Uruguay - Overview of the history of international migration in Uruguay

The first wave of European immigration to Uruguay took place in the early Sixteenth century, when a large group of Spaniards arrived at the Rio de la Plata region. The Spanish, in addition to the later arrival of Italians (mid-Nineteenth century) made up the majority of the population in Uruguay, which continued to be a net receiver of immigrants until the 1950s. This trend would be reversed during the second-half of the Twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium after an extended period of economic stagnation and deterioration, a result of several crises, added to the institutional breakdown caused by the dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1985. The only exception to this general trend occurred during the 1990s when Peruvian citizens entered in search of a better economic well-being. Emigration, especially of young people, has been considerable and constitutes a cornerstone of Uruguay’s social and economic dynamics. Almost 18% of those born in Uruguay live abroad, which has converted it into a country of emigrants and an important case study regarding migration and globalisation. 

History of immigration

The first Uruguayan settlement was Colonia del Sacramento, a Portuguese military fort founded in 1680 and located across from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Montevideo, the current capital of Uruguay, was founded by the Spanish in 1724 for military purposes. This new settlement included families from Buenos Aires and the Canary Islands, among whom the Spanish Crown distributed lands and small farms and, later, large ranches in the interior. Slaves were introduced to Uruguay between the mid-Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, although their number was relatively low. Since raising cattle was the main economic activity, labour was not in high demand, and when it was, the demand was filled by the growing immigration from Europe, primarily from Spain and Italy. The charrúas, the territory’s indigenous population before the Spanish conquest, gradually disappeared. As a result of wars, illnesses brought from Europe, and increasing inter-racial marriages, the number of natives quickly diminished. By the 1850s the original indigenous groups were practically non-existent.

Beyond the solid position that Montevideo maintained in the Cuenca de Plata’s trade until the late Nineteenth century, Uruguay occupied a marginal place in the region. The proximity of Buenos Aires and the fertile Pampas region in Argentina, as well as the extensive ranching establishments in Río Grande do Sur in Brazil, resulted in Uruguay becoming a place of transit rather than a final destination for many immigrants.

Despite the minor scale of immigration flows compared with Argentina or Brazil, it is clear that the Uruguay of the Nineteenth century was a “product of immigrants,” who were incorporated into the country at the same time that they were shaping its nationality (Barrán and Nahum, 103). “The time of the greatest economic growth in Uruguay, between 1871 and 1887 when its per capita income was comparable to England, France and Germany, was the time of great demographic growth, product of the avalanche of European immigrants seeking economic prosperity” (Díaz, 2004).

The majority of these immigrants settled in urban centres, especially in the capital of Montevideo. Towards the early 1830s, Uruguay’s population was 74,000 inhabitants, of whom approximately 14,000 lived in Montevideo. By 1908, the year of the first national census, the total population reached approximately 1,104,000 inhabitants; Montevideo claimed around 309,000.

Although in the year 1843, 60% of Montevideo residents were foreign born towards 1860 this figure had decreased to 48%. The national total dropped from 35% in 1860 to 17% in 1908. At the turn of the century, Immigrants were dominated by Italian (34 percent), Spanish (30 Percent), Brazilian and French (15 percent) and Argentine (10 percent) origins (Finch, 206).

Italians arrived in larger numbers, to the point that Giusseppe Garibaldi, the great Italian hero of unification, lived in Montevideo and even participated in the so-called “Guerra Grande” civil war (1839-1851). In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries thousands of Italians that had participated in worker’s union movements (among them anarchist militants) arrived in the country causing a major impact on labour movements and Uruguayan politics (Arocena, 115).

French and Spanish immigrants also arrived. It has been estimated that 10% of the Uruguayan population has Basque ancestry and 60% have Spanish ancestors of various kinds. The presence of Basques in Uruguay can be traced back to the foundation of the capital city in 1726; the first governor, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, was a Basque (Arocena 114). The majority of French immigrants that settled in Uruguay entered the country between 1832 and 1852, with a maximum of 10,300 immigrants arriving in 1843. The French made up 41.5% of immigrants received by Uruguay between 1835 and 1842, and represent the largest source of immigration for the country in that period. Until 1853, French Basques made up the largest group among all immigrants that had arrived in Uruguay, to be later overcome in numbers by Spaniards and Italians. Another large wave of French immigration towards Uruguay occurred during the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) with 2,718 French immigrants arriving between 1866 and 1867, representing 10.1% of immigration at that time.

Another significant group were Africans brought initially as slaves in the Eighteenth century. Currently, African descendants constitute 9% of the total population. The Swiss that arrived in Uruguay to escape an economic crisis in their country of origin, founded an agricultural colony in 1862 in the southern part of the country called Nueva Helvecia, which reached a total of 1,500 persons by 1878 (Arocena 117). The influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, primarily Poland, Romania, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Armenia are also worth mentioning.

During the first half of the Twentieth century Uruguay continued to be a net receiver of immigrants. These included groups of Armenians fleeing the persecution they suffered at the beginning of the century; Lebanese; and approximately 10,000 Jews who, escaping from Nazi Germany, arrived between 1933 and 1941.

In the early Twentieth century, the Uruguayan government implemented an immigration policy aimed at attracting settlers towards the rural areas that were unoccupied and lacked agricultural exploitation. One of these groups was Russian, of which approximately 300 families arrived in 1913 (Arocena, 118). The Spanish, Italian, and French immigrants continued to arrive to the country, although in much more moderate numbers.

As was the case in Argentina, but at a smaller scale, Uruguay had economic success as an agro-exporter. As of 1930, it incorporated an import substitution model, achieving considerable industrial development relative to the dimensions of the country and its weight in demographic terms. However, over time, industrialisation reached its limits. The exhaustion of the model towards the late 1950s opened paved the way for a prolonged period of economic stagnation with unemployment levels that ultimately developed into a structural trend (Pellegrino, 14).

By the 1950s, due in part to a decrease in the world market for agricultural products, Uruguay entered an era of severe economic stagnation, and increasing social and political instability. It was at that time that Uruguay’s traditional net immigration pattern started to cede its place to a pattern marked by emigration. The reasons for the emigration of the 1960s are primarily economic in nature, and social problems started to reach significant levels as the new decade approached. This process of political and social deterioration culminated with a military coup and the suspension of civil freedoms in 1973. In addition to the lack of employment, the political repression that characterised this period (1973-1985) consolidated as the most important factor that propelled the waves of emigration during that decade. Official figures indicate more than 200,000 persons left Uruguay between 1963 and 1975, and another 177,000 left between 1975 and 1985 (UNDP, 2009). Together, those figures represented almost a tenth of the total population.

The majority of those who emigrated were young people. Between 1963 and 1975, 17.7% were 14 years old or less; 68% were between 15 and 39 years old; and 14.3% were over the age of 40. Those emigrating had on average a higher education level than the general population. Just 1.5% had no education; 52.1% had completed elementary studies; 33.6% had attended high school or teachers' training colleges, and 12.8% had attended university or technical college.               

In the late 1980s, the “debt crisis” and the lack of employment for young people constituted the fundamental factor that contributed to emigration. Those leaving Uruguay were not only younger and better educated than the population as a whole, but, in addition, had better labour qualifications.

The most frequent destination of Uruguayan emigrants was Argentina, which absorbed half of the emigrants during the first-half of the 1970s. The United States and some European countries received qualified Uruguayan immigrants, such as Spain and Italy, followed by France and Sweden. Australia, Brazil, and Venezuela were also of significance. By 1980, 9% of the total Uruguayan professionals and technicians lived in the United States and eleven Latin American countries, which originated concerns of “brain drain”, very similar to the Argentine case (Pellegrino 1993). In these calculations those residing in Europe or Australia are not considered as this would bring the proportion to more than 12%.

Emigration of young qualified adults meant the loss of scarce resources and severely affected the quality of the country’s labour force. Certain professions experienced a high emigration trend: architects and physicians in the 1970s, engineers and IT specialists during the 1980s and 1990s (Pellegrino, 2002).

During the 1990s there was a great influx of Peruvian immigrants who were escaping the severe economic, political, and social crisis in Peru under the Fujimori regime. Albeit the numbers were not highly significant, they may represent an important trend in the future (Arocena, 126).

Although the emigration trend decelerated markedly during the 1990s, it regained momentum with the onset of the 1999 economic crisis, which peaked in 2002. Unemployment in that year reached 17% (UNDP, 2009). During this period, emigration reached the highest levels recorded in the history of the country. This emigration flow followed many of the routes established in the 1970s, as Uruguayans went to countries where established communities already existed (Pellegrino and Vigorito, 2002). The decades that led to the most recent crisis show a predominance of neighbouring countries, of which Argentina absorbed more than half of Uruguayan emigrants. Recent movements, however, have been reoriented towards the United States and Spain. Between the years 2000 and 2006, the main countries of destination were: Spain (43%), the United States (26%), Argentina (12%), and Brazil (5%) (UNDP, 2009). As mentioned previously, the population that emigrated was very young. According to data gathered by the National Survey of Extended Households (ENHA, for its initials in Spanish, 2006), 55% of emigrants were between 20 and 30 years of age. The primary social groups encompassed industrial workers and young businesspersons, followed by scientists, intellectuals, and specialists.

Finally, the country’s economic prosperity in the latter years of the decade, in addition to the economic crisis that has affected the principal neighbouring destination countries preferred by Uruguayans (Spain and the United States), has markedly reduced out-migration flows. From a negative balance of 28,302 for the year 2002, it has gone to 5,709 in 2008, and only 811 in 2009 (Cabella 2009), indicating a decreasing trend.

Despite this trend, the cumulative number of Uruguayans residing abroad is very high relative to its total population. There were approximately 477,000 Uruguayans living abroad in 1996. Between that year and 2004, another 117,000 Uruguayans left the country. In total, the number of Uruguayans residing outside of the country by 2004 was close to 600,000 persons, equivalent to approximately 18% of the total population (UNDP, 2009). 


Uruguayan immigration history, much like that of Argentina, is marked by its status as a net receptor of immigrants from its origin until the first-half of the Twentieth century, to become a country of emigrants, with a great part of its population currently living abroad (the latest figures estimate that 18% of persons born in Uruguay live outside of its borders). The emigration of young qualified adults represented a significant loss of scarce resources that has affected the quality of the country’s labour force (Pellegrino, 2002). This includes highly skilled occupations such as architects and physicians in the 1970s, and engineers and IT specialists during the 1980s and 1990s. The highly specialized skill set and age of the most recent emigration has given rise to concerns of a possible “brain drain’ in the future, or in the very least, a significant contribution to the potential underdevelopment of certain professional sectors in Uruguay.