This paper analyses how individuals’ personal life experiences have influenced their decisions to leave from and return to Dugi Otok, a small island in Croatia. We use the biographical method and semistructured interviews to consider migration from a life course perspective, placing special emphasis on time as a variable. We find that emigrants’ experiences of and ways of knowing their island place and community change over time and that shifts in sociotechnical, economic, cultural, and political context affect the realm of possibility within the migration process.

The research on which this paper is based attempted to determine the time of and reasons for decisions to migrate from and to Dugi Otok. Dugi Otok provides an interesting case study as a somewhat ‘typical’ Croatian island, with a somewhat average population size, degree of development, and transport accessibility. Our findings are, however, significant not just Dugi Otok but for understanding the role of place, experience, and time in migration more generally. The classic concept of the ‘migration cycle’ involves the initial departure being ‘closed’ by a final return. Yet this concept is challenged by the increasing number of island emigrants who undertake temporary returns or multiple temporary visits, followed by frequent remigration.

Migration and Croatian islands

Croatian island societies have been significantly affected by migration in various directions and rhythms. These have been influenced by the sociopolitical systems of which these islands have been a part at certain stages in history as well as to wider political and economic contexts. In the mid-19th Century, Croatian islands experienced substantial emigration to other countries; followed by a trend of emigration to urbanized, industrially developed destinations within the former Yugoslavia in the mid-20th Century; and today of crossborder emigration mainly to Western European countries (Faričić, 2012; Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2020; Lajić, 1992; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). Regardless of the social and political systems in question, island emigration in Croatia has long been linked to a sense of underdevelopment relative to the mainland. This is itself linked to inadequate transportation connectivity, which significantly affects quality of life. As Croatian islands have become less self-sufficient, there has been a strong increase in dependence on mainland goods and services. During the socialist era, an important factor in island emigration was social housing construction, which predominantly occurred in urban areas on the mainland. According to the Census 2021, Croatia’s islands are home to 120,437 inhabitants (CBS, 2022).

Migration has influenced islanders’ way and quality of life of islanders throughout history. There is a complex relationship between migration, time, and quality of life. This may be especially pronounced in those small island societies that are “relatively homogenous and intimate societies with a strong sense of common identity” (King, 2009, p. 58). Such small islands show a kind of resilience to change over time “composed of migration, shift and rupture” (Parker, 2021, p. 73). The resilience of an island community may be expressed by the multiplicity of social roles, a specific type of social control and solidarity, sense of belonging and culture specificity, local customs, and system of values (Baldacchino, 2004, pp. 272–274; Marshall, 1999, p. 96; Podgorelec et al., 2015, pp. 91–92). During certain historical periods, the quality of life on islands such as Dugi Otok has constituted a pull or push factor for migration. Migration has nevertheless permanently changed and shaped all aspects of the islanders’ daily lives. In our research, we met no current Dugi Otok residents who have neither spent an extended period of their life away from the island (most often for education or employment) or nor who have no family members who have done so (Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2020; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013).

It is not, however, simply that residents emigrate from Croatian islands; there are also large numbers of return migrants. They form a recognisable group with various characteristics. According to previous research, most return migrants to Croatian islands undertook their return after retirement (Babić et al., 2004; Bara, 2013; Marinović Golubić, 2017; Oroz & Urem, 2015; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). This prior research has shown an increasing number of such retired returnees since the 1990s.


The concept of place identity, or in the case of islanders, island identity, influences an individual’s perception of migration. The notion of island identity encompasses various social and cultural patterns that define similarities or differences between island communities and the mainland, as well as islanders’ attitudes toward newcomers/strangers (Mela, 2023; Nimführ & Otto, 2020; Roitman & Veenendaal, 2023). Research on islanders (Giuffrè, 2021; King, 2009; Lam, 2021; Oroz, 2020; Sokolić & Starc, 2020) shows that the formation of migrant communities in immigration destinations is quite common. Emigrants gather around the idea of preserving island traditions and customs, facilitating integration into the receiving society, but also facilitating the maintenance of links with the island (Podgorelec, 2010), which makes it easier for migrants to return.

Researchers tend to approach migration as a change in geographical location, a process related to complex spatialities (Boyle et al., 1998; Cwerner, 2001). In contrast, migration studies has traditionally taken a rather linear and straightforward approach to time (Griffiths et al., 2013). Nevertheless, the increasing sophistication of human geography’s treatment of space (e.g., Massey, 2005; Thrift, 2003), time (e.g., Anderson et al., 2020; Ho, 2021), and space and time in tandem (e.g., Dodgshon, 2008; Merriman, 2012) has heightened migration studies’ recognition of the relational, contingent, and at times illusory nature of space-time.

Defining the role of time in the migration process, Frances Pine (2014, p. 599) writes: “By its very nature it involves the migrant in different temporalities of past, present and future and different spaces of home and elsewhere.” This is true regardless of whether one observes geographical locations (place/country of origin and/or reception), migration statuses, migrant life stages (key life events) (Edmonston, 2013) or stages of the migration process, including the degrees of migrants’ integration (Amit, 2012; Berry, 1990; Massey & Redstone Akresh, 2006).

All the changes (in cause, duration, spatial scale, politico-legal framework, etc.) that have affected migration trends in recent decades have introduced into the field of migration studies a more complex (Griffiths et al., 2013) and dynamic notion of temporality. The field is now more attentive to the various types of mobility that differ in terms of pace, rhythm, openness, nonlinearity, simultaneity, seasonality, and cyclicality (Robertson, 2015). As far as time is concerned, the fundamental difference between mobility and migration is that mobility—as a form of movement in space—is temporary, whereas migration includes “permanent, or lasting, change of usual residence” (Bell & Ward, 2000, pp. 97–98). Emigration is now more frequently a temporally fragmented process. Clear lines separating permanence from temporariness, legality from illegality, and temporary residence from permanent settlement have been obscured. Instead of permanent one-way migration, which in previous decades often lasted the entirety of the migrant’s labour activity, attention is now focused on temporary and transnational connections (Carling & Bivand Erdal, 2014). The relationship between migration and time relies on various perspectives shaped by the interplay of individual perception and social organisation of time. Time can be viewed as a “continuous variable (through life-history profiles of individual migrants or migrant groups) or as a discontinuous one (comparison of different time periods as cross-sections)” (King et al., 2006, p. 238).

Return migration has mainly been researched as a process of closing an individual’s migration cycle. It is typically seen as the final outcome of migration, which refers to the permanent return or resettlement of individuals (commonly referred to as external migrants) to their country of origin, regardless of how long they stayed in the receiving country (Peračković, 2006, p. 478). Return migration is also traditionally associated with cross-border migration. According to Michell Bastian (2011), at the individual level and in terms of ideal types, international migration consists of 1) entry into a country, settlement, family reunion, and completion of the migration process by acquiring the right to citizenship/residence or 2) right to entry into the country, short-term settlement, and return (temporary working migrants) with the possibility of re-entering the receiving country (circular migration). The author distinguishes the micro- or individual level (in the present example, an islander) from the macro-level (the nation or society of origin and the receiving society). The micro- and macro-levels are in a sense mediated by a meso-level of a collective body that makes up every form of community. When it comes to islanders, the meso-level is the place-anchored island community to which the migrant returns, a community with all its specificities, an imaginary past and imagined future of the individual and the collective, which shapes the present and serves as the mechanism for social inclusion or exclusion (Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013).

With respect to the duration of stay in the country of origin upon return, return migration is divided into permanent, lasting several years until re-emigration, and temporary return visits. In addition to time, biographical facts play an important role (Miah, 2022, p. 98). These include who the migrant returns with (alone or with family) as well as during one’s working life (due to a change in or loss of employment) or after the end of one’s career (upon retirement).

With respect to return migration, the notion of ‘time’ encompasses the aforementioned multiple temporal modalities. These modalities indicate the historical periods (periodisation effect), the duration of migration and return, the age of migrants (both working residents and pensioners), and life stages (the age at which key personal events were experienced) that influenced the decisions for departure and return as well as the duration or final/temporary nature of the return. We have applied this multifaceted and non-specific conceptualisation of time in the present paper’s analysis of the material collected through field research on Dugi Otok in 2021.

The role of time in decisions concerning return migration is examined using two approaches: longitudinal research (less frequently) and life course perspective (more frequently). The life course perspective explains the links between time (age-related migration), place, and migration (mobility) (King et al., 2006, p. 240). It also seeks to link the historical context (historical time) that determines an individual’s life with personal history (key events in their life) (Holman & Walker, 2021). The life course (Edmonston, 2013) is determined by trajectories, transitions, turning points, and timing. Trajectories, such as exploring one’s career, consist of long-term patterns of change and stability. Transitions are life events that may cause changes in an individual’s life and relationships (transition from education to employment or change/loss of employment). Turning points are significant transitions that cause sudden changes in the trajectory of an individual’s life course (resettlement, retirement).

Site and methods

Dugi Otok is the largest island of Croatia’s North Dalmatian group of islands. It is 44.5 km long by 4.8 km wide, with an area of 114 km². Dugi Otok belongs to the Zadar archipelago and, according to the 2021 census, has 1691 inhabitants spread across twelve settlements (CBS, 2022). Several studies have, however, found that census data on the island’s population is inaccurate (Faričić, 2012; Lajić & Mišetić, 2013; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). Research conducted on the islands of the Šibenik archipelago showed that 20% to 30% of the islands’ registered population do not in fact have their usual place of residence on the islands (Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). Some registered residents use island addresses to avoid paying taxes on vacation homes or to acquire other benefits, even though they do not permanently reside on the island.

Figure 1
Figure 1.Map of Dugi Otok. Source: Author’s own.

Following King (2000, p. 8), the present study defines return migrants (returnees) as individuals who at some point in their lives emigrated from Dugi Otok and later returned to the island. This return could be either permanent or temporary, and the immigration destination could either be in Croatia or in another country. The sample excluded returnees who had resided in the nearby city of Zadar for an extended period, due to Zadar’s proximity (37 km) and the availability of public transport connections between the island and Zadar as well as their frequent visits to the island, typically on a weekly basis. The regularity of visits may neutralize many of the effects of absence from the island community as well as potential challenges related to inclusion into the receiving community and exclusion from the community of origin (Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013), though it is also conceivable that regular visits may reenforce a sense of absence and nonbelonging in some individuals.

In October 2021, we conducted a qualitative study in which semistructured interviews were conducted in the homes of returnee migrants in five settlements on Dugi Otok. The selection of participants was made with the help of local informants, in part utilizing snowball sampling. The study involved interviewing 17 adults aged between 40 and 82 years, with the majority (12) being over the age of 60. There were 11 men and 6 women who participated in the interviews. A maximum of one person from each household was interviewed. The larger number of men in the sample can be explained by three reasons. Firstly, it is traditional for older generations in island families to have men more frequently agree to participate in conversations. Secondly, it is also traditional in Dalmatia for parents to leave homes and properties to their sons, making it easier for male emigrants to return than for female emigrants. Thirdly, until the 1970s, men were more frequently involved in migration from the islands (Babić et al., 2004). The sample size was determined on the basis of perceived data saturation, which was estimated not only from the interviews conducted but also by taking into consideration the results of previous field and desk research, which are part of the authors’ lengthy research engagement with Dugi Otok. The main aim of the study was to research the role of time as a variable in contemporary return migration to the island. To achieve this goal, the interviews were structured around a life course perspective (Edmonston, 2013; King et al., 2006), which allowed for a thorough exploration of the life histories of return migrants. All interviews were recorded and transcribed.

The overview of the results and the discussion that follow include an analysis of the temporal aspects of departure and return, with a special focus on the permanent or temporary nature of the return. In analysing the interviews, equal attention was paid to both individual and shared experiences and meanings that make the interviewees a group. The results of the data on return are accompanied by quotations.

In the discussion, we compare some of the results with the results from other studies on return migration conducted on Croatian islands, as well as a study on the quality of life of the population of Dugi Otok conducted 20 years earlier (in October 2001). Shared topics in the 2001 survey and the 2021 interviews were departure from the island, motivation to emigrate, life in the receiving country/place, preservation of social networks, return and present life on the island, and changes on the island (economic, social, etc.). Although the two studies used different methods and different samples, part of the results collected through responses to the same open-ended questions related to the return migration of residents of the same island will be used in the analysis.


Research conducted on Croatian islands (Lajić, 1992; Podgorelec, 2008; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013) has confirmed that the time at which migration occurs (affiliation of space to a particular sociopolitical order and level of economic development) and the age at which migrants experience key personal events play an important role in decisions and motivations to emigrate and return. For example, economic crises during the socialist period (the planned economy of 1945-1990), during the later transition to a market economy, the consequences of the 1991-1995 war, Croatia’s accession to the EU, and other factors have had—and sometimes still have—a significant push or pull effect on migrants, including islanders (Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2020; Lajić, 1997; Nejašmić, 1991).

Time of departure from the island

In the research conducted on Dugi Otok, all interviewees belonged to the first generation of migrants. Most of them left the island after finishing high school in Zadar. There is no high school on the island, so in addition to the high school in Zadar, the Maritime School in Rijeka was mentioned. The period spent away from the island for the purpose of education is not considered emigration, but the daily or weekly commuting of students is often the first step towards migration. Thus, the first key transition in the life histories (the starting point of the migration cycle) takes place mainly at the age of 18-25, the period of life when one makes plans, wants to learn further, work, socialize and have fun. It is also a period in which some individuals might start a family and have children. Compared to the results of other studies (Babić et al., 2004; Podgorelec, 2008), the most common age of the participants at the time of emigration has remained unchanged over the past 20 years.

The city, yes, yes, I went there when I was 15, to go to high school. And then you get a circle of friends, some other habits, you want to be in the city, you want to see shops, young people… Zadar was popular, and so, we were attracted to it… I went to Zagreb in 1975. I got a job there in a company and worked there until my retirement. (Female, 70)

For 14 months I worked in a factory in Mardešić, and I went to Trieste when I was 18 and a half years old, I got married there. In 1965, I went to Trieste to live with my boyfriend, because we had been together for a while. He was from Izola, which was an Italian town back then. (Female, 75)

Yes, I left… I went to work on a ship for the first time in 1986, after finishing school, for a year and a half, then I returned home and then I went back in 1991 or 1992, and since then I had been away continuously, until four or five years ago. (Male, 54)

Duration of the migration

One topic addressed in the interviews was the planned length of migration at the time of decision to emigrate. Most interviewees mentioned that they had decided to leave for a short period of time.

My dream was to stay at home, but it wasn’t possible, I returned in 1987 and tried to open a restaurant, I stayed for a year and a half, but it didn’t work out, so I returned to Nice again, I worked on a couple of ships, and for the last couple of years I worked in Monaco. The plan was to stay as short as possible, a couple of years, I would come home twice a year, and I would spend a total of one and a half months per year here. (Male, 63)

Some interviewees believed they were leaving permanently, without making any plans to return.

I just wanted to say that I wasn’t planning at all to return to live on the island because I had spent about six years studying at the university. I was supposed to make a living from my profession. However, this did not happen during the seven years I spent working in my profession. I saw no way out except to change my lifestyle, and this was an option to simply change things, to be some kind of private business owner, to forget about my profession for which I was educated and to start from scratch as a mere mortal. That was my beginning. I didn’t plan to come back, and even my parents didn’t want me to come back since they didn’t think that I would succeed in that way because they went through a different life path. (Male, 53)

In the present study, some interviewees did not have any specific plans and did not think about whether their stays would be temporary or permanent. For example, “There was no plan. When you’re young, everything seems rosy, and when things are going well, they are going well” (Male, 74).

Although the majority of 2021 interviewees had planned to stay in their settlement destination for a shorter time (a few years) and then return, which is called a conservative return, implying a quick return with money and building an important role in the community (Cerase, 1974), their plans sometimes changed during the stay.

We thought we would stay for five years. And then we stayed for 26. You start working, then you work more and more …then it’s like, we’ll stay a little longer, then again a little longer. This happens, that happens. When we had already stayed for more than 10 years, we decided to earn a pension there. (Male, 85)

My life plan was to stay for five years and go back. It happened so that I met my wife. A year later [after the arrival] I met my wife. (Male, 67)

Return to the island

The most important reasons for permanent return and return visits to Dugi Otok can be classified into four groups. The first one is nostalgia for the placed-based community as they remember it, friends, relatives, the sense of belonging.

I stayed [in emigration] for 35 years, and my husband stayed for over 50, but my heart always yearned to come back here. His family was also there, they wanted to come here, they were buried here, your heart dwells where you were born, I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t, we retired and came back. There were many islanders in San Pedro, from Sali, from all villages, also from Veli Rat, when there was a celebration or a feast, we would gather at the Croatian Hall. (Female, 73)

The second common group of reasons is family reasons, such as illness of a family member and provision of care to aging parents. In a study on the islands near Šibenik, caring for an elderly parent was the cause of return for a portion of island migrants of working age, mostly women, and before they were eligible for retirement (Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2011; Mali & Štambuk, 2019; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2007).

During my life, I sailed on a yacht in France and Italy, where I worked as a chef. I would spend six months on the yacht and six months at home. I have been home for five years now. I came back because of my parents, but also because I decided so, that’s how it was. (Male, 54)

The return is often a continuation of care for and commitment to family that occurred throughout the period of emigration.

I always sent money to my mother and father. I sent it to them as long as they were alive, and to my niece, to tell you the truth. (Female, 74)

Always to my mom, and dad, and my brothers were richer than me, so it was not necessary. But I always helped my mom and dad, well, I mean, helped them, maybe they didn’t even need it, but me and my sister always gave money to them. (Female, 75)

The next group of reasons includes a desire to return to a healthier, ecologically preserved environment with a different daily rhythm, as well as return to economic and social security (Podgorelec, 2008; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013).

I have a better quality of life here than there. For example, I am an only son. My father owns a house, a boat. To earn all that there, I would have to work for two lifetimes, living the way I lived, maybe even three, and who knows how simply… I saw what I needed to see and did what I needed to do, and it was time to come back in time to escape that diaspora madness. (Male, 56)

Because there is freedom here… it has all somehow fallen into place because it’s easier to raise kids over here than somewhere on the street in some city. … There is more freedom, one can have a more beautiful childhood. (Male, 40)

The last group of reasons for return mostly appears among younger interviewees. Those who emigrated from the islands in the past 20 years. The reasons for returning to the island are related to failure to succeed in the emigration destination due to various factors, such as economic crisis in Croatia or the destination country, incomplete education, loss of employment, and lower degree of integration into the new environment (according to Berry’s acculturation model; Berry, 1990).

I had no choice. Here I have a place to live and do other things, seeing that I didn’t finish college, I didn’t have… I didn’t have much choice, but I’m glad that I came back. (Male, 40)

However, here I am, life and circumstances brought me back. I always say that maybe I made a mistake, and maybe I didn’t… I’m currently unemployed. I’m still living off that unemployment benefit and then in January, at the end of January, I will stop receiving that. (Female, 44)

Permanent or temporary return/visits to the island

In the 2021 study of Dugi Otok, some of the older permanently returned interviewees (aged 60 and over) returned immediately after retirement, pointing out that they had decided on the time of return already when leaving the island. Others returned only several years after retirement.

On the first of February, we retired. Children, three of them are married, one is not, he lives there with his grandfather, my wife’s father is still alive, and the others all live in the same neighbourhood. The plan to return was made 10 years ago. We are not engaged in tourism. We do a little farming and a little fishing. (Male, 63)

I came back here after eight years [since retirement]. Eight years ago, I returned for good. (Male, 74)

The interviewees often point out the temporary nature of returning to the island. These examples include various types of migration and return, return visits at different intervals, without firm planning, depending on weather conditions, family obligations, and significant events in the life of the individual and the family on the island (weddings, funerals, etc.).

We built this house in 2002, it was almost 20 years ago, and then, well, we bought and furnished an apartment in Zadar. So, come winter and everything, we spend some time here, and some time in Zadar. (Male, 72)

Whenever I was free, I came. My roots are here, I would never change it for anything else. (Male, 74)

Among the returnees aged 60 and over who emigrated from the island and moved overseas as well as emigrants who moved to other parts of Croatia (most often Zagreb), some confirm that, even after retirement, they circulate between the island and the country/destination of emigration at relatively regular intervals. In theory, such return visits are a kind of substitute for return migration in the classic sense and constitute an integral part of the return (Miah, 2022). Russel King (2000, pp. 10–11) distinguishes between occasional, seasonal, and temporary return visits of migrants. The interviewees describe their return or, more precisely, the rhythm of return visits to the island after retirement.

In the beginning, we weren’t… We have children who were in college, so we had to be there to help them, but now, for the last ten years, right, we spend almost half the year here. We spend half the year here and half in Zagreb. But we don’t stay, like, in continuity, we come, we go, we come back and so on. So we spend one, almost four or five months [here] … And tomorrow we are going back to Zagreb, for the winter, but we will come again. We come when we feel like it. (Female, 70)

And then, I retired, I left everything there, thinking I still had everything there. …

I was exactly 60 years old, I turned sixty in December, that is, on the third of December… Then I would come, sometimes I would come, and now I come more often, now I stay here for six months, while previously I would stay for a month or two. Then I spend the second half of the year in Trieste, yes. (Female, 75)

One interviewee described the shift among retired migrants from a permanent return to a temporary one compared to the previous generation, and the resulting demographic consequences.

My father, when he retired, he came to the island, he had lived here and returned here, while the new pensioners who used to live here… they retired, but none of them live here permanently. And so they spend 20 days here, then 20 days in Zadar, so what is going on? When pensioners used to be here, living on the island, their children would also come to visit them, so children came more often. So, in my opinion, the main cause are pensioners, new pensioners who retired, they came back, but no one lives that life, like for example my father did, who retired 30 years ago. (Male, 54)

For some interviewees, return visits gradually turn into permanent returns.

We came back about four years ago for good, since earlier, when we retired, we would come for four or five months, we would spend the summer here and go back to France.

…And I’m 72 now, at 65, so it’s been seven years [since I retired]. We also thought for some time that we would definitely be there for a while, and here for a while, but we got a little tired of traveling, and I can tell you that we have recently become a bit disgusted with France, which we used to love and adore, with everything that is happening. (Male, 72)

Plans for return

Some of the returnees prepared their return years in advance, and not only with return visits to the island. Many emigrated islanders have inherited their parents’ houses or built new ones. Having the housing issue resolved significantly facilitates their decision to return (Bara, 2013; Marinović Golubić, 2017; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013).

No, no, no, we built a house here, in 1989 or 1990, here like this [in a village on the island]. … I got married in 1965, and we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in this house, there were no tiles, there was still cement, it was our 25th wedding anniversary. (Female, 75)

I wouldn’t have started building a house [in the village] if I didn’t have that opinion, but I’m much better off here… I’m thinking of selling everything there and coming here, the only thing that bothers me is social security, that’s all, because I don’t have health insurance here, so I don’t know what to do about it. (Female, 75)

In contrast to temporary returnees, there are also those who have completed the plan made when leaving the island to return permanently one day. This seems to occur most frequently with those who immigrated to a country that is a great distance from the home island as well as those who have no children or family remaining in the receiving country (Miah, 2022).

We returned in March 2019, when the pandemic began. I’m not going to America again, God forbid, but we’re on the island non-stop, we only go to the city occasionally, that’s it. We have nothing left in America. When he [my husband] retired, we stayed there for another year or two, then we sold everything there, everything was gone in two months, I left all my stuff there, that’s how it was. (Female, 73)

We lived in San Pedro, California. We were there the whole time. We spent the last four years near San Diego, in a town near San Diego. And the rest of the time we were in San Pedro. In 2000, we came back. We retired and as we have no children, we came here. (Female, 75)

The age of the returnee is a factor in deciding on the permanence or temporary nature (that is, the rhythm) of return. Younger interviewees tended to leave and return repeatedly during their migration, depending on their gaining or losing of employment, desire to discover and experience new things, or adventurous nature.

When I completed my military service, I went to America in 1989. I was there for a while. In fact, I went there twice… Then the [Croatian] War of Independence began, so I came back to go to the war, and then after the war I went back again because America was an adventure. I thought I hadn’t had enough of it, so I had to leave again. In 1999, I came back. (Male, 56)

A special group among the permanent returnees consists of seafarers who had worked on foreign ships and, after deciding to stop seafaring, some of them even before retirement, returned to their village on the island. Some of their experiences of emigration and return have already been mentioned:

Ship captain. … I left in 1971. I was abroad until this year, 2021. I spent most of the time in France, and a long period in Greece. The first time I went to France by myself … For work. There was a company there … where I worked for 24 years, and so I lived six months in Greece and six months in France. France was a permanent base. (Male, 67)

Regardless of motivation and individual decisions made when leaving, some interviewees, even if they considered returning, always came only for planned, occasional visits. Owing to the passage of time and life’s turning points, today they belong to the group of permanent returnees to the island:

When my wife started coming and when she saw that we would come here every year, she suggested that we build something of our own. I liked the idea, and the children liked it too, but I didn’t really think that they would settle down here, but you never know what life holds. (Male, 72)

I always thought that life on the island was hard and cruel and without perspective, and I didn’t really want to settle down here and stay forever. I always thought that this would be a starting point for going somewhere and possibly coming back for some 10-15 days, just for vacation. However, here I am, life and circumstances brought me back. (Female, 44)

Just because they have returned, it does not mean that islanders are no longer connected with the places to which they immigrated.

Our daughter has been in Norway for a year, and her husband for four years. She didn’t get a job, his private business failed because of some locals. They had to go abroad to pay back their debts and start living, and she says that everything is perfect there, you don’t have to worry, you don’t have to live in fear, everything works according to the law from start to finish and they don’t lack anything, everything is simple. [In order to maintain our relationship,] we make video calls almost every day. We have a three-year-old granddaughter… It would be very painful if there were no modern technology. (Female, 70)

Although some returnees have little to do with their former immigration destinations, many maintain social ties.


The results of the present study in some respects concur with the existing research of migration, but they also challenge some longstanding assumptions and, importantly, add nuance to our understanding of why changes in migration across the life course may be occurring. This is particularly the case with respect the factor of time.

Although Croatian islands have always been spaces of intensive migration, the past two centuries have been characterised by continuous processes of emigration, which, along with other forms of decline, has led to strong depopulation (Lajić, 1992; Nejašmić, 1991) and ageing (Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2020; Nejašmić & Toskić, 2013) of island populations. At the same time, return migration is also taking place, although on a significantly smaller scale. Most returnees to Croatian islands 20 or more years ago (Babić et al., 2004), as well as to some Mediterranean islands like Malta (King & Strachan, 1980), were retirees, whose return contributed to the ageing of island communities (King et al., 2006; Podgorelec, 2008).

Duration of the migration and plans for return are fundamental parts of the migration process (Duval, 2004; King, 2000). Many migrants, when leaving, do not know whether or not they intend to stay away for a short period, a long period, or permanently, and they make decisions regarding duration gradually, over time (King, 2000). When compared with the 2001 study on Dugi Otok (Babić et al., 2004), return migrants in the present study gave similar answers about planning to leave for a short time (for example, until the possibility of employment arose on the island) or to complete their entire work life away from the island and then return after retirement. However, return as a stage of the migration cycle is marked by experiences “from imaginative returns to actual returns, from short visits to lifetime resettlement, as well as post-return mobilities and re-emigration” (King, 2017, p. 259). The 2001 study made clear that people’s plans change over time, but in the intervening 20 years, wider sociotechnical, economic, political, and cultural shifts have altered the kinds of changes in plan that might he deemed possible.

Global changes in transportation and communication connectivity with the world have influenced decisions to return, both in terms of type and in terms of duration. With faster and cheaper travel, as well as new and emergent communication links between islanders and emigrants (telecommunications network coverage, optical cables, internet), the conditions and opportunities for emigrants to visit or return to their islands have altered (Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). Some reasons that might have compelled migrants to return in the past (e.g., inability to maintain communication with family) are now less decisive. At the same time though, changes in communication connectivity also affect the social aspects of islandness. Transport and communication links reduce real and perceived spatial isolation. The possibility for remote work reduces limited business opportunities and economic isolation. New forms of online socialization (social networks) and availability of cultural and artistic content change the association between a place’s spatial isolation and experience of cultural isolation.

Research on return migration in rural Ireland has shown that among the most important reasons for return are those “related to family ties or family reasons one kind of another” (Ní Laoire, 2007, p. 336). Small Croatian islands, which are predominantly rural, exhibit a similar pattern. Previous research has shown that Croatian islanders highly value family, family relationships, and island community (Bara, 2013; Marinović Golubić, 2017; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). Return migrants to Croatian islands often emphasize a deep sense of commitment and care for family (Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2002). Similar to rural Scotland (Stockdale, 2002), taking care of elderly parents is a common reason for returning to the island. Research conducted on several Croatian islands confirmed that middle-aged emigrants are willing to return permanently to the island to care for their ill, senior parents (Podgorelec, 2008; Podgorelec & Klempić Bogadi, 2013). A significant factor is also nostalgia for the island place and community, which is often experienced as quite idyllic, as a space of closeness, belonging, solidarity, and safety (Bara, 2013; Fortier, 1999; Klempić Bogadi & Podgorelec, 2002, 2011; Marinović Golubić, 2017; Oroz & Urem, 2015). Time spent away can affect individuals’ senses and ways of knowing and experiencing island place. Emotional attachment to place is a key factor among returnee emigrants more generally (Trąbka et al., 2022). All this is confirmed in both the 2001 study and the present study of Dugi Otok.

However, it is confirmed in a different way today than it was two decades ago. In the 2001 study (Babić et al., 2004), most returnees returned—or perceived themselves as having returned—to the island permanently. They were aged 60 or over, and their return migration could mainly be classified as retirement migration. They decided to return to the island permanently after acquiring the right to a personal pension or their spouse’s pension. This fits with the wider understanding that the population of returnees on Croatian islands, including Dugi Otok, is made up of older people whose migration constitutes a subtype of cyclical migration with elements of various conceptual models of retirement migration (Podgorelec, 2008). Research conducted on the island of Korčula confirms that, for first-generation returnees, return to the island is most often linked to retirement (Marinović Golubić, 2017, p. 134; Marinović Golubić & Peračković, 2020). The demographic and development model of retirement migration (Warnes, 1992) interprets patterns of mobility at a later age with key milestones in an individual’s life history, including retirement, widowhood, and deterioration of health (illness).

The 2021 data from Dugi Otok though shows that return migration to the island is no longer synonymous with completion of the migration process (see also King & Lulle, 2015). It is instead part of a process of transnational mobility that has no clear end point, no clear sense of home and away. Kinship networks have become spatially separated, and many families, individuals, and groups lead geographically dispersed lives, with social connections spanning across distant and distinct cultures and places, creating spaces of transnational meaning-making (Giuffrè, 2021; Lam, 2021; Zhu & Grydehøj, 2023). Most migrants have the choice of returning to their place or country of origin, and some have counted on doing since deciding to emigrate. Some researchers approach return intentions by examining the relationship between the migrant’s degree of integration into the receiving society and transnationalism, calling this approach “the integration-transnationalism matrix,” based on the intersection between the two (Carling & Petersen, 2014). Such an approach is important because the place of origin and the immigration destination are no longer—and perhaps never were—absolute binaries. Many of the returnees to Dugi Otok who were interviewed in 2021 saw continuities and subtle transitions between these two places, both justifying and enabling the increasing impermanence of returns.

Previous research on the islands of Zadar (Babić et al., 2004; Podgorelec, 2008) has identified a strong emotional connection of emigrated islanders with their island places and communities. Beyond the issue of transnationalism, many migrants maintain connections between their island of origin and Croatian destination. All interviewees in our 2021 study on Dugi Otok participated in some way in creating and contributing to transnational/island-mainland social space not only during their periods away from the island but also after returning.

In our study, we identified four general categories of reasons for return: nostalgia for the placed-based community, family, desire to live in a healthier environment, and perceived failure in immigration destination. All these reasons are connected by the effects that time has on the experience of island place and community as well as destination place and community. The increasing continuity between home place and destination place allows emigrants to socially coexist in two or more places at once. Instead of diminishing the importance of time, this changes the ways in which migration and place are experienced, and it opens up new possibilities for temporary migration and return, as epitomized by the islanders in our study who split their physical and mental time between Dugi Otok and elsewhere.

Contemporary returnees to Dugi Otok include migrants of different ages, from their 40s to their 80s. Age has proven to be an important factor in deciding the duration of emigration (Bara, 2013). Younger migrants are more willing to move and change their place of residence frequently (circular migration between the country of origin and the receiving country) and do not define the duration of their migration stay or the time of return in advance. “Movement becomes an integral part of a migrant’s life” (Čapo Žmegač, 2010, p. 22). The former permanent return to Dugi Otok is increasingly being replaced by a series of return visits to the island that occur at planned but also spontaneous intervals. Emigrants’ experiences of and ways of knowing the island shift with time and across their life courses, affecting their decisions regarding emigration and return.


The findings of our study challenge traditional concepts of a migration cycle in which a final return presents closure to the initial departure. There is no longer an average duration of stay in the receiving or destination country. Many of those who had planned to move for several years, earn some money, and then return permanently gradually extended their stay in the receiving country until the time of losing their employment or until retirement. Patterns of circular return between the island and the emigration destination during the period of emigration are increasingly common among retired returnees as well. Regardless of frequency, duration, spatial distance, and accessibility, all return visits are important, meaningful, and integral parts of maintaining transnational family, and social and cultural ties. They are also often—though not always—steps toward a permanent return. And of course, it is impossible to judge whether a return is permanent until an individual’s life course is complete.

In addition to economic reasons (most often retirement among older individuals or a desire to change employment/loss of employment among younger returnees), the most important reason for emigrated islanders to visit (during the migration cycle) and return (temporarily and/or permanently) is their sense of belonging to the island as a social space and physical place. Yet increasingly, sociotechnical and other developments mean that island emigrants are not entirely absent or cut off from the island even when they are living away from it.

Compared with the earlier 2001 study of Dugi Otok, it seems that wider changes are occurring in the migration process: Return migration is less likely to be permanent and final but is instead more likely to be circular or temporary. These processes are certainly related to the island as a specific place and community, but they are also related to the island as a specific time. The effect of time on decisions to migrate and return cannot be understood in a linear or straightforward manner, as time is entangled with conceptions of home, career, place, family, and community. These findings, derived though they are a from a small island case study, are of relevance to wider thinking with regard to migration, not just in Croatia but more generally.

Given the significant differences in the Croatian islands’ populations, ways and quality of life, sizes, numbers of settlements, degrees of economic development, and quality of transport connectivity, the findings presented in this paper cannot be generalized to all Croatian islands. For example, Dugi Otok, although the largest island in terms of land area in the Zadar archipelago, is a medium-sized island in terms of population (with the archipelago’s islands having populations of between 251 and 3,000, according to the classification by Lajić & Mišetić, 2006, p. 21). It is also a moderately developed island with limited opportunities for return migration. This research is just one step in exploring return migration on Croatian islands. Further research should continue on islands that differ from Dugi Otok in terms of size, degree of economic development, and infrastructure. The present study’s sample is furthermore limited to those emigrants who decided to return prior to sampling; those who remain in the receiving societies are lost to our analysis.


The funder is “University of Zadar” and the funding name/code is “A Network of Island Temporalities: Multidisciplinary Research of Temporalies on Dugi otok and Kornati islands. IP.01.2021.13.”