For many years now, emigration and depopulation have been competing for the front pages of Croatian newspapers, with frequent use of alarmist terms like “exodus” and “demographic catastrophe”. In any case, there are plenty of generally younger citizens who can testify to having left their native soil for northern Europe, trbuhom za kruh – a rather colourful expression which can be translated as “following the belly, in search of bread”.
President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović has spoken frequently about the demographic question, calling it a “vital question” and a “battle for existence”. To fight this battle, Grabar Kitarović has established a team of experts. The proposals put forward in 2018 involve some generic economic stimuli, tax cuts, public administration reform, incentives for childbirth, as well as the old dream of bringing the diaspora back home.
Recently, during a visit to Virovitica-Podravska, Grabar Kitarović again stressed the need for solutions to the demographic question, especially in the counties directly affected by “greater Serbian aggression”. These claims, deploying an expression already at the centre of arguments with Serbia, still conceal a shocking truth. Independent Croatia has lavished plenty of words on the areas which were on the front-line of the “patriotic war”, Lika and Slavonia especially, but has allowed them to die economically. In Lika, a mountainous region, the migratory tradition has been strong since the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Vukovar, on the other hand, in the centre of fertile Slavonia, used to be an immigration destination during socialist Yugoslavia, but has languished for two decades in a state of economic prostration and is quite literally emptying out. An initial analysis already illustrates how the emigration of Croatian workers is rooted in a combination of both long-term and short-term phenomena.
In 2013, Croatia joined the European Union at a time of profound economic crisis which caused a surge in unemployment, especially in 2013 and 2014 when it reached over 17 percent. Croatia’s entry to the European Union therefore became a driver for emigration. The numbers have become even greater since 2015, when Croatian workers began to enjoy full freedom of movement within the majority of EU countries, including Germany.
In this regard, Croatia is hardly unique, since mass emigration has characterised many other countries which recently joined the European Union.
Today, three Eastern European countries top the ranking of EU countries with the highest percentage of their workforces living abroad. In 2018, 21.3 percent of working age Romanians resided abroad. Romania is followed by Croatia (15.4 percent), Lithuania (14.5 percent), Portugal (13.6 percent) and Bulgaria (13.3 percent). It should be remembered here that mass emigration from Croatia had already begun in the 1990s. Meanwhile, estimates for the total number of Croatian citizens who have emigrated are still uncertain.
Figures and percentages
According to the Croatian statistics institute, after Croatia joined the EU the annual number of emigrants grew from 15,262 in 2013 to 39,515 in 2018 (with a peak of 47,532 in 2017).
Nevertheless, the statistics probably fail to paint the full picture, given the difficulty in determining the genuine emigrants, especially when they still officially reside in Croatia. In some cases this is due to a desire to keep health insurance in Croatia, and benefit from health services which are considerably cheaper than in the countries to which Croatians tend to emigrate. This is testified by the fact that the total number of Croatians with insurance is around 200,000 more than that of actual inhabitants.
According to an investigation by newspaper Jutarnji list, which only counts Croatian citizens residing in their three main emigration destinations – Germany, Ireland and Austria – the numbers should be much higher