Background information:Capital:
Languages: Portuguese
Area: 8,511,965 km2
Population (2007): 185,998,215 (Brazilian Institute for Statistics IGBE)
Population density: 23 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2006): 1.2 % (IGBE 2006)
Labour force participation (8/2008): 57 % (IBGE)
Foreign Population (2008): 0.7% (estimation, see text)
Unemployment rate: 7.6 % (8/2008), 9.5 % (8/2007), 10.6 (8/2006) (IBGE)

Brazil, the fifth biggest country in the world in terms of area and population, is primarily known in Europe as an attractive holiday destination and former immigration country. Between the first Portuguese settlement in the 16th century and the Second World War, more than four million people migrated to the country, most of them Europeans. In the 1980s the situation reversed. An estimated three million Brazilians have left their country to date; initially their primary destination was the USA, but increasingly they also aim for Europe and Japan.

Due to the stabilised economic situation123 For this reason, many well-educated young Brazilians can see no professional opportunities in their homeland in the immediate future and are leaving the country for the USA, Japan and Europe.

Historical development

Brazil is characterised by centuries of immigration from all parts of the world: the systematic settlement of European invaders, in particular the Portuguese, but also Spaniards, the Dutch, the English and the French, began more than three hundred years ago. Initially, numerous indigenous Indians were enslaved, predominantly to work on the sugar cane plantations. Enslavement, displacement and extermination led to the annihilation of many Indian peoples: of an estimated five to six million indigenous people at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, only about 600,000 remained by the end of the colonial period.4 In the 16th century, Portuguese colonialists began to bring slaves from Africa to Brazil. They originated from territories known today as Guinea, Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria and more. In the 17th century the number of displaced Africans already exceeded that of the settled Europeans.5 6

In this first phase of mass immigration, European migrants were needed above all as workers in the agricultural sector, for coffee cultivation in Southeast Brazil and later for the spread of industrialisation. The Brazilian upper classes were, moreover, anxious to bring themselves in line culturally, socially and ethnically with Europe through European immigration.7

In a second wave of immigration between 1910 and 1929 more than one and a half million migrants entered the country to be employed, once again, in agriculture. The immigrants again originated primarily from Portugal, Italy, Spain, Russia and Germany, many of them looking for a fresh start after the First World War. However, emigration to Brazil has also increased from Syria and Lebanon since the beginning of the 20th century.8

After Canada, the USA, Mexico and Argentina had tightened up their immigration conditions in the mid 1920s, Brazil became the main migration destination for the Japanese. By 1929, 86,577 Japanese had arrived in the country, assisted in their emigration by the government in Tokyo, which gave them financial support as well as helping to organise their emigration.9 The Japanese immigrants replaced the Italian immigrant workers who were predominantly employed in agriculture and whose numbers went into steady decline from the 1930s.

10Internal migration

Political and legal development

Immigration policy
The Brazilian government does not pursue an active immigration policy; although entry into Brazil is made easier for the highly qualified once they have been assessed by the National Immigration Council. The higher the school or university qualification, the more often a work or residence permit is granted, as figures from the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment show for the years 2004 to 2007.13 The immigration policy for which the National Immigration Council has striven in recent years facilitates migration where the focus is on the following main areas: modern technology, investment of foreign capital, science and culture development and family reunification.1415

The 1980 law also created the National Immigration Council () as a government body. It is responsible for formulating immigration policy and for the settlement of aliens. The Immigration Council is controlled by the Ministry of Labour and is composed of members of many other ministries, trade unions and associations. By dint of granting the seven types of visa and with the aid of 79 resolutions at present, it has an active influence on migration activity.16Congresso Nacional), have fallen afoul of complicated bureaucratic procedures and disputes in the Chamber of Deputies ().

Regional migration

In terms of numbers, interregional migration in Brazil today is determined above all by the Common Market of the South, Mercosur (1819 To date, however, Brazil is the only Mercosur country that has not yet signed the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Foreign population and current immigration

Comparison of data from the population censuses since 1940 shows a drop in the percentage of foreign population from 3.42% (1940) to 0.52% (1991).20 Until the end of the 1960s, the reduction in the percentage of foreigners is attributable initially to the strong growth of the Brazilian population, and then later to the end of immigrant recruitment.

Today the percentage of foreigners in the Brazilian population, at 0.6 to 0.7%, is rather small (cf. Argentina at 3%). There are an estimated 1.5 million foreigners currently living in Brazil, while the 2000 census quotes a total number of 683,830 (legal) immigrants. Foreigners are deemed to be persons who were born abroad, regardless of their citizenship. Numbering 213,200 persons, around 31% originate from Portugal, 70,932 (10%) from Japan and 55,032 (8%) from Italy (cf. Fig. 1). Large proportions of immigrants from Portugal, Japan and Italy were born in their respective countries as the descendants of Brazilians and have dual citizenship.

Disregarding the high number of Brazilian returnees from these countries, the second and third most common countries of origin in the period between 1990 and 2000 are the USA with 8.2% of all immigrants (7,628 persons) and Japan with 5.8% (5,364 persons) respectively.

The residence permits with work permits granted by the Ministry of Labour in the years 2004 and 2007 were mostly awarded (not allowing for Latin American migrants) to immigrants from the USA and European states such as the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany, but also to Asian migrants from the Philippines, India, Japan and China (cf. Fig. 3).21

Ethnic origin and multiculturalism

22232425 There is currently considerable debate about quota systems for blacks in the civil service.


Brazilian citizenship is regulated by the 1988 constitution (Article 12). It is obtained through birth on Brazilian soil (ius soliius sanguinis26

In order to protect the rights of its emigrant citizens, in 1996 Brazil introduced dual citizenship. The initiative to amend the law originated from the government and may be regarded as a reaction to the rapidly increasing number of Brazilian emigrants. Especially after immigration laws were tightened in the USA at the start of the 1990s, thereby making circular migration more difficult, the Brazilian government wanted to make it easier for emigrants to maintain formal ties with their country of origin. Extraterritorial rights such as the right to vote outside the country provide a further instrument in this regard.27


History of emigration

As a result of disappointment over the continued economic standstill and the corruption scandals undermining President Collor (1990 to 1992), the mid 1990s saw a second wave of emigration. In 1995 the number of Brazilians living legally in the USA, Japan, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and other countries was estimated to be over a million; ten years later this figure had already more than doubled.30 According to the latest estimates of the Brazilian foreign office, in 2007 98% of emigrants were living in four regions: North America (42 %), Europe (25 %), South America (20 %) and Asia (10 %). The remaining 2% were distributed throughout Central America, Africa, Oceania and the Middle East.

Of the South Americans who entered the USA between 1990 and 2000, 65.6% were Brazilians.31 In 2006 an estimated 2.8 million Brazilians were living in the United States, many tens of thousands of them illegally. Tightening of the laws and border controls made what was at first mostly circular migration to the USA more difficult, whereupon the number of emigrants to Europe in the 1990s grew. For reasons of language and the descent of many emigrants, Portugal was selected as one of the most common destinations.3233 Seventy-five percent of Brazilian migrants registered in Germany are women, as Federal Statistical Office figures verify.34

In addition to North America and Europe, at the beginning of the 1980s Japan became the third major migration destination for Brazilians. Of these main destinations for emigrants, only Japan had recruited Brazilian workers.
In response to the problems of the increasing number of Brazilians abroad, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as foreign minister (1992-1993) under President Franco, made it a priority of his work to increase the number of consulates and embassies and extended their function to make them general places of information for Brazilians abroad.35 Under the Lula administration the first steps have been taken towards an emigrant-friendly policy: the cost of remitting money is to be reduced and programmes to reintegrate returning migrants expanded.3637 Definite state measures to combat the brain drain caused by the outflow of young workers have not yet been adopted.

The emigrant population
A disproportionate number of Brazilian emigrants to Japan, Europe and the USA are qualified workers. They are predominantly young38 and originate from the educated middle classes with urban backgrounds. Despite being employed in poorly paid sectors in their destination country, they often earn many times as much as they would in their country of origin.

In Japan it is estimated that one third of Brazilian immigrants have high school diplomas yet they are usually employed in less popular jobs. They remit three to four billion US dollars annually back to their country of origin.3940

The international emigration of qualified people should be regarded as one consequence of the quest for social mobility that is still denied the younger population in Brazil. Due to the population explosion, medium-sized and large Brazilian cities do not offer the highly qualified population adequate employment opportunities.41 The social advancement emigrants hope for in industrial countries, however, is mostly limited to opportunities for consumption and generally improved living conditions.4243
The fact that the migrants continue to be closely bound to their country of origin both socially and economically is shown first in the sums they remit: in 2007, according to a study of the Inter-American Development Bank, remittances came to 7.1 billion US dollars. The amounts remitted by Brazilians in the USA, Europe and Japan had risen constantly between 1996 and 2006 along with the number of emigrants (cf. Fig. 6).

Further evidence of the high degree of connectivity with their country of origin is the fact that a not inconsiderable number of migrants, in total 187,180 persons, moved to Brazil as returnees between 1990 and 2000.44 That amounts to two thirds of the total influx from abroad during this period. About 20% of the former Brazilian emigrants came from Europe; 16% returned temporarily or permanently from the USA (cf. Fig. 7).

According to a report in the New York Times in 2007, fear of deportation and also the weak dollar are cited as reasons for increased numbers returning from the USA.45 The recent stabilisation of the Brazilian economy must meanwhile be an additional pull factor. The tendency not to want to settle permanently in the USA is also indicated by the low number of naturalised Brazilian migrants: in the year 2000 this was just 21.5% - the lowest of all South American migrants in the USA.46 Comparison with figures from the Brazilian foreign ministry based on estimates shows, however, that emigration between 2001 and 2007 continued to increase even while increased numbers were returning.

Irregular migration

Irregular migration from Brazil
Since opportunities for entering the USA were tightened up in the 1990s, many Brazilians try to enter the country illegally. Initially they travel to Mexico as tourists and then cross the border into Texas in buses or on foot with the help of people smugglers. Many Brazilians pay sums of up to US$ 8,000 to Mexican or US American smugglers for this service. The number of Brazilians apprehended at the USA border was quantified in 2005 as up to 2000 a month.47Illegal and irregular immigration
48 However there is also prohibited immigration by sea from other African states such as Nigeria.

In 1998, under the then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the law governing illegal immigration (No. 7,685 of 1988) was amended by a new amnesty law (No. 9,675). During a period of 90 days in the same year, 40,000 foreigners received a temporary residence permit of up to two years with the option for extension by the same period through to achieving permanent residence status. The biggest groups to profit from this amnesty were Bolivians (approx. 14,000), Chinese (approx. 9,900) and Lebanese (approx. 3,100) followed by South Koreans, Peruvians, Uruguayans and Argentinians, each with a four-figure number. Although Africans probably make up the greatest proportion of irregular immigrants, only 435 persons from Angola (9th place) and 225 from Nigeria (in 13th place) profited from the amnesty.49 Critics decry the fact that in total only very few immigrants are regularised. Moreover, the common practice of deporting children is an object of criticism in connection with controlling irregular migration.

Human trafficking

Although in recent years the government has made increasing efforts to punish internal and international people-trafficking and take targeted action against forced labour, measures proclaimed by the Lula administration for eliminating slave labour and child prostitution are making only slow headway. In October 2006, President Lula da Silva had initiated and provided the relevant finances for a national plan of action against all forms of exploitation, including nationally coordinated measures to combat people trafficking. In 2006 there were more than 100 missions to remote areas along the Amazon River to uncover forced labour.

Refugeeism and asylum

5253 With 50% of applicants granted asylum, Brazil lies about halfway up the table for Latin American countries. UNHCR staff, however, assume that there are significantly more asylum seekers in Brazil. According to their statistics there are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 irregular refugees living along the border with Columbia alone, of whom only a small proportion have applied for asylum.54generalized violation of human rights55

The law provides for recognised refugees who have lived in the country for six years to apply for an unlimited residence permit. Refugees and asylum seekers in Brazil are guaranteed access to social and economic rights as well as health provision, education and work. Poverty, however, is widespread.

Conclusion and future challenges

56 This concerns migrants from the Mercosur member states as well as those from other countries.

The present administration is endeavouring to extend trade within Mercosur and with other neighbouring countries. Progress in this regard has been achieved since 2002 with the help of an active foreign policy. However, it will only be possible to achieve this goal on a permanent basis if sensible regulations are agreed upon for the growing number of circular and labour migrants. Here the numerous undocumented migrants who move about in the border areas of the Mercosur member states, living at times in precarious living conditions, form an important starting point.

As the strongest economic power in Latin America, Brazil also bears responsibility for the protection of the African and especially the Columbian refugees currently pouring into the country. Whether or not it is perceived as an economically and socially competent country depends not little upon whether there is a reasonable response in the near future to the tens of thousands fleeing from civil warlike conditions in the neighbouring country.


  1. Since 2007 the rate of inflation has been 4.5 %. At the end of 2005 Brazil was in the position of being able to pay back prematurely its entire debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which converts to USD 15.5 billion, thus depriving the IMF of its biggest borrower. (cf. New York Times, 02.06.2008).
  2. The Gini coefficient, used as a measure of inequality of income distribution, gave an index for Brazil in 2005 of 56.7, showing Brazil to be among the countries with the highest income inequalities worldwide. See Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): CIA World Factbook,
  3. See Arbix (2007).
  4. See Ribeiro (2002).
  7. See Lesser (1999).
  9. See Masterson/ Funada (2003).
  10. See Seyfert (2001).
  11. Thus today the largest 10 % of concerns own almost 80 % of the available cultivable land, whereas about 60 % of concerns have to manage with 5 % of the cultivable land, see Kohlhepp (2003).
  12. See CEPAL (2007).
  14. See Barreto (2001).
  15. See Sales and Salles (2002).
  16. See Barreto (2001).
  18. Venezuela applied for full membership in 2006 but has not been recognised as yet by all the member states of Mercosur.
  19. See CEPAL (2007).
  21. See IBGE (2006):
  23. For nationals of Portuguese-speaking countries the period is reduced to one year. Reduced periods of residence also apply to persons with Brazilian relatives, those in special professions, in the service of the state or who own certain goods.
  24. Based on the 1965 law and the 1988 constitution. See Escobar (2007).
  25. Since the 1990s Latin America, including the Caribbean, has been the region with the highest emigration worldwide; labour migration has become a central economic factor for Latin America, see IADB (2004).
  26. See Skidmore (1999).
  27. See Sales and Salles (2002).
  28. See Migration Policy Institute (2006): Characteristics of the South American Born in the United States.
  29. Figures of 24,142 Brazilians released by the Federal Statistical Office for the same year are significantly lower than this estimate. This is attributable to the different means of gathering statistics: The Federal Statistical Office count is based on the difference between Brazilians entering and leaving the country and the number of naturalisations in Germany, whereas the estimates of the Brazilian foreign ministry are based on reports from the consulates in Berlin, Frankfurt a.M. and Munich.
  31. See Barros (1996).
  34. The average age of Brazilians living in the USA is 33.7. See Migration Policy Institute (2006): Characteristics of the South American Born in the United States.
  35. See Sales and Salles (2002).
  36. See Migration Policy Institute (2006): Characteristics of the South American Born in the United States.
  37. See Klagsbrunn (1996).
  39. New York Times, 04.12.2007.
  40. See Migration Policy Institute (2006): Characteristics of the South American Born in the United States.
  43. See Barreto (2001).
  44. See U.S. Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report 2007
  45. See U.S. Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report 2007
  46. Personal e-mail from CONARE dated 26.05.2008.
  47. See above.
  48. Brazil, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2007. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, March 11, 2008:
  49. See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2007).
  50. See Sindicato Mercosur (2006): (as at 18.06.2008).

About the author:
Sabina Stelzig, M.A. studied sociology in Erlangen-Nuremberg, Lisbon and Hamburg. Currently she is finalizing her dissertation at the University of Hamburg.


References and Further Reading

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.