Migration is an essential part of the discussion when we discuss the shrinking regions: While younger people emigrate from rural and underserved regions to urban centers, local administrations try to attract newcomers to ensure the quality of life and investment in infrastructure in their regions. Meanwhile, crises like wars and natural disasters increase the role of local communities and administrations in receiving and settling people who take refuge in a new country and continent. Facing complex demographic and social challenges, local governments and administrations have to meet the diverse needs of the residents and economic actors and find successful ways to cooperate with local and national actors.
On 20 April 2023, the project “Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context” brought prominent experts from science, policy and civil society together to discuss social cohesion and inclusion in the local context: How can we support depopulating and rural communities with better inclusion and integration policies? What are the capacities at the local level to welcome newcomers? How can we achieve structures and instruments of sustainable inclusion at the local level? Participants from various European regions exchanged their views and experiences on the needs and capacities of local communities in designing and implementing inclusion policies.
Following, the outcomes of the transdisciplinary exchange are presented in more detail:
Population changes and local communities: Who are the newcomers?
- In the face of common obstacles, the heterogeneity of European regions and their demographic diversity require place-based solutions for local communities. We observe a heterogeneity of approaches in addressing the inclusion of newcomers in rural and depopulating places: central and permanent programs funded by national governments or the EU, temporary programs and projects or grassroots initiatives of local communities to attract newcomers. Better structured projects funded permanently or temporarily by national and European funding programs target mostly refugees and displaced people. Initiatives by local municipalities and communities to receive and welcome displaced families and individuals are impactful for the initial phase of integration and social inclusion of this target group in the receiving country, even if they move towards urban centers later.
- In many rural and peripheral regions, where migrant workers live or commute to industrial centers, there is a need for local initiatives to increase the interaction between long-time residents and newcomers. In many cases, local service providers and business benefit from the labour migration, however, the inclusion of migrant workers in social and daily life might suffer from the lack of meaningful exchange and interpersonal interaction with other residents. The local municipalities and community leaders can play a positive role in increasing the interaction between long-time residents and migrant workers. A good example is the Sicilian town of Capani in Italy, where a buddy program matches newcomers and long-time residents to participate in cultural and social activities together.
- Some shrinking regions, especially rural areas attract also newcomers from urban centers in other countries. In most cases, pensioners from Western and Central Europe settle in rural regions of Southern and Central-Eastern Europe for higher living standards and lower costs and to pursue a rural lifestyle. While local businesses, service providers and administrations can perceive these older newcomers as a potential for investment, income and tax revenues, conflicts might arise because of a lack of housing, care and health infrastructure and interpersonal exchange with long-time residents. Targeting the need for more investment in infrastructure and housing, national and regional policies and programs can help to integrate the “lifestyle migrants” into the rural communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic and changing working conditions brought out a recent newcomer group in many rural and peripheral regions: Shrinking communities are welcoming new residents who can work remotely and digitally while settling in rural and remote areas. More investment in infrastructure and housing can help local communities to attract more “digital nomads”, while local municipalities can provide more information about their regions and their infrastructure for the newcomers who might have a “more romantic” picture of the rural lifestyle.
Demographic challenges and local strategies: Creating welcoming structures
- The involvement of multiple local actors and the collaboration of administrations and residents can help achieve meaningful participation and inclusion of newcomers in rural and shrinking communities. Newcomers can support and sustain economic development and the overall life quality. And more importantly, newcomers can make a place more attractive and more welcoming for others as their active participation in daily life and local development can help all residents identify themselves as stronger with the region.
- Communities can support and learn from each other: Not just local municipalities but also local initiatives and community leaders can exchange experiences, ideas and practices to attract newcomers and to include them in social and daily life. Regional and European programs and platforms are crucial to adopt place-based strategies assisted by a wider network and supported by practical and scientific knowledge and action plans for inclusion and participation. Indeed, the experiences of local municipalities and communities are fundamental in upscaling inclusion and development practices at the regional and national levels. Additionally, regional and European alliances can back smaller communities lacking resources for sustainable inclusion policies to receive more funding and legal assurances. Finally, migrant and civil society initiatives and organizations can uphold the design and implementation of inclusion policies by bringing more perspectives and securing public support.
- Meaningful and durable participation of newcomers is fundamental: The projects supporting migration work and inclusion of newcomers should be funded in the long term to build sustainable structures and networks. In addition, the political colour can change in the local and national administrations which can damage the ongoing efforts and work done so far. To achieve resilience and persistence in the policy-making and inclusion of newcomers, local municipalities and local councils can adopt binding resolutions ensuring the participation of newcomers and permanent local structures for inclusion and social cohesion.
- In light of the recent crises where local communities receive a bigger number of newcomers, local and regional authorities should be supported by non-recurring and flexible sector funds directly accessible to them when they need fast backing. In this way, local administrations can respond to crises quickly by providing the local inclusion of newcomers and maintaining the overall quality of life of all residents. This can also help national and regional governments and European authorities to ensure the roles and responsibilities are shared in countering multiple challenges in times of crisis.
Can mobility be a reliable source to improve the life quality of residents?
- Mobility of residents can be part of the solution: In most cases, policy interventions and local initiatives are resolved as failures if they can’t ensure the long-term or permanent settlement of newcomers. Many rural and remote areas can successfully attract newcomers to stay in these regions for short or mid-term and still benefit from the constant mobility of people as well as investments, ideas and resources. Motivations behind the mobility away from the peripheral regions can be numerous (job or education opportunities, starting a family, being closer to family or ethnic networks, etc.), yet the mobility can contribute to the vitality of the local life and life quality of residents if a region sustains the inflow of people who can make this region attractive for others as well.
- Depopulation and aging are demographic and infrastructural challenges: Newcomers can be a source for improving the life quality in regions feeling “left behind” as long as the structural problems in a region are addressed properly. Newcomers will make the need for improvement in health and school systems, transportation, digital infrastructure and housing more visible and vital. For a successful inclusion and integration of newcomers, the mobility of people must be accompanied by state and private investment in infrastructure.
- However, the investment in infrastructure and targeted policies should avoid creating gaps and dichotomy between “locals” and “newcomers”. Inclusion is a holistic process where the design of services and policies should target all residents and their needs. Co-creation of policies through different formats of exchange and encounter of most members of the community can ensure success in designing and implementing local actions.
András Kováts, Director, Hungarian Association for Migrants (Menedék)
Maggi W.H. Leung, Professor in International Development Studies, University of Amsterdam
Maria Grazia Montella, Officer - Integration & Migration, IncluCities, Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)
Tiziana Caponio, Research Fellow and Professor of Dynamics and Policies of Migration, Collegio Carlo Alberto and University of Turin
Tülay Ates-Brunner, Managing Director, Tür an Tür-Integrationsprojekte gGmbH