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Croatian Migration History and the Challenges of Migrations Today

Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, Zagreb

Dubravka Mlinarić, Mario Bara, Snježana Gregurović, Drago Župarić-Iljić, Simona Kuti

The specific geostrategic position of the Republic of Croatia, its place within different historical states and corresponding political interests highly influenced recorded migration patterns and trends from the 19th century onwards. Cross-border movements as well as internal mobility have shown some similarities with migrations in other Mediterranean and Central European countries regarding economic aspects, but also other specific features such as different religious traditions, heterogeneous ethnic components and various cultural identities. Rich traditional migration experience was additionally affected by the World Wars and economic recession, political turmoil and planned migrations. Croatia represents a complex and multidimensional space of migration activity due to seasonal cross-border migration and overseas emigration in the late 19th and 20th century, labour migration during the socialist era and recent migrations of highly skilled professionals.

A significant methodological problem regarding data on Croatian migration, besides the vague definition of the “Croatian emigrant”, is a lack of systematic and uniform official statistical records for all regions comprising the Republic of Croatia, that were previously under different states’ jurisdictions (Mlinarić 2009). Therefore, it is hardly possible to compare or combine data of various provenance.


Emigration from Croatia

Mass migration from the territory of today’s Croatia has a long history; it started as a result of the frequent wars between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs (15th–18th centuries). Present-day Croat ethnic minorities in European countries (Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia and Italy) originate directly from these early migration flows.

The next migration wave began in the l890s and continued until 1914. An estimated 350,000 to 450,000 people left the Croatian lands to overseas destinations primarily due to economic reasons, such as the farming crisis, shipbuilding and Phylloxera epidemic in wine production, and increasing rural over-population (Lakatoš 1914; Nejašmić 1990, 1991; Telišman 1978). Under-populated territories, especially in the Americas and Australia, were the most amiable destinations for people from under-developed but over-populated regions such as the rural Dalmatia. After the first labour migrants from this area had reached the USA and Canada in the mid-19th century, industrial growth and the emerging global labour markets in the USA additionally attracted workers from undeveloped European regions such as Croatia, with the aid of emigration agents who recruited cheap workers for American mining companies, shipyards and factories (Mlinarić 2009). Until World War I, during the period of open door policies in the USA, there was no significant emigration from Croatia to European countries. However, those who emigrated did it spontaneously, due to the lack of coherent domestic migration regulations and liberal immigration policies of the receiving countries. Overseas emigration resulted in early signs of depopulation on some Dalmatian islands (Brač and Hvar), and Istria, where mass emigration had already started in the 1860s (Nejašmić 1991).

After World War I the circumstances for emigration changed significantly. In the first Yugoslav state, established in 1918, Croatia continued to experience emigration because of economic difficulties. A particular kind of emigrants were ‘Austro-Hungarians’ (mainly German, Hungarian and Czech speakers) who left Croatia after the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy for political reasons. Soon after the war, labour migrants’ destinations also changed. Thanks to massive unemployment and poverty, overseas countries introduced restrictive immigration regulations, limiting the number of immigrants, especially for people coming from the Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Despite of restrictions, a considerable number of people legally emigrated overseas from the interwar Yugoslavia, with an additional smaller number of unregistered emigrants. The USA, as the most popular overseas emigration destination, was replaced by South America, mainly Argentina and Chile. Almost half of the Yugoslav emigrants arrived there. Moreover, Canada, Australia and New Zealand became new attractive destinations. Along with a gradual decrease of emigration from the interwar Yugoslavia to overseas destinations, emigration to European countries increased, too. The majority of Croatian emigrants settled in Germany, Belgium and France. Since work (and residence) abroad was intended to be a solution for only a limited period of time, migrants planned to return.

The political and economic consequences of the World War II generated new types of migration (primarily displaced persons and refugees) and new destinations. This emigration wave from Croatia involved approximately 250,000 people, including defeated army soldiers as well as members of the German, Czech and Hungarian national minorities (Nejašmić 1991). For instance, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) conducted a repressive revision of property relations (confiscation) and forced emigration primarily on the basis of ethnic criteria, directed mostly against the members of Jewish community in urban and Serb community in rural areas. A large number of political emigrants fled the new communist regime to overseas destinations; consequently, the emigration to Canada, Australia and New Zealand increased significantly (Gregurović & Mlinarić 2012). Besides, there were additional economic reasons for emigration, including poor living conditions, severe agricultural crisis and the destruction of the shipbuilding business. While the pre-World War I emigrants had worked mainly in the steel and mining industries, these newcomers were employed mostly in trade and agriculture (Mlinarić 2009; Colic-Peisker 2008). Further migration from Yugoslavia occurred in a predominantly random, unorganized and spontaneous way.

During socialism migration from Croatia can be divided into two distinctive periods. The first one lasted from 1946 until 1963/4 and was characterized by increase of illegal emigrants, following the abolition of travel restrictions on labour migrants. For economic or political reasons these migrants illegally crossed Yugoslav borders, mostly to Italy or Austria. The second period started in 1964 and was marked by state-tolerated and even facilitated mass migration of workers. This wave included a large number of legal labour migrants, who officially were not considered emigrants because they were expected to return, and denominated by a census category with the expression “workers on temporary work abroad” (known also as Gastarbeiters). Being accompanied by “members of their families living with them” they belonged to different migrant categories, from seasonal to permanent emigrants. The Yugoslav government facilitated leaving the country for work and better salaries abroad by concluding bilateral recruitment contracts with foreign governments, considering temporary work of its citizens abroad as a way to lessen labour market pressures and lower high unemployment rate in the mid 1960s (Mežnarić 1991). This type of emigration continued until the early 1970s, when European countries, as preferred destinations, introduced immigration quotas. Croatia had one of the largest shares in terms of emigrants per head of total population, greater than its respective share in Yugoslavia’s total population. This wave of labour emigration also differed in its character, structure and distribution from previous illegal migration. A comparatively higher level of migrants’ skills was one of the main characteristics of Yugoslav migrant workers (Baučić 1973). The most attractive destinations were Western European countries, especially the FR Germany. However, highly skilled migrant workers also departed to the USA. Although the initial idea of the Yugoslav and destination countries’ governments as well as of most migrants themselves was not to settle permanently abroad, the vast majority of them became permanent emigrants. They were delaying their return home and adapting to their host countries through integration, assimilation and naturalization (Mlinarić 2009). The Gastarbeiter migrations were regulated by immigration policies but these issues were underestimated in Yugoslavia. In regard to the number of these labour migrants in European countries and to the number of returnees which was twice lower that those who left, it was expected that emigration effects on the economic, socio-political and demographic development of Croatia would slow down (Baučić 1973; Nejašmić 1991).

The end of socialism and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 initiated another wave of mass migration. Emigration from Croatia to Western Europe and North America was in particular caused by the war between 1991 and 1995, and the economic crises after the collapse of socialism. Migration included victims of forced migration (e.g. refugees) and economic migrants. Ethnic motives provoked various groups of migrants to leave the country, including Serbs and members of other ethnic groups as well as Croats (Mesić 1992). Political stability along with economic security of a destination country still represented the most common and desirable pull factor. Mixtures of improving labour market opportunities, professional perspectives and/or relatives who lived in the receiving countries were attracting new streams of emigration. Highly educated, young, unemployed and unmarried people in Croatia with higher labour potential were more likely to examine the possibility to emigrate (Božić & Burić 2005).

Immigration to Croatia

Since Croatia was an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the majority of settlers from the 19th until the beginning of the 20th century were immigrants from other parts of the Monarchy (from areas in present-day Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, Ukraine and Poland). Their descendants represent the core of the ethnic minority population of the Republic of Croatia (22 distinctive groups according to The Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities). While state officials, craftsmen, soldiers etc. settled individually into urban areas and administrative centres, farmers came in large numbers buying cheap but dilapidated farming land in parts of Slavonia. After the First World War, due to political-territorial and social changes, many immigrant families returned to their home countries (Germans, Hungarians, Czechs etc.). The same socio-political changes accelerated the immigration of South Slavic nations to Croatia, which mainly happened over several post-war years during the opting process. After 1918, the new authorities undertook the agrarian reform and planned migration i.e. colonization, and a certain number of colonists came to Croatia from other parts of the Kingdom of SHS/Yugoslavia (Vrbošić 1997). These migrations were internal by their character (with respect to political-territorial position of Croatia at that time).

From 1918 to 1941 there was a significant increase in immigration from economically passive and deprived regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina to agricultural areas, especially to the regions in Croatia populated with a great number of minorities. The formation of new political borders (NDH 1941‒1945) was followed by a new wave of colonisations related to war and post-war mechanical movement of the population with selective impelled and forced migrations. Implementing colonization under its control, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) authorities were mostly led by the criteria of ethnic belonging. In order to ethnically homogenize the state, the agricultural population, mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was part of the NDH as well, was settled here. A part of the immigrants came from Slovenia as Slovenian refugees, and Serbia (mostly persons of Croatian nationality). A new redistribution of the population depended on the changed political circumstances after 1945 and the attitude of the colonists toward the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and the antifascist movement. Urban centres and agricultural areas in Slavonia  remained desirable immigration destinations decades after the war. Previous prevailing forms of migrations (forced, impelled, and organized colonisation) were replaced by economical migrations as a reaction to sudden industrialization and economical development encouraged by the state. On the other hand, economical immigrations from other, less developed areas of Yugoslavia marked the era up to the 1970s. A strong surge of migrants came from the rural parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as from economically undeveloped areas of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. On the other hand, the immigration from the overseas as well as from the European countries was not extensive in number and it consisted mainly of returnees – Croatian emigrants and/or first or second generation descendants of these emigrants.

One of the characteristics of the inter-republic migrations from 1945 up to 1990 was that the migrants often chose the “mother” republic of their own nation as a destination point (Heršak 1993). This in turn led to a gradual homogenization of federal units of the former Yugoslavia.

Contemporary migration patterns in Croatia comprise different types of migrants. Croatia still has to develop its migration policy in order to overcome upcoming migration challenges (e.g. labour immigrants from neighbouring countries, return migrants, circular, transit, irregular migrants and asylum seekers) (Gregurović & Mlinarić 2012; Župarić-Iljić 2013). While Croatians abroad represent a significant potential for entrepreneurial, cultural and scientific networking, recent immigration to the country could contribute to Croatian development. It is necessary to focus on the integration of immigrants, accepting the possibilities they create and sustain transnational social spaces linking them to the countries of origin or other migrant communities abroad, either European or overseas (Kuti 2012). Such developments, recently also within the EU context, present challenges for both policymaking and migration research in Croatia.


KEY WORDS: Croatia, emigration, immigration, history of migration



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