Migration and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Salvadoreans/Lisa Kowalchuk

El Salvador’s civil war made the country the largest source of refugees in Central America and was the most important factor behind Salvadorean immigration to Canada. During the 1980s fully one-quarter of El Salvador’s five million people were uprooted from their homes. More than half of these sought refuge outside their country. Despite the presence of a United Nations mission to monitor the peace, death squads were still attacking opposition politicians and labour and peasant leaders as recently as the spring of 1994.

Several major changes in Canadian immigration policy made this country a popular destination for Salvadoreans after the United States, Mexico, and other countries in the hemisphere. The first major opening for immigrants fleeing political turmoil was the revision of the Canadian immigration act in 1976, which regularized the admission of refugees. Then in the early 1980s lobbying by Canadians sympathetic to the plight of Central America prompted the government to introduce policies designed to ease the entry of Salvadoreans. In March 1981 special measures were implemented that allowed them to obtain permanent-resident status on humanitarian grounds, provided that they had relatives in Canada to support them. At the same time the “wellfounded fear of persecution” that refugee claimants must demonstrate began to be interpreted in a way that accurately reflected the extent of state terrorism in El Salvador.

Two years later a designated subclass of refugees was established for El Salvador that allowed its citizens to acquire refugee status while still in the homeland. Previously they had had to apply at Canadian consular offices outside the country. In June 1993 the designated category for Salvadoreans was changed to “political prisoners and oppressed persons,” a classification that grants refugee status to individuals accused only of activities that, in the Canadian context, would constitute the legitimate exercise of civil rights. In the same month Canada officially ceased to deport Salvadoreans whose applications as refugees had been refused.

This country’s comparative openness was decisive for Salvadorean immigration. One observer has commented that few individuals would probably have come to Canada at all if the United States had been more receptive to Salvadorean requests for asylum. That country, which had provided more than four billion dollars in military aid to El Salvador during the civil war, regularly deported Salvadoreans and rarely accepted their refugee claims. Three-quarters of those who arrived in Canada between 1980 and 1992 were admitted as refugees. Though that proportion later dropped sharply, individuals seeking asylum had not disappeared from the immigration figures by 1994.

Patterns in immigration indicate that although Canada’s policies were relatively generous, its response to the crisis in El Salvador was nonetheless sluggish. Arrivals in 1982 nearly tripled over the previous year, undoubtedly reflecting the special measures introduced. But Salvadoreans had already lived through the three most horrendous years, in terms of human-rights atrocities, in their country’s history when Canada introduced the designated refugee class in 1983. The most dramatic increase occurred that year, when Canada accepted 2,933 Salvadoreans, nearly twice as many as during the previous four years combined.

In the late 1980s, however, the Canadian government began to reverse its progressive immigration policies. Alarmed by the growing numbers of undocumented Central Americans arriving at its doors in the wake of tough new measures against illegal entries on the part of the United States, in February 1987 it abolished its moratorium on the deportation of Salvadoreans. Whether this measure contributed to a drop of almost 25 percent in the number of immigrants to Canada between 1987 and 1988 is unclear. It has been suggested that the decrease resulted less from official policies than from practices in the selection process abroad, which was converging with that of the United States. Statistical and anecdotal evidence points to unofficial quotas, whereby people seeking refuge from the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua were increasingly favoured over Salvadoreans in this period. Notwithstanding this shift, the number of immigrants from El Salvador climbed again in 1990 and reached a peak of over seven thousand the following year.

There are several official counts of the community in Canada. In the 1991 census almost 15,000 people reported that they were wholly (12,440) or partly (2,345) of Salvadorean ethnicity. Almost twice as many, or 28,295 individuals, were reported in the census as having been born in El Salvador. The difference may be explained by a possible tendency for some Salvadorean-born immigrants to regard themselves as members of European or other ethnic groups. A third, still larger figure is produced by annual immigration data collected by the federal government, which show that 33,860 Salvadoreans entered Canada between 1974 and 1991 and that a further 8,783 arrived by March 1994, for a total of over 42,000. It is conceivable that mistrust towards the government in the home country has produced in many individuals an aversion to official enumeration, leading them to avoid responding to the census. A number of Salvadoreans are believed to be living in Canada who are excluded from both census and immigration data; they would include those who are awaiting the determination of their refugee claims.

Almost 67 percent of Salvadoreans who immigrated to Canada were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. Only 8 percent were older than forty-five, and the remainder younger than fifteen. There are 2.7 percent more Salvadorean males than females in the country, according to the 1991 census. This disparity may be attributed in part to the fact that married men tend to arrive alone and bring their wives and children later. The disproportion between the sexes has varied over time, however, and across classes of immigrants.

The majority of Salvadorean immigrants, 42 and 28 percent respectively, have settled in Ontario and Quebec, while 13 percent chose Alberta and 9 percent British Columbia (see Table 1). The few refugees established by the federal government in other areas are known to have moved to new destinations. Individuals are occasionally reported to have returned to El Salvador, but for most immigrants the prevailing social and economic conditions in the homeland – high unemployment, paucity of social services, and a virtual epidemic of violence – make it extremely unattractive to do so.