Before independence, there was a large migration from Spain; the 1899 census reported 129,000 Spanish-born persons living in Cuba. The 1953 census reported about 150,000 persons of foreign birth, of whom 74,000 were Spaniards. From 1959 through 1978, Cuba's net loss from migration, according to official estimates, was 582,742; US figures indicate that during the same period a total of 669,151 Cubans arrived in the US.
During the 1960s, Cuban emigrants were predominantly of the higher and middle classes, but in the 1970s urban blue-collar workers and other less educated and less wealthy Cubans came to predominate. The flow of emigrants declined in the late 1970s, but beginning in April 1980, Cubans were allowed to depart from Mariel harbor; by the end of September, when the harbor was closed, some 125,000 Cubans in small boats (the "freedom flotilla") had landed in the US. Of that number, 2,746 were classified as "excludable aliens" and were being held in prisons or mental institutions. According to an agreement of December 1984, Cuba agreed to accept the 2,746 back; repatriation began in February 1985, but in May, Cuba suspended the agreement. Some Cubans have combined to make it to the US in small boats and rafts. A total of 3,656 did so in 1993 and 3,864 in the first half of 1994. By the mid-1980s, well over 500,000 Cuban exiles were living in the Miami area. In 1990 there were 751,000 Cuban-born persons in the US. Large numbers have also settled in Puerto Rico, Spain, and Mexico.
Since 1979, the Cuban government has been providing education to a number of students from developing countries. Due to events making return to their homelands difficult, many have become refugees. Sporadically, Cuba receives groups of Haitians who generally return to their homeland voluntarily. Between 1991 and 1994, UNHCR worked with the government to protect and assist more than 1,500 Haitians during a temporary stay in Cuba. In 1995, Cuba was harboring 1,500 refugees from the Western Sahara; in 1999, the government was still working with UNHCR to return them to their country of first asylum. UNHCR was assisting a total of 1,014 refugees in Cuba in 1999, the majority of whom were students recognized as refugees. Cuba has recently seen an increase in asylum applications from non-Spanish-speaking countries. The net migration rate for Cuba in 2000 was -1.8 migrants per 1,000 population, amounting to a loss of approximately 20,000 people. In that year there was a total of 82,000 migrants living in Cuba. The government views the migration levels as satisfactory.