A brief overview of Croatian immigration patterns

Croats have been arriving in Australia since the mid nineteenth century. A large proportion of Croatian settlers in Australia came from areas along the Croatian coast and had lived with a long tradition of departures from their islands, towns or villages. It could be said that emigration was part of their historical memory and culture. The number of Croats present in Australia in the nineteenth century remained hidden as they were variously known as Austrians, Italians and ‘S(c)lavonians’. [13] In Australia, Croats formed networks emanating from patterns of traditional family or chain migration but they also made connections with their co-nationals from regions much further afield than their local village or town. In nineteenth-century Australia, Croats travelled great distances to maintain contact with each other and celebrate important milestones in their lives from cradle to grave, including events such as marriages, christenings and funerals in what were, in essence, small Croatian communities. [14] Croats arriving in Australia in the twentieth century continued to establish strong networks with each other. In the interwar period, they were known as and, indeed, referred to themselves as Yugoslavs. They were actively engaged in ethnic publishing ventures, musical and folkloric ensembles and featured prominently in labour activism, especially in mining communities in Western Australia and Broken Hill. [15]

All of the history of Croats in Australia since the end of World War I was mediated through the presence of a strong Yugoslav state, which, as the product of the collapse of empires in the wake of the Great War, became important strategically in international relations. The meaning of the word ‘Yugoslav’ was often contested. It was used differently by different people. For example, most ‘Yugoslavs’ in Mildura, Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie in the 1930s and 1940s were left-leaning or communist Croats, some of whom had left the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes because of its repressive politics. [16] During World War II, Croats in Australia were involved in lobbying support for the Partisans led by Tito and complained to the Australian Government about the Yugoslav Consuls in Sydney and Perth because they were regarded as Serbian royalists and followers of the Chetnik resisters turned collaborators and their leader, Draža Mihailović. [17] After 1945, these Croats and others among the immediate postwar arrivals still referred to themselves as ‘Yugoslavs’. This was often to distinguish themselves from the stereotype of Croats as anti-communist and as supporters of the wartime collaborationists, the Ustaša, or of the political far right. [18] This distinction between ‘Croats’ and Croatian Yugoslavs was constant through to the collapse of communist Yugoslavia in the 1990s and it is important to recognise that in the Australian Croatian context it related less to ideas about ethnicity and nationhood than to attitudes towards the Yugoslav state or simple political affiliation—of the Croats and their outside observers. [19]

The post-1945 period saw a massive increase in the numbers of Croatian-born settling in Australia. They came in the first instance as displaced people or as refugees. Limited numbers also came on assisted passage, some after having crossed the Yugoslav borders illegally. Later, they arrived as ‘economic migrants’ and in accordance with the agreement reached between the governments of Australia and Yugoslavia in 1970. [20] The definition of those departing Yugoslavia as ‘economic migrants’ in this second wave of post-1945 immigration was problematic from at least two perspectives: first, political factors governed the deteriorating social and economic situation in Yugoslavia in general; and second, those people who left often did so for a complex set of reasons—personal, economic, political and often, in the case of Croats, national—which made it difficult to demarcate strictly between economic and political migrants at that time. The numbers of Croatian immigrants dropped significantly from the 1980s. In spite of the fact that Australia received refugees from the wars of the 1990s, the total number of arrivals (many of whom were of a higher socioeconomic group) did not alter significantly the social makeup of the Croatian-born. [21]

[13] Šutalo, Ilija 2004, Croatians in Australia: Pioneers, settlers and their descendants, Wakefield Press, South Australia. Until recently, historians argued that only a handful of Croats had arrived in colonial Australia. Šutalo has found that at least 850 Croats had lived here before 1890. Graeme Hugo’s research reveals that the number of returns, previously very low, is now higher than many would have anticipated before the collapse of Yugoslavia and it is reasonable to suggest that this is a consequence of Croatia becoming a sovereign state. Hugo, Graeme 2006, Migration and development: an Australian perspective on Croatia, Presentation to the Colloquium on Australian-Croatian Relations and the Role of the Diaspora, Croatian Club, Adelaide, 24 June 2006.

[14] Šutalo, Croatians in Australia, passim.

[15] See Marin Alagich and Steven Kosovich, ‘Early Croatian settlement in eastern Australia’, and Neven Smoje, ‘Early Croatian settlement in Western Australia’ (2001, in James Jupp [ed.], The Australian People. An encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, Cambridge University Press, Victoria, pp. 235–7, 241–3). See also Holjevac, Veceslav 1967, Hrvati izvan domovine, Matica Hrvatska, Zagreb, pp. 207–26.

[16] The Communist Party was banned in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1921. Croats also experienced considerable economic and political hardship in the kingdom especially after the establishment of the royal dictatorship in 1929 and this situation often influenced their decision to emigrate. For an overview of the history of the kingdom, see Benson, Leslie 2004, Yugoslavia: A concise history, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Chapter 3; and Ramet, Sabrina P. 2006, The Three Yugoslavias: State-building and legitimation, 1918–2005, Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Indiana University Press, Washington, DC, and Bloomington, Ind., Chapters 2 and 3.

[17] See, for example, National Archives of Australia, A989/1943, ‘Yugoslav Patriotic Fund for Yugoslav Forces and Refugees’.

[18] Dr Ante Pavelic, leader of the émigré Ustaša (‘insurgent’) organisation, was installed by the Axis powers as the head of the so-called Independent State of Croatia, which was noted for its collaborationism and its exclusivist nationalist vision of an independent Croatia.

[19] Some political divisions remained though there was less incentive for Croats to identify themselves as ‘Yugoslavs’ after Australia recognised Croatia as a sovereign state in 1992.

[20] According to the 2006 Census, there are 50 996 Croatian-born residents in Australia. See Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006 Census of Population and Housing, Persons born in Croatia. The conservative estimate of Australians of Croatian ancestry is 105 747. See Hugo, ‘Migration and development: an Australian perspective on Croatia’.

[21] The total number of Croatian-born arriving before 1989 was 31 126. See Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006 Census of Population and Housing, Persons Born in Croatia. Statistics from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs for 2001 show that the Croatian-born population is ageing. They also show that Croats are half as likely to have higher qualifications than the total Australian population although they are slightly more likely to have certificate-level qualifications and are 10 per cent more likely to have a trade. The majority (more than 70 per cent) are employed as skilled and semi-skilled labourers and tradespeople.