Migrations (1960-1990)




Following a period of relative stability, population mobility and migration are once again changing. Several mainland states like Venezuela, Panama or French Guiana remain popular destinations, attracting numerous migrants from nearby countries. During the last 50 years, the region has become a zone where departures have outstripped arrivals. As with Mexico and the isthmic countries, the Archipelago, with two exceptions (Bahamas and American Virgin Islands) show important net migration deficits: heading the list are the Jamaican, Cuban, Dominican and Haitian emigrations, provoked by the political context for some, and economic for others. The press and media often highlight the more dramatic events, of the ‘balseros,'the boat people intercepted at sea by American coastguards. Even though territorial discontinuity presents an obstacle and a more dangerous sea passage than that across land, the numbers of volunteers remain high. The myth of an ‘El Dorado' nourishes these clandestine flows.

There is an evident contrast between the Greater and Lesser Antilles. The 260 000 annual emigrants leaving Haiti represent only 3 to 4% of the total population; the 1 800 from Grenada and the 1 000 from Dominica constitute respectively 18 to 14% of islanders. In 30 years (1960-1990), the equivalent of half the population of the Lesser Antilles has migrated. Mostly, it is the young, the more energetic and sometimes the best trained who emigrate, thus presenting their countries with serious development consequences.

The flows are traditionally directed towards the colonial homelands with which there remain very strong links, a certain cultural similarity and a common language. British West Indian migration to Britain grew rapidly from the 1950s onwards, leading to the growth of immigrant concentrations in particular inner-city areas. In the larger metropolitan regions like London, years of chain migration also saw the re-emergence of separate island identities reflected in the urban social fabric.

However, the most attractive destination is North America, and particularly remains the United States, notwithstanding the obstacles. Integration there is made all the more difficult in a society where black immigrants are still met with ostracism, if not outright racism. The slightest sign of personal cultural development, the acquisition of the least professional qualifications appears to provide the most likely explanation for this marginalization. If Martinique and Guadeloupe have long been generally seen as hearths of outmigration, they have also been places of immigration, attractive because of their high standard of living, but also because poorly qualified workers have accepted salaries lower than those imposed by law for jobs that were often seasonal. A similar phenomenon had been observed between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the latter having employed in conditions amounting to quasi-slavery, a large contingent of agricultural workers on sugar cane plantations.

Parallel to these flows, some return migrations are already in evidence but difficult to quantify. In economic and financial terms, the diaspora favours the development of certain activities back in the island of birth. The hope of return nourishes the construction of houses, buildings, allowing those who stayed on the means of earning a living. In cultural terms, these population movements play a role in the diffusion of Caribbean identity across the world. Historically, the scale of the diaspora speaks for itself, by the 1980s, for example, more than half of all Jamaicans lived outside the island.

Author: Monique Bégot
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith