In the second half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, Italy contributed greatly to intra-European migration flows and registered sizable emigration to North and South America and Australia. Mass overseas migration started in the 1870s. From 1876 until the outbreak of World War I, almost 14 million Italians left the country. The USA turned into the principal destination for Italian emigrants. In fact, between 1901 and 1914, 40% of all Italians leaving the country went there. Migration to the USA significantly decreased between 1917 and 1924 with the introduction of immigration quotas that limited the number of Italians permitted to enter the country to 5,000 per year. Also, the rise of the fascist regime in Italy led to increasing restrictions on emigration. Apart from the USA, other important migration destinations were Argentina and Brazil as well as France and Austria-Hungary, at the beginning of the 20th century also to an increasing extent Germany and Switzerland. For most Italians, migration was only temporary: 50% of all Italians settling in North and South America between 1905 and 1915 later returned to their home country. Italian migrants were also known as seasonal workers, thus they were nicknamed "birds of passage" in the USA and "golondrinas"(swallows) in Argentina.
Migration in the interwar period and after the Second World War
Emigration from Italy continued in the interwar period when more than 4 million people left the country. Several thousand opponents of the fascist regime fled Italy while at the same time migration towards Italy's colonies in eastern Africa increased. In 1938, Italy and Germany signed a migration agreement on the basis of which about 500,000 Italians arrived in Germany to work in factories and, to a lesser extent, in agriculture.
After the Second World War transcontinental emigration declined, while Italy was increasingly exporting manpower to those north-western European countries undergoing vigorous economic growth. Contrary to the situation before World War I, migration flows were now restricted and regulated, bilateral agreements becoming an important characteristic of labor migration regimes. Italy signed several such agreements: 1946 with Belgium and France; 1947 and 1948 with Argentina; 1947 with Czechoslovakia, 1951 with Canada and Australia, and 1955 with Germany. Sending Italians abroad was, at that time, considered a strategy to counteract high unemployment rates attended by rising social pressure. Between 1946 and the mid-1970s more than seven million Italians left their country, half of them eventually returned home. Labor migration flows from Italy that were driven by the demand of the importing countries, did, however, not reach the magnitude of emigration that Italy had recorded before the Second World War. Despite of these emigration movements in the post World War II period, Italy was slowly undergoing a transition, turning from a migrant sending into an immigrant receiving country. This development was accompanied by an economic boom in the 1950s and 1960s which triggered large internal migration movements from the agricultural South to the industrialized North of the country.