Since its founding in 1500 by Portuguese colonists, Brazil has experienced major waves of immigration as governments encouraged migration to fill its vast territory and boost agricultural production. The first wave saw an estimated six million Africans forcibly brought to Brazil between 1550 and 1850 to work on sugar cane plantations. The next major wave, from 1880 to 1903, saw 1.9 million Europeans arrive, mainly German, Italians, Portuguese and Spanish. The following wave, from 1904 to 1930, saw another 2.1 million Italians, Poles, Russians and Romanians settle in Brazil, along with Japanese agricultural workers, who numbered 189,000 by 1941. After World War 2 numbers of immigrants were reduced until in 1964 the government dropped policies to attract immigrants: since then, economic development has depended on internal migration.

In the 1980s Brazilians began to migrate in search of economic opportunities, with over 1.8 million of them living abroad in the 1990s, mainly in the US, Paraguay and Japan. In the 1990s, Brazil began receiving asylum seekers from West African countries, granting refugee status to just over 3,000 people between January 1998 and February 2005. It refugee resettlement programme also increasingly focuses on refugees from Colombia.