Urbanization, Migration, and Immigration

Urbanization, Migration, and Immigration

Colombia had one of the highest urbanization rates of any Latin American nation. The proportion of the population living in urban areas increased from 31 percent to nearly 60 percent from 1938 to 1973. Over the 1951 to 1964 period, the rate of urbanization averaged 5.5 percent per year. In the 1980s, however, the rates of both population growth and urbanization fell.

Massive rural-urban migration since the late 1930s was the main factor in increasing the urban share of the population from less than one-third to almost two-thirds in 1982. Urban growth between 1951 and 1973 was dominated by the growth of the four largest cities: Barranquilla, Cali, Medellín, and Bogotá--all of which were already large metropolitan areas of more than 500,000 people in 1951. The share of total population in these four cities nearly quintupled from 5 percent in 1951 to 25 percent in 1973--compared with an increase in the total urban share of less than 50 percent during the same period.

Observers disagreed about whether the growth of these cities, which averaged 5.2 percent a year between 1964 and 1973, persisted into the late 1980s. Since city size determined the allocation of federal funds for various public programs, the controversy was charged with heightened political and economic interest. Preliminary results from a survey of households indicated that the growth rate of Bogotá declined from nearly 6 percent during the 1964-73 period to less than 4 percent between 1973 and 1981.

The decline in the urban growth rate was mainly the result of lower fertility in the more recent period and a higher base size of the cities, rather than a dramatic reduction in the pace of migration. Indeed, it appears that throughout the 1970s the absolute number of persons migrating to urban areas continued to increase. However, after 1979 the slowdown in economic activity, particularly in manufacturing and trade, probably lowered the pace of rural-urban migration somewhat as job opportunities in the cities declined.

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 were several identifiable ethnic groups of foreign origin in Colombia, all of them small. The Jewish population was estimated at 25,000, 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.


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