Previous meta-analyses on palliative treatment of malignant colorectal obstruction with Self-Expandable Metal Stent (SEMS) or emergency surgery reported contradictory results for morbidity, and frequently included extracolonic obstruction. Therefore, the current meta-analysis aimed to exclusively analyze palliative treatment for primary obstructive colorectal cancer, with early complication rate as a primary outcome. A systematic literature search was performed on studies comparing palliative SEMS and emergency surgery. Corresponding authors were contacted for additional data. Eighteen studies were selected (1518 patients). Early complication rate was 13.6 % for SEMS and 25.5 % for emergency surgery (Odds Ratio (OR) 0.46, 95 % confidence interval (CI) 0.29-0.74). Mortality was 3.9 % and 9.4 % (OR 0.44, 0.28-0.69). Stomas were present in 14.3 % and 51.4 % of patients (OR 0.17, 0.09-0.31). More late complications occurred after SEMS (23.2 % versus 9.8 %, OR 2.55, 1.70-3.83), mostly due to SEMS obstruction. In conclusion, SEMS placement seems the preferred treatment of obstructing colorectal cancer in the palliative setting.