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Migration and Remittances

Ecuador: Migration and Remittances. A brief overview of current Ecuadorian migration to Europe and the United States. (2005. Running time: 10 minutes)

Introduction

This short video offers a general overview of current Ecuadorian migration to Europe and the United States. The work touches on relationships between migrant and employer and the impact on the Ecuadorian family unit, both abroad and at home. A commentary is provided by Andres Vallejo, a PhD candidate at Cambridge University (2005).

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Running time: 10 minutes

Introduction

Ecuador is an Andean nation of approximately 13 million citizens and estimates are that more than 15% of the population (about 2 million people) live and work abroad. Most migrants move to more developed countries especially Spain and the United States, where they take on a variety of low paying and often low status jobs and send remittances home to their families. In fact, roughly 6% of Ecuador's GDP is generated by migrants sending home remittances. Migrants from Ecuador leave for a variety of economic and social reasons including high rates of poverty (Ecuador's Central Bank reports that 70% of the population is "poor"), highly unequal distribution of wealth and an entrenched system of social prestige that constrains economic opportunity for many.

The roots of the current migration trends run very deep and Spanish colonialism put in place many of the economic and social conditions that fuel migration today. Since the colonial period the Ecuadorian economy has been disproportionately oriented towards supplying commodities for external markets, (bananas, shrimp and an unpredictable oil supply) while neglecting national needs, thus exacerbating periodic economic booms and busts and extremes in income distribution. Moreover, things have gotten worse in the last decades as serious economic crises have further exacerbated the differentials in wealth. In 1987 it was reported that the top 20% of income earners controlled 50% of the wealth while in 2000 the top 30% controlled more than 80%! The structural adjustment policies (also known as neoliberal reforms) that were commonly imposed throughout Latin America by the IMF and World Bank in the 1980's and 1990's are understood to have played an important role in increasing income inequality. These policies favored free market reforms that resulted in, among other things, reduced government subsidies for basic foods and services, placing increasing economic burdens on the poor.

Poverty in Ecuador is closely linked to ethnicity and many of the most economically vulnerable are members of indigenous populations and those of mixed race rural backgrounds with little access to education or capital. As the population increases many rural farmers have had to abandon agriculture as plots became too small and subsidies too few. Many have moved to the big cities in the hopes of finding employment and providing their children with a better education than could be found in the country. Most of these rural to urban migrants end up working in the informal sector where making a living is often precarious. Access to good jobs, even among the children of migrants who have city educations, is often linked to family name and inherited networks of relationship. Indeed, much of economic and social life in Ecuador in based on an informal system of palanca or leverage, that privileges those with dense urban social networks and prestigious Spanish surnames. For both the rural and urban poor immigration to Spain or the United States seems to be the most viable option for providing for the long term future

Social scientists including Ecuadorian, American and European geographers, anthropologists and sociologists have been studying the social consequences of migration from Ecuador for decades. Migrants tend to follow one another as friends and family members help each other to migrate and we find that migration from the north of Ecuador is centered in Spain while in the south the primary destination is New York. Networks of friends and family members help ease the transition to the new place. Many, if not most, immigrants to the U.S. and Spain are undocumented, and they often pay between $12,000 to $14,000 for the services of smugglers and coyotes who assist them in their passage. Migrants often spend the first few years abroad paying back these loans, and remittances sent to family are usually sparse in the first few years. There are also significant psychological burdens on both those who leave and those who stay especially when small children are left behind in the care of aging grandmothers. About 50% of Ecuadorian migrants are now women, many of whom leave their own children to care for the children of others. While the goal of most migrants is usually to stay abroad for a limited number of years, and then to return with sufficient capital to start a business or buy land to achieve financial independence, often circumstances are more difficult and not infrequently migrants are abroad for a decade or more. The children of migrants sometimes grow up knowing their parents only through videos and phone calls. The material benefits of migration can often be seen in the Ecuadorian countryside where today new home construction dominates the landscape, but less obvious are the changes that remittances have made within families. Anthropologists have noted a shift in gender roles because of migration as women become either managers of the remittances their husbands send, or financially independent through migration. It has also been noted that men who engage in emigration often return with a deeper appreciation of women's domestic burdens and more egalitarian gender configurations have been described. Education of children is often a priority, and families will frequently use remittances to send their children to better primary and secondary schools in towns and pay for college educations, in the hopes that they will have better opportunities in life. As a consequence of increased education, elite urbanites are finding it more difficult to find young girls willing to be household maids.

With the global economic crisis starting in 2008, life for many migrants abroad has become more difficult and many jobs in construction and in the service sector have been lost in the U.S. and Spain. Many migrants find themselves barely able to make it from day to day in their adopted country and completely unable to send home remittances. Significantly, the government of Ecuador, headed by the left-of-center president Rafael Correa has embarked on a plan to encourage transnational migrants to return home. Correa's government recently initiated the "Welcome Home" program aimed at encouraging migrants, especially those who have saved sufficient capital, to come back to Ecuador. The program includes reducing the custom fees for Ecuadorians who wish to bring in business equipment and goods and providing tax breaks and incentives for starting new businesses. Correa has also begun an initiative to promote Ecuadorian industries over global ones with an "Hecho en Ecuador" campaign that encourages consumers to look for and buy Ecuadorian produced merchandise.

Ann Miles, PhD. Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, Western Michigan University, 2010

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creative commons logo (CC) BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Photograph

Photograph of Street in Ecuador, January 2005.

Street in Ecuador, January 2005.

Photo: © S L James

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Ecuador
Credits

Director / Producer: S L James

Production January 2005 (Ecuador); September 2008 (USA)

Last updated Sep 09, 2011