At 22,080 euros, Slovenia has the highest gross domestic product per capita of all former communist countries in the EU. The country is well run and its quality of life is high. And yet many young Slovenes still want to emigrate, with the largest numbers going to work in Germany and Austria where GDP per capita is roughly double.
Mirjam Milharčič Hladnik of the Slovenian Migration Institute said that while people leave for a higher standard of living, another reason is often to escape from stifling family control.
Slovenia, she said, is a country where “villages are small, towns are small” and ambitious young people do not want to be sedentary, living the stereotype of being the hundredth generation in their village. Today’s young people want to see the world, “today, as in the past”, she said. Milharčič Hladnik, co-author of a new book on the history of Slovene migration, said emigration is deeply rooted in Slovene tradition. In the century to World War II, some 440,000 emigrated from what she calls “Slovene territories”, a term that encompasses today’s Slovenia plus some neighbouring regions — for example, around the Italian port of Trieste.
It is a rough figure too because this estimate does not include those who returned and it includes Italians, Germans and others who lived here. However, she said, it is an indication that, at one time, this region had “one of the highest rates of emigration in history”.
Before World War II, people left because they were poor, in debt, because of inheritance laws and for many other reasons. Today Bosnians come to work in Slovenia but after the Habsburg seizure of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, Slovenes went to work there as miners and foresters. Before World War I, booming Trieste and Vienna were big magnets and further afield Slovenes emigrated especially to the United States and Argentina. When the US slammed the door to mass immigration in 1924, they went to Germany, Belgium and France. For almost a century until 1956, a Slovene community from the Goriška region blossomed in Egypt, especially in Alexandria. The majority who left to work there were women. They came to be known as Aleksandrinke, and often went as nannies for European families. In the wake of World War II, some 25,000 fled Josip Broz Tito’s advancing communist army, and another 45,000 crossed the border illegally between 1945 and 1962. At the same time, Italians fled Istria and what is now the Slovene coast, which were Italian between the wars.
Some Slovenes also came to Slovenia from Italy. They helped repopulate once Italian-inhabited towns like Koper (Capodistria), as did Slovenes encouraged to move to the coast from the interior.
In communist Yugoslavia, Slovenia began to grow wealthy but still many Slovenes fanned out to work in the other republics. From the mid-1960s, Slovenes, like other Yugoslavs, went to work as gastarbeiters in Germany and other countries but, from the 1970s, Yugoslavs from the poorer republics also came to work in Slovenia’s new industrial towns.
Today, the nature of migration to and from Slovenia may have changed, but Milharčič Hladnik said people leave for the same reasons. “They just want a better life.”