Italian Migrations in History: Where in the World Did We Emigrate and Why?

About 29 million of Italians they left our country between the unification of Italy (1861) and the 1980s. In particular, the largest part of emigrants left between 1876 and 1915in a period called “great emigration”. Of the almost 30 million Italians who left, however, approximately 19 million have settled permanently in the destination countries while the others returned home later. In recent times, there has been a development new migratory flowsless massive than those of the past.

The phases of Italian emigration, from the “great emigration” to today

Italian emigration abroad can be divided into three major phases (or four).

  • The great emigration between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, mostly directed towards theAmericaespecially the United States, Argentina and Brazil. Some scholars divide this phase into two, one until 1900 and one after, so that the phases of emigration would be four.
  • Flows after the Second World Warwhich were mainly directed towards European countries (such as Germany, Belgium and France).
  • The migrations of the last decadeswhich mostly concern highly qualified young people and which continue to this day.

To these flows, we must add the seasonal migrations (i.e. transfers abroad for some months of the year) and the internal migrationswhich developed especially in the 1950s and 1960s, in particular from the South and the Islands to the North of the Peninsula and from the countryside to the cities.

Emigration was mainly caused by economic reasons: especially from various crises in Italy and, at the same time, from the demand for workers in other countries. To a lesser extent, Italians have emigrated for political reasons: those who risked persecution in Italy because of their ideas moved abroad.

When and where did Italians emigrate: the great emigration

The first phase of Italian emigration is between the Unification of Italy and the First World War. Migratory flows intensified especially after 1876 due to the overproduction crisisdue to the second industrial revolution, and the agrarian crisis, triggered by the arrival on the European markets of grain and other American products, which caused prices to collapse and made it impossible for farmers to support themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, emigration did not only concern the southern regions. On the contrary, until the end of the nineteenth century the most massive flows left from Northern Italy, in particular from Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont; only after 1900 did the South become the main source of emigration. The emigrants were almost all farmers and people of humble origins, but among them there were not the very poorest, who did not have the possibility of paying for the journey.

The emigrants headed towards numerous countriesThe most massive flows affected the American continent, in particular Argentina, Brazil and the United States. Smaller flows went towards Canada, European countries (primarily France) and Australia.

Effects and consequences of the great emigration

In many cases, Italians had to face difficulties in the destination countries prejudices and difficulties of inclusion. Generally speaking, they integrated more easily into Latin American countries and encountered greater difficulties in the United States and European countries. However, with their work, the emigrants gave a significant contribution to the growth of destination countries and also played an important role in the Italian economy, thanks to the remittancesthat is, the sums of money that they sent to their relatives who remained in their homeland and which contributed to the development of the Peninsula.

The end of the great emigration

The great emigration stopped with the First World War. After the end of hostilities the flows did not resume because the main destination countries, in particular the United States, placed strict limits on the entry of new migrants; in Italy, moreover, the fascist dictatorship blocked departures, trying to divert the flows towards the colonies in Africa. During fascism, however, thousands of opponents they sought refuge abroad to escape the repression carried out by the regime.

“European” Emigration and Internal Migrations after the Second World War

Migratory flows resumed after the Second World War, mainly directed towards some European countries: Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland and others. Smaller flows headed towards other countries, such as Venezuela, or towards the destinations of previous migrations, such as the United States. Migrants faced serious difficulties of inclusion, also because a significant portion of expatriates emigrated illegally.

In the 1950s and 1960s, they also developed massive internal migration flowsdirected from the countryside to the cities and from the South to the North. The flows were caused by socio-economic changes and, in particular, by the decline of peasant civilizationwhich pushed a part of the population to abandon the countryside and move to the city.

Palermo - Turin train in the 50s

Recent Migration Flows and Italian Emigration Today

Since the late 1970s Italy has become mainly a Destination Countrywelcoming immigrants from various areas of the world. Italian emigration abroad has significantly decreased, but has not stopped completely and for some years, particularly after the 2007 crisis, has been experiencing a new growth. Today’s migratory flows, however, are very different from those of the past: they are less massive in terms of numbers and generally concern young people with high educational qualifications. In the decade 2011-2021, 451,000 young people of the 18-34 age group have transferred their residence abroad, compared to approximately 130,000 who have transferred it to Italy. The statistics, however, do not take into account those who have moved without changing their residence, who are estimated at more than a million. In recent decades, internal South-North flows have also resumed, but have not reached the levels of the 1960s and 1970s.

Italians in the world today

Most of the emigrants do not he returned to ItalyIt is estimated that, of those who left up until the 1980s, approximately 19 million remained in the destination countries and approximately 10 million returned.

As a result, today in the world there are millions of people of Italian origin. However, a distinction must be made between the nativesthat is, those who have only Italian origins, and the Italians living abroadwho are registered with AIRE (Registry of Italians Resident Abroad) and have the right to vote in Italian elections.

The natives are estimated between 60 and 80 million and they are particularly numerous in Brazil and Argentina (in the latter country they constitute the majority of the population). Italian law allows them to obtain, with some steps, the citizenship. It is no coincidence that numerous athletes of Italian origin compete for the Italian national selections.

The Italians living abroad are instead just over 5.9 millionof which 54.7% live in European countries, 40.1% in the Americas and the rest in the rest of the world.

what are the migration routes