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Historical Developments of Migration | Croatia |

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Historical Developments of Migration

Pascal Goeke

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Emigration in the 19th and early 20th Century

In the 19th and 20th century, Southeast Europe, and with it also Croatia, developed from a region of immigration to a region with a definite emigration surplus. With this, Croatia joined the European immigration overseas. According to estimates, between 1880 and 1914 alone about 300,000 people from the kingdoms of Croatia and Slavonia, 90,000 people from Dalmatia and 30,000 people from Istria emigrated. In the 1920s, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and later Germany emerged as important countries of destination and increasingly replaced overseas destinations. Until 1940, some regions had established a clear tradition of migration, above all Sava-Banate (Savska banovina) and the coastal region of Primorska (Primorska banovina), "in which there was practically no more households which someone had not already emigrated from to overseas."

Emigration after the Founding of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

The tradition of primarily economically motivated emigration experienced a crucial turning point through the events of the Second World War. For one, increasingly more people migrated decidedly due to political reasons, and secondly, migration movements were then more strictly politically observed, assessed and instrumentalized. The state founding of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (of the so-called "second Yugoslavia", a federation of six countries and two autonomous provinces) changed the situation for current and potential migrants. The Croatian migration numbers cannot be precisely reconstructed. Nejašmić noted 250,000 emigrants for the time between 1940 and 1948 alone, and added the number of those Italians, Germans, Czechs, Hungarians and Polish who also left the country. The new Yugoslavian state first considered the emigrants to be traitors to the Yugoslavian cause. In the 1960s, the baby boom generation first pushed their way into the job market and as economic reforms led to the redundancy of workers in 1964, public authorities began to hesitantly cooperate with foreign employers. Parallel to this, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia and with it the Yugoslavian government set aside their ideological doubts about migration and Yugoslavia became the only socialist country, which was an official part of recruitment migration. In 1965 the first recruitment treaty with Austria came into force. Treaties with France (1966), Sweden (1967), the Federal Republic of Germany (1968), and Luxemburg (1969) as well as with Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands (1970) followed. Although Switzerland did not sign a special recruitment treaty with Yugoslavia, it became an important country of destination as well. From 1970 on, the recruitment came successively to an end. In countries of destination recruitment bans were put in place and in 1973 Yugoslavia itself passed the law to protect those workers employed abroad, which limited the placement of workers to the unemployed and to selected occupational categories. The result of the short period of recruitment is documented in Table 1, where it can be observed, as in all other figures of Croatian migration in the times of Yugoslavia, that the Yugoslavian census differentiated between emigrants and "people temporarily employed abroad". But, because at the time of the census it was impossible to be able to decide whether the concerned people would return again to Croatia or not, it behooved every person who counted to make the decision. Tendentially the so-called labor migrants who had gone to northern and western Europe were classified predominantly as being employed abroad, while those who emigrated overseas were regarded as permanently absent. Due to this fact, the reliability of the data is always questionable.

Table 1: Number of Yugoslavian labor migrants in the most important countries of destination at the end of 1973

*These numbers are drawn from Yugoslavian statistics and are estimates. In the destination countries, the number of Yugoslavian labor migrants is on average about 15 percent higher because all persons with a Yugoslavian passport were counted. However, because of different ways to capture the number of immigrants, the statistics of the different countries of destinations can hardly be compared.
Country of destination Number*Percentage of all persons classified as "temporarily employed abroad" by the Yugoslavian Census at the end of 1973
Federal Republic of Germany469,00050,1%
Austria 197,00019,9%
France 54,0005,5%
Switzerland 28,0002,8%
Sweden 25,0002,5%
Benelux states14,0001,4%
Other European states16,0001,6%
Countries overseas160,00016,2%

Source: Baučić (1973), p. 62

The number of people that permanently left Croatia between 1948 and 1991 is estimated to be about 370,000. It must be remarked, however, that in this time period 151,800 people from other parts of Yugoslavia immigrated, so the emigration was compensated for to some extent.

Table 2: Emigration from the territory of present-day Croatia, 1880-1991

*Only permanent emigrants who in fact never returned to Croatia or would very probably not return there. Due to the particular category "temporarily employed abroad", the numbers remain estimates.
Time period Number of emigrants*
Total number
Number of emigrants*
Average per year

Source: Nejašmić (1995), S. 350

Migration during the Yugoslav Wars

Had it not come to a crisis in Yugoslavia at the end of the 1980s which led to the Slavic wars of dissolution, the calming of the migration movements would probably have started in the 1980s. However, a long unknown refugee and migration dynamic in the whole of Europe set in with the Yugoslav Wars (10-day war in Slovenia 1991, Croatian war 1991-1995, Bosnian war 1992-1995 and the Kosovo war 1999). In the period from 1991 to 1997, about 950,000 of the 4.5 million people living in Croatia migrated at least once or were displaced at least once. According to further estimations, which dramatically vary from one other, this number includes 550,000 Croatians, or Croatian citizens and 400,000 Serbians. In addition to these numbers, there were about 400,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina who found refuge in Croatia. The central territories of the conflict in Croatia were the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina and East Slavonia. It was here in these regions that the Serbians first conquered territory and displaced the Croatians living there. In 1995 the regions were re-conquered, Serbians were displaced and the Croatian government encouraged Croatians to settle there. The internationally demanded return of the displaced Serbians to these regions was extraordinarily difficult and is until today not yet at an end, despite clearly improved framework conditions and beginning cooperation between Serbia and Croatia. By 2000, of the total 350,000 Serbians who fled Croatia, less than 100,000 returned; in 2010 the number was over 130,000.

Effects of the Years of War

A central result of the war years is the sharply decreased share of the Serbian population in Croatia. The population census in 1991 reported 581,663 Serbians (12.16%), this number sank to 186,633 (4.36%) by 2011. The Serbian population in Croatia mainly consists of older people. It can be assumed from this that the Serbian population in Croatia will become even smaller in the future. Asylum, displacement and probable return shaped the 1990s, making a determination of the balance of regular migration impossible. On the emigration side of the balance sheet are the displaced Serbs, people who left Croatia in the case of accelerated family reunification and those who turned their backs to the country due to the poor economic situation in the war years. On the immigration side are the refugees and immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina, people who moved into independent Croatia in the setting of a supported re-migration (e.g. descendants of Croatian labor migrants whose 'return' was fostered with an academic scholarship) and labor migrants who returned to Croatia as they entered retirement. With the death of the Croatian President, Franjo Tuđman, in 1999 and the following liberalization of the country, a renewed change in the migration situation occurred, which will be dealt with in the following sections.

The Current Development of Migration

Two aspects should be emphasized concerning the current migration movements. Firstly, Croatia has again developed into a country with a negative migration balance, with more emigration than immigration. Secondly, Croatian citizens or those of Croatian descent dominate among those immigrating. Of the 8,534 immigrants in 2011, 4,720 had Croatian citizenship (55.3%). As is to be expected, the share of emigrants of Croatian citizenship was still higher at 75% (9,518 of 12,699 people), whereby 31.7% moved to Bosnia-Herzegovina and 26% to Serbia.



  1. Cf. Nejašmić (1995), p. 345.

  2. Cf. Sundhaussen (1999), p. 143; Baučić (1973).

  3. Nejašmić (1995), p. 347; cf. also Baučić (1973), p. 56.

  4. About the proper name: In 1945 it was at first called Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (Demokratska Federativna Jugoslavija), then in 1946, Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (Federativna Narodna Republika Jugoslavija) and from 1963 to 1992 Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Socijalistička Federativna Republika Jugoslavija/SFRJ).

  5. Nejašmić (1995), p. 348.

  6. Cf. Vernant (1953), p. 100.

  7. Novinšćak (2012), p. 136f.

  8. Roux (1995), p. 42.

  9. Nejašmić (1995), p. 349.

  10. The line between ‘migrating’ and ‘being displaced’ cannot be clearly drawn and this is the source of continuous disputes over the determination of the exact scope of asylum and displacement.

  11. Cf. UNHCR (2011), p. 23; cf. also Human Rights Watch (2003), p. 3.

  12. Cf. UNHCR (2011), p. 26.

  13. Meant here are those people, or rather families, who before the war lived in different constellations in Croatia as well as abroad (e.g. parents working in Sweden or Germany and the children living with relatives in Croatia).

  14. Cf. for the case of employees in the health sector and in connection, the loss of human capital: Wiskow (2006), p. 92ff.


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Dr. Pascal Goeke is research assistant at the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Email: E-Mail Link: