Future Citizens or Just Workers?

Croatia has loosened immigration quotas to counter its demographic decline. But to avoid tensions, it needs to pay attention to integrating its new arrivals.

Senada Šelo Šabić is a scientific advisor at the Institute for Development and International Relations (IRMO) in Zagreb.
Senada Šelo Šabić is a scientific advisor at the Institute for Development and International Relations (IRMO) in Zagreb.Hoyka

Upon visiting Croatia a couple of years ago, a Dutch conservative politician shared a nostalgic reflection on social media, likening Zagreb to Dutch cities of decades past — a pleasant place with a predominantly Christian white population. Beneath this idyllic surface described by conservatives lies a question: How long will Croatia maintain this image in the face of migration trends?

Over the past three decades, Croatia has grappled with a pronounced demographic decline stemming from the traumas of the 1990s war and compounded by subsequent economic and political challenges. From a population of nearly 4.8 million in 1991, the latest census figures for 2021 reveal a decline to under 3.9 million. The country’s accession to the EU in 2013 exacerbated this trend, triggering a notable exodus, particularly among the young and educated. Unlike prior waves of emigration dominated by low-skilled male labourers, contemporary emigrants comprise entire families. Low birth rates are exacerbating Croatia’s demographic predicament, resulting in an aging population and an uncertain demographic trajectory.

„The ... administration has elevated demographic revitalisation to a strategic imperative.“

Senada Šelo Šabić

It is no news that many other European societies also face such demographic trends. Although mitigated by EU funds, similar and, in some cases, worse demographic trends resonate across the Balkans, where EU membership has catalysed mobility and emigration. Non-EU Balkan states grapple with demographic challenges unaided. A good example is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where emigration poses a formidable challenge to its demographic stability.

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