The smaller the better? Migration governance in small and medium-sized towns and rural areas in times of crises

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The debate about the local governance of migration and diversity has traditionally focused on metropolis and big cities. Yet, the ‘migration and refugee crisis’ has deeply redefined the geography of migrants’ settlement in the EU. In fact, between 2014 and 2015 small towns and rural areas have been confronted with increasing arrivals of migrants from areas of political and humanitarian crisis either spontaneously or through the operating of the national redistribution plans put in place by the member states to alleviate pressure on border areas and main cities. Accommodation in these smaller localities has often been accompanied by local reactions of rejection and intergovernmental conflicts. However, long-term issues regarding migrants’ social integration and quality of life in local communities remain to be explored.

These issues are likely to be even more relevant in the post-covid19 context. Economic sectors of a vital relevance, like agriculture and food processing, and sectors hit hard by the pandemic like tourism, are characterised by both a high prevalence of migrant workers and a high territorial concentration in small/medium towns and rural areas. A better understanding of migration governance in small localities is, therefore, of utmost importance.  

Migrants in small towns and rural areas. Understanding the challenges

In recent years, small and medium-sized cities and rural areas have become the object of increased attention by the EU. In April 2019, the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) launched the Cities and Regions for Integration Initiative (CRII) to provide a platform for the participation of small cities, medium towns, and rural areas in the sharing of knowledge and best practices on migrants’ integration and social cohesion. Furthermore, policy learning and best practices exchange have been supported through EU-funded projects like PlurAlps, on peripheral Alpine areas, and InCluCities which addresses integration efforts in medium sized-cities.

The report ‘Integration of Migrants in Small and Middle cities and rural areas in Europe’, commissioned by CRII, presents migration in these localities primarily as a ‘win-win game’. On the one hand, the community ‘wins’ because migrants contribute to address depopulation trends, revitalise economic activities, and ensure the viability of public services; on the other hand, migrants also ‘win’ from easier access to local networks and interaction with residents. However, the report includes number of caveats, e.g.: scarce financial resources and administrative capacity, a particularly severe challenge for peripheral rural areas; high volatility and instability of integration initiatives, especially when depending on volunteers; and the risk of isolation of migrants’ groups, especially in case of conflictual relations with residents. According to the report, gaps in the local governance of migration limit integration opportunities and lead migrants to prefer big cities where they can usually seek and find better jobs, helped also by the support of co-national networks.

These findings are indeed important and provide an informative overview of the challenges that small/medium-sized cities and rural areas, identified on the basis of the OECD classification of Local Administrative Units, might face when confronted with migration. However, there is little information in the report about the conditions and factors that shape the local governance of migration. Structural factors regarding demographic trends and the local economy represent just one dimension of analysis, which is likely to interact with socio-cultural factors in terms of local communities’ experiences – or lack thereof – in dealing with diversity in a broad sense, including national minorities. By combining these two dimensions –  i.e. the structural dimension and the socio-cultural dimension – I draw a typological space of local communities that can provide a basis for deriving some preliminary hypotheses about the dynamics of local migration governance.

Figure 1 – Types of small/medium-sized town and rural areas

Revitalising localities are characterised by  positive economic and demographic trend, as well as by pre-existing experiences in dealing with migrants and/or diverse groups. In this context, we should expect that local policymakers, civil society organisations and other key stakeholders like the business community, will engage pro-actively as new migration challenges arise. Strong local networks will favour mobilisation upwards, towards higher tiers of government, and in translocal networks with other municipalities. The opposite situation is likely to be found in left-behind localities, characterized by economic and demographic decline and no significant experience with diversity. Here political authorities will, arguably, most likely show a reactive and restrictive approach. Actors in local structures of support like civil society organisations and/or business might eventually mobilise to favour integration, but their efforts can be expected to be relatively fragmented and poorly coordinated.

Two intermediate configurations are marginal localities, where demographic and economic decline combine with past experience with migration and/or diversity challenges; and communities in transition, characterised by an improving economic and demographic situation and a lack of significant experience with socio-cultural diversity. In both cases, local political actors are likely to show ambivalent attitudes towards newly arrived migrants and much will depend on the structures of support deployed by civil society and/or by economic actors. Compared with marginal communities, communities in transition will probably be more actively mobilised in multilevel policymaking processes and will have a greater interest in participating in translocal networks, because of the opportunity to learn from successful revitalising communities. In these contexts, we can therefore expect to find pro-active integration policies, whereas in marginal communities integration efforts will probably be more fragmented and dependent upon the mobilisation of stakeholders in the economy and civil society.

Maybe smaller but not simpler: Migration community governance in times of ‘crises’

It should thus be clear that ‘smaller’ is by no means synonymous with ‘simpler’. The four types of small localities presented above constitute a ‘heuristic map’ against which specific cases can be compared. The map draws attention to the complexity of migration community governance and highlights the importance of understanding why and how different actors engage in multiple and multi-layered processes of community-making to come to terms with specific crises and challenges.

The migration and refugee crisis has challenged systems of centre-periphery relations. In the majority of EU member states, policies of redistribution of asylum seekers across national territories have been approved with the aim of shifting the burden of accommodation to local authorities. Mayors of small localities seem to have had an important role in mediating multilevel political conflicts, while social movements and NGOs have been particularly active in forming grassroots coalitions to support asylum seekers’ accommodation. Overall,  existing research seem to show that residents in small cities, medium-sized towns and rural areas hold positive attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees, notwithstanding the challenges in access to key resources for integration like housing, education and employment.

However, where it exists, this complicated equilibrium in small communities’ migration governance is likely to be shaken again by the current covid-19 crisis.  The pandemic affects deeply local economic structures and the role of migrants therein. Whereas in small touristic localities threatened by dramatic job losses migrants are likely to become competitors, in agricultural areas they represent essential workers. It is probably too early to say how small localities will respond to these new challenges, since the consequences of the health crisis are just now coming to the surface and will probably last for a long-time. The risk of more communities falling into the ‘marginal’ or ‘left behind’ categories does not bode well for migration governance in small/ medium cities and rural areas.


Tiziana Caponio, Marie Curie Research Fellow, Migration Policy Centre

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.