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Colombia has experienced little foreign influence or immigration. During the colonial period, Spain discouraged the admission of non-Spaniards into the colonies. After independence there were few economic attractions for immigrants. Civil wars were another deterrent. The country generally lacked a clear policy on immigration but never favored it on a large scale. Those who entered from abroad came as individuals or in small family units. Immigration laws provided for the admission of persons who did not jeopardize the social order for personal, ethnic, or racial reasons. In 1953 the Institute of Land Settlement and Immigration was set up to direct the colonialization of the underdeveloped regions of the country and was given the power to organize immigration for this purpose. After World War II, Colombia encouraged the immigration of skilled technicians, and in 1958 procedures were specified for the admission of refugees. Little was done, however, to implement these measures.
There are several identifiable ethnic groups of foreign origin in Colombia, all of them small. The Jewish population was small but constant since colonial times, although in the 1980s many of them emigrated because of widespread kidnapping for ransom. There was a constant trickle of Spanish immigrants, many of them members of the clergy. Residents from the United States were mainly in business or missionary work. Germans, Italians, and Lebanese--usually referred to as Turks (turcos) or Syrians because they came from the Christian Lebanese part of Syria that formerly belonged to Turkey--were active in commerce, particularly in the port cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Buenaventura.
Germans, as well as other foreigners, found acceptance in the upper class and frequently married into the white group. Some Lebanese married into the Guajira Indian tribe, but immigrants generally were most closely associated with the white upper class, which was generally receptive to ties with foreigners.
Early Colonial Immigration
Immigration began to Colombia in 1499 with the Conquistadors. The town of Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién, established in 1510 was one of the first settlements on mainland America. In 1533, Cartegena was founded and soon became the hub for immigration to Colombia. Immigration was tightly controlled by Spain, and most immigrants were Spanish; specifically, Andalusians in the largest numbers, and then Basques (Basques settled largely in the Antioquia region), although Castilians were the most influential in the government. Early Jewish settlers were converted Jews, known as Marranos, from Spain.
Cartagena was also the main trade center for slavery, beginning in the very year it was founded (in 1533) although slaves were first brought in to Colombia in 1504. Between the 16th and first half of the 19th century, the slave trade flourished. Cartagena received more than 60% of the traffic destined for the Virreinato Peruano. Still, the relatively slow economic growth and development in Colombia may have contributed to overall less harsh and exploitative forms of slavery in many parts of Colombia than in the French and English sugar islands. For example, masters who treated their slaves cruelly were liable for punishment. In Colombia, a slave was able and allowed to testify in court on matters of maltreatment and other legalities, and often did so. In fact, the first recorded case of manumission in the Americas, occurred in 1757 in Colombia. However, the relative mildness of Colombian slavery was probably guided as much by pragmatic factors as ideological ones. In many areas, slaves constituted a substantial part of the total population, even outnumbering their masters, which prompted slave owners to treat slaves humanely to prevent revolt. Furthermore, the unpopulated hinterlands provided slaves with a fairly accessible escape route, which slave owners obviously wanted to prevent at all cost. In 1821 a free-birth law was enacted, and in 1852 all slaves were emancipated. Thousands of documents related to the history of the slave trade in Latin America are held by the National Archives of Colombia and Cuba and are available online through their websites. This is the link to the Colombian site: negrosyesclavos.archivogeneral.gov.co/portal/apps/php/indexes.kwe. Another interesting resource for historical perspective is "Slavery and Salvation in Colonial Cartagena de Indias" by Margaret M. Olsen which examines the Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval's important 1627 missionary history--the only existing published document that deals with Africans in the Americas at such an early date.
Today, 10.6% of the population identify as Afro-Colombians and are of mixed-race descent known as either mulattos (European and African) or zambos (African and Amerindian) or often all three.
Immigration since Independence
For the first half of the 19th century immigration to Colombia slowed considerably due to political unrest and warfare. During the later half of the century, however, the country received trickling flows of European migrants from Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and Russia; non-Europeans from Syria, Lebanon, and China; Jews; Romas, and Americans.
The first and largest wave of immigration from the Middle East began around 1880, and continued during the first two decades of the twentieth century. They were mainly Maronite Christians from Greater Syria (Syria and Lebanon) and Palestine, fleeing the then colonized Ottoman Turkey territories. Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese have continued since then to settle in Colombia. Syrians and Lebanese are perhaps the biggest immigrant group next to the Spanish to come to Colombia since its independence. Recently, immigration from the Middle East to Colombia has increased due to the Arab Spring and civil war in Syria.
In the mid-nineteenth century many Italians arrived from southern Italy (especially in the province of Salerno and regions Basilicata and Calabria ) to the north coast of Colombia. Barranquilla was the first center of this mass migration. In 1885 diplomatic relations were broken for some years between Italy and Colombia when a wealthy Italian businessman in the Cauca, Cerruti Ernesto, turned against the oligarchy and the church favoring a local party liberal. The Bogotá authorities confiscated their property and imprisoned him. This caused a blockage of the Colombian ports by the Italian Navy and the flow of migrants from Italy was partially closed until 1899. Perhaps without this military-diplomatic crises, the Italian inmmigration in Colombia would have been something similar to what occurred in Brazil, Argentina or neighboring Venezuela. Consequently though, before the First World War there was only about 5,000 Italians in Colombia, concentrated on the coast around Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta, with some hundreds living in Bogota. Currently the Italian community reaches nearly 15,000 people, but it is estimated that more than 50,000 Colombians have some Italian ancestry.
Germans began immigrating in the later half of the 19th century, and also in the 20th century. Many arrived in Colombia via Venezuela, where German settlements already existed. They traditionally settled as farmers or professional workers in the states of Boyacá and Santander, but also in Cali, Bogotá, and Barranquilla. One famous German immigrant of the 19th century was German-Jewish entrepreneur Leo Siegfried Kopp who founded the brewery, Bavaria. Other German groups arrived in Colombia later; after World War I (many opticians and other professional businesses in Bogotá were founded by German immigrants in the 1910s), and after World War II, (some of them Nazis or on the black list). See "Distant and Distinct: German Immigrants in Colombia" by Enrique Biermann.
In the 1920's, Colombia's government sought workers from Japan. This initiative was due to the proposal that the Agricultural Society of Colombia sent to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Agriculture and Commerce, calling the attention of the Government to agricultural labor shortages due to the increase of workers in the railways. Few families did immigrate to the Cauca Valley region, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor the heads of households were arrested and taken to Hotel Sabaneta in Fusagasugá . The hotel was converted into an internment camp for Germans, Japanese and Italians until the WWII ended in Europe and Asia.
About 3,000 North Americans arrived in Barranquilla during the late 19th century. By 1958, American immigrants comprised 10% of all immigrants living in Colombia. There are now between 30,000-40,000 United States citizens living in Colombia. Many of whom are Colombian emigrants to the United States who chose to return to Colombia.
Emigration from Colombia is one of the largest in volume from Latin America. According to the 2005 Colombian census or DANE, about 3,331,107 Colombian citizens currently permanently reside outside of Colombia. Other estimates, however, suggest that the actual number could exceed 4 million, or almost 10 percent of the country's population. During the years 1996-2000 (peaking in 2000) so many Colombians left due to violence and the economy, that it became known as the Colombian diaspora. Many of those who moved were educated middle and upper middle-class Colombians; because of this, the Colombian diaspora can be referred to as a brain drain. However, significant numbers of poor Colombians have also been documented. The most common destination for emigration was the United States. In Europe, Spain has the largest Colombian community on the continent, followed by the Italy and United Kingdom. Many Colombians are also dispersed throughout the rest of Latin America. Mexico, Argentina and Chile received political refugees in the mid-to-late 20th century, and Colombian guest workers in the early 2000s.
Dennis M. Hanratty and Sandra W. Meditz, editors. Colombia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.
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