Italian Immigration: Why So Many Italians Live Outside Italy

Italian Immigration: Why So Many Italians Live Outside Italy

The Italian immigration phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries is often referred to as The Italian Diaspora. This large-scale migration of Italians away from Italy occurred in several distinct waves.

Between the Unification

The first wave occurred between the unification of Italy in 1861 and 1900. At the time of unification, Italy’s population was approximately 24 million. Over 7 million people emigrated over the next forty years, 66% from the northern regions and 33% from the south. More than half went to other European countries, while the rest went overseas to North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.

Beginning of WW I

The second period of mass migration occurred between 1900 and 1914, the beginning of World War I. During this time, over 9 million Italians, mostly from the rural south, sailed for North or South America. In 1913 alone, 872,598 people left Italy. From 1861 to 1914, a total of 40 million Europeans emigrated overseas, about two-thirds settling in the USA. 16 million of them were Italian.

Although the war put a stop to Italian emigration, the flow began almost immediately it was over. In 1920, 614,000 emigrants left Italy, half sailing for the USA. During the first 5 years of Fascism, 1.5 million people left Italy, approximately 300,000 per year. 300,000 emigrants left Italy as late as 1930. Many were older family members joining their established sons and daughters in the new country.

In a 1927 study by the Italian government, it was estimated that there were approximately 9,200,000 Italian immigrants living overseas — almost 20% of the Italian population.

After WWII

The third wave of Italian emigration followed World War II, along with Europeans from a variety of countries. After six years of war, many people dreamed of a fresh start in a new homeland.

The motives behind this mass exodus were complex, and often associated with the region where the immigrants originated.

Key Factors Behind The Italian Immigration Statistics

  • Poverty was the primary reason Italians left their homeland. The lack of land, especially as it became subdivided among heirs over several generations, was a major problem for rural populations. People struggling to eke out a living in small communities learned of opportunities in other countries and seized their chance. Conditions were harsher in the south, so the majority of the immigrants in the 20th century came from these regions.
  • Internal political/economic problems were also a major factor. Following World War I and the conditions that resulted in Fascism, Italians left the country in droves. Similarly, the devastation of Italy during World War II led to the third major wave of emigration.
  • Organised crime and its role in the economic difficulties of southern Italy played a part. In his bestselling novel, The Sicilian, Mario Puzo tells the story of Salvatore (Turi) Giuliano, the ‘Robin Hood of Sicily’ who fought a guerrilla war for both Sicilian separatism and freedom from Mafia control, and became a folk hero in the process. According to Puzo, Giuliano’s murder in 1950 had a devastating effect on the Sicilian people: in the two years following his death, 500,000 Sicilians – mostly young men – emigrated, leaving behind a land of women, children and old people.

Italian Immigration Destinations