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Italian diaspora

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Italian diaspora

Italian emigrants leaving Italy in the 1890s.

The Italian diaspora is the large-scale migration of Italians away from Italy in the period between the unification of Italy in 1861 and the rise of Italian Fascism during the 1920s, as well as one last wave can be observed after the end of World War II (or the people who participated in those migrations).


Poverty was the main reason for the diaspora. Italy was until the 1860s a partially unification process. Indeed southern Italian families after 1861 started to have access (for the first time) to hospitals, improved hygienic conditions and normal food supply.[2] This created a demographic boom and forced the new generations to emigrate en masse at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, mostly to the Americas. Between 1861 and 1985, 29,036,000 Italians emigrated to other countries; of whom 16 million (55 percent) arrived before the outbreak of WWI. About 10,275,000 returned to Italy (35 percent) while 18,761,000 permanently settled abroad (65 percent).[3] In 2011 in the world there were 4,115,235 Italian citizens living outside Italy[4] and several tens of millions of descendants of Italians, who emigrated in the last two centuries.[5]


The unification of Italy broke down the feudal land system that had survived in the south since the Middle Ages, especially where land had been the inalienable property of aristocrats, religious bodies, or the king. The breakdown of feudalism, however, and redistribution of land did not necessarily lead to small farmers in the south winding up with land of their own or land they could work and profit from. Many remained landless, and plots grew smaller and smaller and thus more and more unproductive as land was subdivided among heirs.[1]

Estimates of the number of emigrants from 1876-1900 and 1901-1915, according to their region of origin.[6]

Between 1860 and World War I 9,000,000 Italians left, most from the north and most going to either North or South America.[7] As the number of Italian emigrants abroad increased, so did their remittances, thus encouraging further emigration even in the face of factors that might logically be thought to decrease the need to leave such as increased wages at home. This has been termed "persistent and path-dependent emigration flow";[7] that is, friends and relatives who leave first send back money for tickets, and help relatives as they arrive. This tends to support an emigration flow since even improving conditions in the emigrant's country take a while to trickle down to potential emigrants to convince them not to leave. The emigrant flow was stemmed only by dramatic events such as the outbreak of World War I, which greatly disrupted the flow of people trying to leave Europe, or by restrictions on immigration put in place by receiving countries. Examples of such restrictions in the United States were the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. Restrictive legislation to limit emigration from Italy was introduced by the Fascist government of the 1920s and '30s.[8]

The Italian diaspora did not affect all regions of the nation equally. In the second phase of emigration (1900 to World War I) slightly less than half of emigrants were from the south and most of them were from rural areas, driven off the land by inefficient land management, lawlessness and sickness (pellagra and cholera). Robert Foerster, in Italian Emigration of our Times (1919) says, " [Emigration has been]…well nigh expulsion; it has been exodus, in the sense of depopulation; it has been characteristically permanent."[9]

Mezzadria, a form of sharefarming where tenant families obtained a plot to work on from an owner and kept a reasonable share of the profits, was more prevalent in central Italy, which is one of the reasons why there was less emigration from that part of Italy. The south lacked entrepreneurs, and absentee landlords were common. Although owning land was the basic yardstick of wealth, farming in the south was socially despised. People did not invest in agricultural equipment but in such things as low-risk state bonds.[1]

The assumption that emigration from cities was negligible has an important exception, and that is the city of Naples.[1] The city went from being the capital of its own kingdom in 1860 to being just another large city in Italy. The loss of bureaucratical jobs and the subsequently declining financial situation led to high unemployment. In the early 1880s epidemics of cholera also struck the city, causing many people to leave. The epidemics were the driving force behind the decision to rebuild entire sections of the city, an undertaking known as the "risanamento" (literally "making healthy again") a pursuit that lasted until the start of World War I.

During the first few years before the unification of Italy emigration was not particularly controlled by the state. Emigrants were often in the hands of emigration agents, whose job it was to make money for themselves by moving emigrants. Abuses led to the first migration law in Italy, passed in 1888, to bring the many emigration agencies under state control.[10] On 31 January 1901 the Commissariat of Emigration was created, granting licenses to carriers, enforcing fixed ticket costs, keeping order at ports of embarkation, providing health inspection for those leaving, setting up hostels and care facilities and arranging agreements with receiving countries to help care for those arriving. The Commissariat tried to take care of emigrants before they left and after they arrived. This included dealing with the labor laws in the US that discriminated against alien workers (the US alien contract labor law of 1885) and even suspending, for a while, emigration to Brazil, where many migrants had wound up as virtual slaves on large coffee plantations.[10] The Commissariat also helped to set up remittances sent by emigrants from the United States back to their motherland, which turned into a constant flow of money amounting, by some accounts, to about 5% of the Italian national product.[11] In 1903 the Commissariat also set the available ports of embarkation as Palermo, Naples and Genoa, excluding the port of Venice which had previously also been used.[12]

Between the World Wars

"The emigrants", Antonio Rocco, 1910

Although the physical perils involved with transatlantic ship traffic during the First World War obviously disrupted emigration from all parts of Europe, including Italy, the condition of various national economies in the immediate post-war period was so bad that immigration picked up almost immediately. Foreign newspapers ran "scare" stories that, substantially, were not much different than those published 40 years earlier (when, for example, on December 18, 1880, the New York Times ran an editorial, "Undesirable Emigrants", that was full of typical invective of the day against the "promiscuous immigration…[of]…the filthy, wretched, lazy, criminal dregs of the meanest sections of Italy.") Somewhat toned down was a New York Times article of April 17, 1921, which reported under the headline "Italians Coming in Great Numbers" that the "Number of Immigrants Will Be Limited Only By Capacity of Liners" (there was now a limited number of ships available due to recent wartime losses) and that potential emigrants were thronging the quays in the cities of Genoa and Naples. Furthermore:

"…The stranger walking though a city like Naples can easily realize the problem the government has to do with. The side streets…are literally swarming with children, who sprawl in the paved roadway and on the sidewalks. They look dirty and happy…Suburbs of Naples…swarm with children who, for number, can only be compared to those in Delhi, Agra and other cities in the East Indies…"

The extreme economic difficulties of post-war Italy and the severe internal tensions within the nation (which led to the rise of Fascism) led 614,000 emigrants away in 1920, half of them going to the United States. When the Fascists came to power in 1922 there was a general slowdown in the flow of emigrants from Italy—eventually. However, during the first five years of Fascism, one and one-half million people left Italy.[13] By that time, the nature of the emigrants had changed; there was, for example, a marked increase in the rise of relatives of non-working age who were moving to be with their families who had gone before.

By continent



Libya had some 150,000 Italians settlers during World War II, constituting about 18% of the total population in Italian Libya.[14] The Italians in Libya resided (and many still do) in most major cities like Tripoli (37% of the city was Italian), Benghazi (31%), and Hun (3%). Their numbers decreased after 1936. The French and English took over the spoils of war that included Italian discovery and technical expertise in the extraction and production of crude oil, superhighways, irrigation, electricity. Most of Libya's Italians were expelled from the North African country in 1970, a year after Muammar Gaddafi seized power (a "day of vengeance" on 7 October 1970),[15] but a few hundred Italian settlers returned to Libya in the 2000s (decade).

Year Italians Percentage Total Libya Source for data on population
1936 112,600 13.26% 848,600 Enciclopedia Geografica Mondiale K-Z, De Agostini, 1996
1939 108,419 12.37% 876,563 Guida Breve d'Italia Vol.III, C.T.I., 1939 (Censimento Ufficiale)
1962 35,000 2.1% 1,681,739 Enciclopedia Motta, Vol.VIII, Motta Editore, 1969
1982 1,500 0.05% 2,856,000 Atlante Geografico Universale, Fabbri Editori, 1988
2004 22,530 0.4% 5,631,585 L'Aménagement Linguistique dans le Monde


Somalia had some 50,000 Italian Somali settlers during World War II, constituting about 5% of the total population in Italian Somaliland.[16][17] The Italians resided in most major cities in the central and southern parts of the territory, with around 10,000 living in the capital Mogadishu. Other major areas of settlement included Jowhar, which was founded by the Italian prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi. Italian used to be a major language, but its influence significantly diminished following independence. It is now most frequently heard among older generations.[18]

South African Italians

Italian Club in Boksburg

Although Italians did not immigrate to South Africa in large numbers, those who have arrived have nevertheless made an impact on the host country.

Before World War II, relatively few Italian immigrants arrived, though there were some prominent exceptions such as the Cape's first Prime Minister John Molteno. South African Italians made big headlines during World War II, when Italians captured in Italian East Africa needed to be sent to a safe stronghold to be kept as prisoners of war (POWs). South Africa was the perfect destination, and the first POWs arrived in Durban, in 1941.[19][20]

Despite being POWs, the Italians were treated well, with a good food diet and friendly hospitality. These factors, along with the peaceful, cheap, and sunny landscape, made it very attractive for Italians to settle down, and therefore, the Italian South African community was born. Although over 100,000 Italian POW were sent to South Africa, only a handful decided to stay, and during their capture, they were given the choice of hard labor or helping spread their genius in agriculture (setting up the first vinyards), aqueducts, sewer lines, highway construction, masonry techniques, build chapels, churches, dams, and many more structures. Most Italian influence and architecture can be seen in the Natal and Transvaal area. White South Africans of Italian descent number between 6,300[21] and 28,059. Today a small Italian community persists in South Africa: athletes Davide Somma and Angelo Gigli are a part of this community.


See also: Italian Eritreans, Italians of Ethiopia, Italian Egyptians, Italian Tunisians
A Catholic Cathedral in Asmara, built by Italian Eritreans in 1922.

The Italians had a significantly large, but very quickly diminished population in Africa. In 1926, there were 90,000 Italians in Tunisia, compared to 70,000 Frenchmen (unusual since Tunisia was a French protectorate).[22] Former Italian communities also once thrived in the Horn of Africa, with about 50,000 Italian settlers living in Eritrea in 1935.[23] The Italian Eritrean population grew from 4,000 during World War I to nearly 100,000 at the beginning of World War II.[24]

Additionally, there were settler communities in Ethiopia. During the five-year occupation of Ethiopia, roughly 300,000 Italians settled in the Horn of Africa. Over 49,000 lived in Asmara in 1939 (around 10% of the city's population), and over 38,000 resided in Addis Ababa. The size of the Italian Egyptian community had also reached around 55,000 just before World War II, forming the second largest expatriate community in Egypt.

A few Italian settlers stayed in Portugal's colonies in Africa after World War II. As the Portuguese government had sought to enlarge the small Portuguese population through emigration from Europe,[25] the Italian migrants gradually assimilated into the Angolan Portuguese community.

The Americas

Mulberry Street, along which New York City's Little Italy is centered. Lower East Side, circa 1900
Italian immigrants arriving in São Paulo, Brazil, circa 1890. The country has the largest Italian population outside Italy.[26]

Italian immigration to Argentina and Uruguay, along with Spanish, formed the backbone of the Argentine and Uruguayan societies. Minor groups of Italians started to immigrate to Argentina as early as the second half of the 17th century.[27] However, the stream of Italian immigration to Argentina became a mass phenomenon between 1880-1920 when Italy was facing social and economic disturbances. Argentine culture has significant connections to Italian culture in terms of language, customs and traditions.[28] It is estimated up to 50-60% of the population or 20 million Argentines have full or partial Italian ancestry.[29][30] According to the Ministry of the Interior of Italy, there are 527,570 Italian citizens living in the Argentine Republic, including Argentines with dual citizenship.[31]

Italian Brazilians are the largest number of people with full or partial Italian ancestry outside of Italy, with São Paulo being the most populous city with Italian ancestry in the world. Nowadays, it's possible to find millions of descendants of Italians, from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais to the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, with the majority living in São Paulo state[32] and the highest percentage in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo (60-75%).[33][34] Small southern Brazilian towns, such as Nova Veneza, have as much as 95% of their population of Italian descent.[35]

A substantial influx of Italian immigrants to Canada began in the early 20th century when over a hundred thousand Italians, mainly from the south, moved to Canada. In the post-war years (1945-1970s) another influx of Italians emigrated to Canada, again from the south but also from the northeast, namely Veneto and Friuli and displaced Italians from Istria. Almost 1,000,000 Italians reside in the Province of Ontario, making it a strong global representation of the Italian diaspora. For example, Hamilton, Ontario, has around 24,000 residents with ties to its sister city Racalmuto in Sicily.[36]

Starting in the late 19th century until the 1930s, the United States became a main destination for Italian immigrants, most settling originally in the New York metropolitan area, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore and New Orleans. Many Italian Americans still retain aspects of their culture, and although Italian Americans may now be found across the United States, they are most heavily concentrated in the cities of the original immigration and surrounding areas (e.g. in the suburbs of New York and Philadelphia in New Jersey). In movies that deal with cultural issues, Italian American words and lingo are sometimes spoken by the characters. Although many do not speak Italian fluently, over 1 million speak Italian at home according to the 2000 US Census.[37]

Another very important Italian community is in Venezuela, which developed especially after the Second World War. They number about 600,000 people and up to 1 million including people with at the least one Italian grandparent. The Italo-Venezuelans have obtained significant results in the contemporary society of Venezuela. The Italian Embassy calculates that one quarter of the Venezuelan industries, not related to the oil sector, are directly or indirectly owned and/or managed by Italian-Venezuelans.


Italian migration into what is today France has been going on, in different migrating cycles from the end of the 19th century to the present.[38] In addition, Corsica passed from the Republic of Genoa to France in 1770, and the area around Nice and Savoy from the Kingdom of Sardinia to France in 1860. Initially, Italian immigration to modern France (late 18th to the early 20th centuries) came predominantly from northern Italy (Piedmont, Veneto), then from central Italy (Marche, Umbria), mostly to the bordering southeastern region of Provence.[38] It wasn't until after World War II that large numbers of immigrants from southern Italy immigrated to France, usually settling in industrialised areas of France, such as Lorraine, Paris and Lyon.[38] Today, it is estimated that as many as 5 million French nationals have Italian ancestry going back three generations.[38]

In Switzerland, Italian immigrants (not to be confused with a large autochthonous population of Italophones in Ticino and Grigioni)[39] reached the country starting in the late 19th century, most of whom eventually came back to Italy after the rise of Italian Fascism. Future Fascist leader Benito Mussolini emigrated in Switzerland in 1902, only to be deported after becoming involved in the socialist movement.[40] A new migratory wave began after 1945, favoured by the lax immigration laws then in force.[41]


Italians arrived in Australia most prominently in the decades immediately following the Italian unification, and they and their descendants have had a significant impact on the culture, society and economy of Australia.

Italian is the second most utilised language in Australian homes after English, with 316,900 speakers counted in the 2006 Census (or 1.6% of the Australian population). The 2006 Census counted 199,124 persons who were born in Italy, and Italian is the fifth most identified ancestry in Australia with 852,418 responses. Italian Australians experienced a low rate of return migration to Italy, relative to the Italian diaspora in other countries.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand has never received much immigration from Italy. Several hundreds of them – mostly fishermen – made it in the late 1890s. As of 2011, roughly 3,500 New Zealanders claim Italian heritage.


Emigration, 1870-1914

After 1890, Italian contribution to the emigration flow to the New world was significant. By 1870, Italy had about 25,000,000 inhabitants (compared to circa 40,000,000 in Germany and circa 30,000,000 in the United Kingdom).[42]

A preliminary census done in 1861 after the annexation of the South claimed that there were a mere 100,000 Italians living abroad.[8] The General Directorate of Statistics did not start compiling official emigration statistics until 1876.[10] Accurate figures on the decades between 1870 and World War I show how emigration increased dramatically during that period:

Italian emigrants per 1,000 population:[43]

  • 1870-1879: 4.29
  • 1880-1889: 6.09
  • 1890-1899: 8.65
  • 1900-1913: 17.97

The high point of Italian emigration was 1913, when 872,598 persons left Italy.[8]

Extrapolating from the circa 25,000,000 inhabitants of Italy at the time of unification, natural birth and death rates (without considering emigration) would have been expected to produce a population of about 65 million by 1970. Instead, because of emigration earlier in the century, there were only 54 million.[44]


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^ Sori, Ercole. L'emigrazione italiana dall' Unità alla Seconda Guerra Mondiale. First chapter
  3. ^
  4. ^ Fondazione Migrantes:"Rapporto Italiani nel Mondo 2011" p.8 (in Italian)
  5. ^ Statistics of Italian emigration from the Catholic Church (in Italian)
  6. ^ Fonte: Rielaborazione dati Istat in Gianfausto Rosoli, Un secolo di emigrazione italiana 1876-1976, Roma, Cser, 1978
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^ Cited in
  10. ^ a b c
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Italian Emigration Law", New York Times,September 3, 1903.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Libya - Italian colonization
  15. ^ Libya cuts ties to mark Italy era.
  16. ^ Population of Somalia in 1939
  17. ^ Memories from Somalia
  18. ^ Helena Dubnov, A grammatical sketch of Somali, (Kِppe: 2003), pp. 70–71.
  19. ^
  20. ^ ITALIAN P.O.W. IN SOUTH AFRICA (Medical Services)
  21. ^ Joshua Project - Abaza Ethnic People in all Countries
  22. ^ Moustapha Kraiem. Le fascisme et les italiens de Tunisie, 1918-1939 pag. 57
  23. ^ Eritrea—Hope For Africa’s Future
  24. ^ Essay on Italian emigration to Eritrea (in Italian)
  25. ^ Portugal - Emigration, Eric Solsten, ed. Portugal: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1993.
  26. ^
  27. ^ Olimpiadas Nacionales de Contenidos Educativos en Internet - Instituto Nacional de Educación Tecnológica
  28. ^ O.N.I.-Department of Education of Argentina
  29. ^ Esperanza Mía; , Asteriscos. (Spanish)Some 20 million people living in Argentina have some degree of Italian descent
  30. ^
  31. ^ Italian Ministry of the Interior
  32. ^ Italians - History of the Community
  33. ^ Cilmar Franceschetto. Espírito Santo, lo stato più veneto del Brasile (in Italian)
  34. ^ José Carlos Mattedi. Consulado italiano vai abrir dois escritórios em Vitória para agilizar pedidos de cidadania (in Portuguese)
  35. ^ Nova Veneza (in Portuguese)
  36. ^
  37. ^ over 1 million Americans speak Italian at home
  38. ^ a b c d
  39. ^
  40. ^ Mediterranean Fascism 1919-1945 Edited by Charles F. Delzel, Harper Rowe 1970, page 3
  41. ^ (Italian) La lunga storia dell'immigrazione in Svizzera
  42. ^
  43. ^ Hatton. Cited from I. Ferenczi and W.F. Wilcox (1929). International Migrations, vol. 1, Statistics. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.
  44. ^ *


External links

  • Italian Emigration: the Historical Records
  • Italian Immigration Records (19th century)
  • Romanian Association of Italians - RO.AS.IT. [1]
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