worked permanently; 14% worked an average of nine months; 19% worked around six months; and 30% toiled only two or three months of the year. Towards 1980, it was estimated that 65% of the rural population did not have lands and depended on salaried employment. In 1981, approximately 58% of Salvadorans lived in rural areas (Haggarty, 1988).

In the 1970s, the United States received the first significant wave of Salvadorans. This time, it was not only the lower classes who migrated, but also qualified workers, professionals, and intellectuals. This can be attributed to unemployment, increased political violence, and the lack of access to property. Around 45,000 Salvadorans entered the United States between 1970 and 1974 (Gammage, 2007). A great percentage of this emigration, unlike future ones, was legal.

The decade of the 1980s brought a massive exodus of Salvadorans. Fleeing the civil war in their country, thousands emigrated towards neighbouring nations and also to the United States, traveling by land through Mexico. Many of them arrived to the country illegally, the majority from rural communities. While some fled across the borders of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, others remained in El Salvador as an internally displaced population and sought refuge in those departments and municipalities that were not directly involved in the conflict. In 1982, the department of Chalatenango alone had 15,000 internally displaced persons. Emigration reached its maximum level in 1982, when it is estimated that 129,000 persons were registered as having left the country (Gammage, 2007).

In 1981, there were some 60,000 refugees in Honduras –especially women and children– located in refugee camps near the border. These camps were managed under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNDP, 2005). The exodus was of such magnitude that in 1982, the United Nations estimated that around one-third of the labour force had fled the country. Some 20,000 Salvadoran refugees sought asylum in Nicaragua, and it is estimated that another 80,000 to 110,000 relocated to Guatemala and later to Mexico, of which a great percentage would ultimately reach the United States. Between 1979 and 1988 it is calculated that some 500,000 Salvadorans reached the United States in this manner (Gammage, 2007). Thousands traveled to Canada, where asylum conditions were more accessible.

Even though the civil war ended in 1992, many of the conditions that inspired the social and political struggles that culminated in violence and massive emigration remained unchanged. Between 1980 and 2001, the amount of cultivated land in El Salvador increased by 6%, while the population increased by 42%. This period was also witness to a significant drop in the value of agricultural products and salaries (Gammage, 2006). 

Although different opinions exist with regard to exact measurements, the increasing trend of emigration remains constant. Between the years 1970 and 1980, emigration increased 73%. Between the years 1980 and 1990, it increased 307%, and between 1990 and 2000, it rose to 400%. The path of this migration also followed a constant pattern: it started as a regional trend and later became an international movement, given that, as of the Nineties, 93% of emigrants went beyond Central America (UNDP, 2009). Although many countries implemented measures to facilitate legal Salvadoran immigration, illegal immigration continued to be a problem. Some estimates place the number of undocumented Salvadorans residing in the United States in 2007 at 400,000 (Gammage, 2007).

According to estimates of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of El Salvador, almost three million Salvadorans lived abroad in the year 2005. Of them, approximately 2.5 million were in the United States.

Deportations of Salvadorans from abroad have increased overtime, going from a total of 4,216 in 1999 to 36,689 in 2004, according to the records of the Ministry of the Interior of El Salvador. From 1999 until 2001, the majority of deportations were carried out in the United States, but as of 2002, the majority of those deported came from Guatemala and Mexico (Andrade-Eekhoff, 2006).

With regard to immigrant populations within the territory, in 2005 it was estimated that 1,913 Nicaraguans and 7,751 Hondurans lived in El Salvador (of a total of approximately 36,000 foreigners). These figures, however, may underestimate significantly the number of Hondurans and Nicaraguans working temporarily in El Salvador (Gammage, 2007).


El Salvador cannot be understood as a country of 6.2 million persons living in 21,000 square kilometres (~8,100 sq. mi.), but rather as a nation with more than eight million citizens that live within and outside its borders (Andrade-Eekhoff, 2006). El Salvador has become a net exporter of migrants, and a country strategically based on its emigrants. The great difference in salaries between El Salvador and the United States, and the existence of a large number of Salvadorans who live in that country (and who left principally during the civil war of the 1980s) and who encourage the search for opportunities for their compatriots, explains in great part Salvadoran emigration. Migration is crucial to understand the performance of El Salvador’s economy in the last two decades (BID, 2007).

El Salvador’s economy contracted 3.3% in 2009, as a result of the financial crisis. No growth has been projected for 2010. Credit for the private sector also decreased, employment in the informal sector rose, remittances dropped almost 10%, tax collection decreased 11%, and the public deficit increased from 3.1 to 5.4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). "After Mexico, El Salvador has been the Latin American country most severely affected by the international financial crisis”, indicates the UNDP Country Report (UNDP, 2009).