The Croatian diaspora is spread all over the world. A history of emigration, the size of emigre communities & a complicated relationship with the homeland.

The Croatian Diaspora: an introduction

While the exact numbers of Croats living outside Croatia are hard to determine, the numbers are significant. The number of persons of Croatian origin living abroad being almost equal to the number of Croats living in Croatia. According to some estimates, about four million Croats are residing in other countries.

The diaspora members come roughly in three groups: countries in which they are one of the constituent nations (Bosnia and Herzegovina); states in which they are officially or unofficially considered to be a national minority (Austria, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Italy, Kosovo, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia); and other countries to which Croats emigrated in smaller or greater numbers throughout the history.

The first significant wave of “emigration” occurred in the 15th century, with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The consequences of this are Croat national minorities in Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Italy. The second wave took place in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century, with a large number of Croats moving to North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Emigration and World War II

The Second World War prompted a new wave of emigration. It consisted of different groups of people: refugees, persons who remained abroad as prisoners of war or forced laborers and, in 1945, members of the defeated military forces who withdraw from Croatia together with the occupying German and Italian forces. According to the relevant sources, about 157,000 persons emigrated from Croatia between 1941 and 1948.

Some went immediately after the war in order to avoid reprisals by the winners (mostly to Argentina and other South American countries). In the years immediately after the war, about 85,000 people moved to other parts of Yugoslavia, mostly as part of the organisedcolonisation drive.”

The next wave happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s when several hundred thousand Croats emigrated due to economic and political reasons. In recent years, another major wave occurred after Croatia entered the European Union in 2013, which lifted restrictions on employment in Western European countries, primarily Germany and Ireland.

Politics and economics: emigration drivers

Croats have left Croatia left for economic and political reasons. The older Croat population abroad, primarily “economic emigrants,” still demonstrate an interest in events in the homeland. The younger generation has been more assimilated, but is still interested in its Croatian roots. A particular group of Croatian immigrants consists of “economic immigrants”. These largely emigrated in the 1960s and mostly live in Western European countries.

Some of them are well integrated into their new homelands (especially the younger Croats). Others, meanwhile, still consider themselves to be temporary emigrants and want to return to Croatia.

Croatian emigration during the 1990s was mostly refugees from the war-torn areas. Most emigrants in this period moved to Western European countries and the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some of them have since returned to Croatia.

After Croatia entered the European Union in 2013, there has been massive emigration to Western European countries. While the numbers are still somewhat vague, there is little doubt that they are in the hundreds of thousands. According to recently published data, far more people than previously thought have left Croatia since it entered the EU. While official Croatian statistics for the period from 2013 to 2016 report 102,000 emigrants, foreign sources say that the number of emigrants was significantly higher and reached 230,000 Croats.

Politics in Croatia and the diaspora

The diaspora is nowadays represented in parliament by three MPs. These are elected by Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina and all around the world. The MPs are invariably members of either HDZ or other right-wing political options. The right of these MPs to have a seat in parliament, despite being elected by people who do not live or pay taxes in Croatia, is a topic of constant debates in Croatia.

However, since the diaspora members faithfully vote for HDZ, and the constitution cannot realistically be changed without HDZ’s support, the chances of diaspora ever losing the right to vote for parliament (or for president) is virtually non-existent. Previously it was even worse, when the diaspora had as many as 12 seats.

The Croatian Diaspora in former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe

Majority of Croats moved to Germany, more than 71 per cent, as well as to Austria and Ireland, a country which practically did not even appear on the list of countries to which Croats were moving until just a few years ago.

Apart from freedom of movement within the EU, the main reasons for emigration are the perception of emigrants about better living conditions in other EU member states, as well as a higher degree of economic development. It is worrying that many say they will never return and have moved abroad together with their families.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

According to the Bosnian constitution, Croats are one of the three constituent peoples in the country. They are not actually emigrants since they settled in the area starting from the 7th century when Croats came to what is today Croatia as well. During history, they sometimes lived in the same country with Croatia and were sometimes separated by borders of various countries which sooner or later disappeared. According to the 2013 census, 544,780 Croats were living in the country, making up 15.4% of the population. For comparison, in 1961, Croats comprised 21.7% of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while in the 1991 census, there were 760,852 (17.4%) Croats.

Croats as a National Minority

Croatians are an indigenous minority community in 12 European countries. These are Austria, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Czechia, Italy, Kosovo, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Serbia.

The status of members of the Croatian national minority is regulated differently in individual countries. Legislation is in accordance with local legislation and international or bilateral obligations. The scope and level of these rights are very different. There are still no solid and binding international legal documents in the area of protection of national minorities.

Croats have been living in these 12 European countries for centuries. Despite various difficulties and challenges they face, they have managed to retain their language, cultural and national identity. The government is undertaking a number of activities to develop the Croatian minority communities. This includes encouraging them to keep awareness of being an integral part of the Croatian people and their cultural space.

A diaspora in Austria for 500 years

There are some 27,000 and 50,000 of the so-called Burgenland Croats (Gradišćanski Hrvati) living in Austria. Their predecessors moved there during the 16th century, and the main centre is the town of Eisenstadt (Željezno). In addition to them, Austria also hosts a large, more recent Croat emigrant community.

As for Bulgaria, Croats started moving there in the 18th century, with the most significant number coming in the early 20th century from what is today Kosovo. There are between several hundred and several thousand Croats living in Bulgaria.

In Montenegro, Croats mostly live near the Adriatic coast, in Tivat, Kotor, Herceg Novi, Budva and Bar. At the time of the latest census in 2011, some 6,000 Croats were living there.

Croats started moving to what is today Czech Republic in the 16th century, to the region of Lower Moravia. There are some 2,000 Croats and their descendants living there.

A diaspora in Italy for 600 years

The Croat minority has been living in the Molise region in Italy since the 15th and 16th century when their forefathers fled from the Turks. The group consists of some 2,000 people.

Croats in Kosovo are descendants from traders and miners from Dubrovnik and Bosnia and Herzegovina who moved there in the 14th century. While in 1991 some 8,800 Croats were living in Kosovo, by 1998 the number had fallen to just 1,800 and is much lower now.

Croats have been living in Hungary for centuries, moving there from the 15th to the 18th century. At the 2011 census, 26,000 people in Hungary said they were ethnic Croats.

In Macedonia, some 2,600 Croats mostly live in Skopje, Bitola and Štip, according to the official figures.

Croats started moving to Romania in the 14th century, with the latest census figures showing that the community has some 5,400 members.

Croats came to Slovakia in three major waves: in the mid-16th century, in the mid-17th century and late 17th century, again fleeing the Turks. In 2011, 1,234 Slovak citizens reported their ethnicity as Croatian.

In Slovenia, Croats live mostly in the Bela Krajina region, in the Slovenian part of Istria, and near the border with Croatia. Estimates of the number of Croats in the neighbouring country is around 35,000.

Croats have been living in Serbia for centuries, mostly in the northern Vojvodina province and in Belgrade. In 2011, 57,900 Croats were living in Serbia, down from 70,600 in 2002.

The Croatian Diaspora: Western Europe and Beyond

Based on the estimates of Croatian diplomatic missions and consular offices, Croatian Catholic missions, as well as censuses in the countries where Croatian emigrants and their descendants reside, and on the basis of estimates by the Croatian communities themselves, the best estimate is that about three million Croatian emigrants and their descendants live in other countries. Based on these estimates, the number of Croats and their descendants is as follows (according to the Central State Office for Croats Abroad):

Argentina: 250,000

Australia: 250,000

The Croatian Diaspora in Australia

Australia is a traditional immigrant country to which Croatian settlers first came in the second half of the 19th century. The first immigrants from Croatia, mostly from Dalmatia, moved to Western Australia. The centre of early emigration was Perth, together with Fremantle. After the Second World War, people from other parts of Croatia started moving to Australia, though inhabitants of the coastal area and islands remained a majority. In the second half of the 20th century, there was a significant increase in the number of Croatian emigrants to Australia.

Austria: 90,000, Belgium: 6,000, Brazil: 20,000, Bolivia: 5,000, Chile: 200,000, Denmark: 1,000, Ecuador: 4,000, France: 40,000, Italy: 60,000, South Africa: 8,000 and Canada: 250,000

The Croatian Diaspora in Canada

Most Croats live in the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Manitoba, and in cities Toronto, Mississauga, Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary. Croatian emigration falls into four generations, or waves.

The first generation of Croatian emigrants arrived in Canada between 1890 and 1914. The second generation arrived in the period between the two world wars from the monarchy of Yugoslavia. The third generation are Croats who came from Socialist Yugoslavia in the years immediately after the Second World War. The fourth generation are immigrants who arrived in Canada during the 1990s.

Luxembourg: 2,000, The Netherlands: 10,000, Norway: 2,000, New Zealand: 40,000 and Germany: 350,000

Croats started settling in Germany in the 19th century. Due to the major industrial development after the Second World War, when there was a great need for labour, Croats again started moving to Germany. The emigration of the 1960s and 1970s was largely economic-based.

Paraguay: 5,000, Peru: about 6,000 and the United States: 1,200,000

The Croatian Diaspora in the United States

The largest Croatian communities are located in Chicago with around 150,000 members, in St. Louis (40,000), Detroit (7,000), San Pedro (35,000), San Jose (5,000), New York, New Jersey and Connecticut (80,000). The arrival of Croats in America was part of the European migration process.

Croats were some of the first Europeans in America. According to historians, several sailors from Dubrovnik sailed on Columbus’ ships. The colony at Ebeneezer, in Georgia, was probably the site of the first mass immigration of Croats to the United States.

The so-called modern colonisation started from Dalmatia and the Croatian Littoral region. Most immigrants were concentrated along the Mississippi River, the Pacific Ocean’s shore and in the New York City.

The more massive emigration period from Croatia to the United States began in the late-19th century, between 1890 and the First World War (around 500,000 people). Croats were employed in coal mines, railways and on the road network construction. About 150,000 people moved to the United States between the two world wars.

Sweden: 35,000, Switzerland: 80,000, Uruguay: 5,000, Great Britain: 5,000 and Venezuela: 5,000

Croatian Diaspora institutions

There are two main bodies which work on developing ties between Croatia and its diaspora. One is the Central State Office for Croats Abroad (with the Council of the Government of the Republic of Croatia for the Croatians outside the Republic of Croatia), and the other is the Croatian Heritage Foundation.

There are various initiatives to bring the diaspora together and encourage greater connection with the Homeland. These include two major conferences, which take place each year. The Croatian Diaspora Congress will take place for the fourth time in Split in 2019. The G2.4 Conference in Zagreb is more focused on investment, and it is growing in importance each year.

Croatian diaspora conferences are fascinating things to witness if you are a foreign fly on the wall. Here are some of my impressions now that I have attended a few.

The Homeland and the Croatian Diaspora: a complicated love affair

One of the most complicated relationships in Croatian society is between the Homeland and the diaspora. As described above, the waves of emigration took place at various times and for various reasons.

The economic impact on ordinary households in Croatia from the diaspora is an important factor is making ends meet. Some 2 billion euro arrived from diaspora relatives in 2017, a significant percentage of the country’s economy.

During the Homeland War, diaspora cash was an essential source of revenue, even more so after the war. Diaspora money poured in to support the young independent country, as love of the homeland and a willingness to help took precedence.

Sadly, that trust was abused by unscrupulous people in Croatia, and a lot of that money simply disappeared. A level of mistrust about investing in Croatia has been the result. This is a tragedy, as Croatia is in desperate need of investment, and the diaspora is a natural partner.

Things are changing slowly, however, and the new generation of entrepreneurial diaspora businessman is engaging with its counterpart in Croatia. The future looks very bright indeed in that regard.

One of the most vocal sections of the diaspora are the descendants of the 1945 wave in Australia. Largely descended from grandparents who emigrated for political and economic reasons after World War II, their view of Croatia is a little distorted as a result.

Some of the greatest Croatian patriots, despite many not able to speak their native language, the solution to Croatia’s problems lies in lustration and rooting out all the Communists. As one Facebook commentator put it recently, when talking about this section of diaspora talking about Croatia:

“It is like llamas born in St. Petersburg zoo talking about Peru.”

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