Croatia has one of the largest diasporas in the world when compared to size to the population in the country with Croatian communities all over the world.
To find out how many people with Croatian origin live abroad, where they mostly are located and what could help bring them back to Croatia we spoke to demographer Monika Balija, who works at the Department of Demography and Croatian Emigration at the Faculty of Croatian Studies, University of Zagreb.
Hello Monika, do you know how many Croats actually live abroad?
The recent wave of emigration and the number of Croatian emigrants in the last few years, after Croatia’s accession to the European Union, clearly indicate that a large number of Croats live outside the borders of the Republic of Croatia.
If we remember that emigration from Croatia, accompanied by several large waves of emigrants, has been going on for several centuries, it is clear that Croatian emigrants around the world number in the millions and for the homeland marked by natural decline, negative external migration balance, total depopulation, population ageing and questionable sustainability of all public systems that depend on demographic characteristics of the population, it represents a great demographic and economic potential.
Intensive emigration, especially during periods of individual emigration waves, has contributed to the fact that Croatian emigrants can be found on almost all continents today.
Of the European countries, most Croats live in Germany, of the South American ones in Argentina, and a large number of Croats live in the USA, Canada and Australia. The mentioned countries, along with Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, etc, are countries of classical Croatian emigration in which an estimated 3.4 million Croats and their descendants live.
The second group of Croats abroad is represented by Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who at the time of the 1991 census numbered about 760,000, while today we could estimate at about 350,000.
In addition to them, we should add Croatian minority communities in the surrounding European countries to the total number of Croats abroad, where an estimated 200,000 people live.
If we recall that the first results of the census conducted in 2021 showed that 3.88 million people live in the Republic of Croatia, we come to the conclusion that Croatia has more Croats and their descendants outside its borders than within them.
Where did the majority of Croats move to since Croatia joined the EU?
Croatia’s entry into the European Union, in addition to intensifying previous emigration trends, also conditioned changes in the number and share of emigrants by destination country.
For example, before Croatia’s accession to the European Union in 2012, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, out of the total number of emigrants (12,877), most people emigrated to Serbia (31.0%) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (25.0%), while 30.1% of the total number of emigrants emigrated to the countries of the European Union, of which almost half (1,883) emigrated to Germany.
Similar shares are visible in the year of accession to the European Union, 2013, when the total number of emigrants (15,262) emigrated to Bosnia and Herzegovina (26.8%) and Serbia (26.2%), while 31.2% of the total number of emigrants emigrated to European Union countries.
The mentioned flows primarily referred to return and politically and ethnically motivated migrations of a regional character. After Croatia’s accession to the European Union and the opening of the labour market of EU member states for Croatian citizens, Germany, Austria and Ireland can be singled out as the most attractive destinations for Croatian emigrants.
Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that in the period from Croatia’s accession to the European Union until 2020, about 260,000 people emigrated from Croatia, and about 150,000 emigrated to Germany, Austria and Ireland.
As the most popular destination for Croatian emigrants, we could single out Germany, to which about 120,000 people emigrated from 2013 to 2020. As a result of the intensive emigration of the Croatian population to Germany, as of December 31, 2020, there were 426,000 Croats living in that country, almost twice as many as in 2012 (DESTATIS).
What is driving emigration today?
If we look at the period of the 21st century and the data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Republic of Croatia has been recording a negative migration balance since 2009.
The impetus for emigration in the mentioned period was primarily of an economic nature; such as unfavourable economic conditions, falling living standards, falling general employment rates, inability to find permanent employment in the profession, etc. With Croatia’s accession to the European Union and the opening of the labour markets of the member states, the emigration flow has significantly intensified, and in some years after joining the EU, such as 2017, Croatia recorded almost 50,000 emigrants.
The intensity of emigration from the Republic of Croatia in the period after accession to the European Union has encouraged a large number of scientists and experts to study the scope, direction and characteristics of the recent wave of emigration. The results of the aforementioned research have largely confirmed that the recent wave of emigration is not driven solely by economic reasons.
We could therefore say that dissatisfaction with the general situation in the country, uncertain future in Croatia and socio-political (lack of) opportunities are the driving factors behind emigration from Croatia in the period after joining the European Union.
The recent emigration was only briefly slowed by the still current pandemic, but it is to be expected that in the future a large number of Croatian people will decide to go abroad again, primarily due to the consequences of the entire pandemic period on the Croatian economy. The pandemic has, of course, affected the economies of all countries in the world, but it is to be expected that the economic systems of developed and Western European countries, which are attractive to the Croatian population, will recover much faster from the pandemic and the troubles caused by it.
In addition, throughout the pandemic period, the motives that encouraged the population to emigrate in the pre-pandemic period are still largely present, while the destabilisation of the economy will further contribute to emigration.
What can help bring Croats abroad back to Croatia?
If we look at the revitalisation models of the population of the Republic of Croatia from the aspect of the profession, apart from the model directed towards the population in the country, ie the classic population policy aimed at encouraging birth rates, the second model is aimed at the population outside the country and refers to selective immigration.
In the latter model, given the great wealth of emigrants, we should certainly take advantage of the fact that outside the country we have several million inhabitants with Croatian identity.
If we take into account the data of the Central Bureau of Statistics and some surveys show that the young, able-bodied, potentially reproductive, and to a large extent educated population emigrate the most, it is clear what the potential is.
However, the answer to the question “What can bring back Croats?” is not simple, nor is one measure enough to get a more serious result.
Since Croatia has been experiencing intensive emigration since joining the European Union, and for several decades a continuous natural decline in population, Croatia needs correlated economic and population policies, ie measures that will provide young people still in Croatia with secure jobs and housing.
An increase in the quality of life in the homeland will in itself encourage a number of emigrants to return, and if we add direct measures aimed at them, which have already been confirmed as successful models in other countries such as Ireland and Israel, we come to the answer that a solution certainly exists.
However, it is not as simple as the recently presented financial incentives, because we cannot expect a large number of emigrants living in much more organised countries than Croatia to return to a country from which the population is rapidly migrating.
Models and conceptions of other countries are not easy to replicate considering Croatia’s different circumstances, however, they should be observed and introduced due to future aspirations and potential opportunities. Croatia needs a comprehensive package of measures in the field of all public policies aimed at increasing the birth rate, slowing down emigration, attracting emigrants to return and new residents to Croatia.
As the most direct system in addressing this issue, we could single out the tax system, which should necessarily be in line with the goals of demographic revitalisation and the desirable regional development of the country.
First of all, it is necessary to raise awareness of the importance of human resources for the overall development of the country, and then to strategically adopt measures aimed at the population inside and outside the country.
When it comes to direct measures aimed at the population abroad, we could mention encouraging the development of activities in Croatia that Croatian emigrants are engaged in abroad or exemption from income tax for a certain period for all Croats who register in Croatia and employ a certain number of people.
These measures should be harmonised with the encouragement of foreign investment, directing production to the fastest growing economic sectors, reforming the education system, etc., because the potential economic recovery and labour shortage could attract a number of emigrants to return to Croatia.
One of Monika’s colleagues at the Department of Demography and Croatian Emigration at the Faculty of Croatian Studies, University of Zagreb, Professor Wollfy Krašić, recently shared his thoughts on why Croatia neglects its emigrants. You can read his text HERE.