Opportunities and Challenges for Refugees in Rural Europe


SAN FRANCISCO, California — In Spain, 10% of the population occupies 70% of the land. The other 90% live in 1,500 overcrowded towns and cities. Similar to other European countries, Spain has undergone dramatic demographic changes since around 2010. Between 80% and 90% of Spanish municipalities and towns now “have fewer than 1,000” residents. The livelihoods for those who stay have become meager. Grocery stores and other essential businesses are often forced to shut down. In Pareja, a town in central Spain, the school would have had to close if not for the refugee and migrant families with young children who recently moved to the area. However, every town is different. Challenges and opportunities exist for both migrants in rural Europe and the communities that are receiving them.

Demographic Changes

The European Union’s (E.U.) demographics are changing. A 2020 study by the European Commission takes a look at these changes and the effects on European society. Europe has an increasingly older population as a result of high life expectancies and low birth rates. Rural and remote regions are losing people while urban regions are gaining people. Addressing COVID-19 recovery plans, the report explains that, “this is an opportunity for Europe to build a fairer and more resilient society.”

A more inclusive labor market must include increased employment for women, a better relationship between family life and work, support for disabled people, opportunities for people with little education and efforts to prevent all forms of discrimination. The report posits that Europe’s working-age population will continue to shrink. The increase or decrease in opportunities for refugees, migrants and other underrepresented groups directly affects the speed and severity at which it shrinks. Prosperity for refugees in rural Europe is possible if there is adequate investment and care for receiving communities in these regions.

New Integration Efforts

Resettling refugees in rural Europe in small and medium-sized towns has become a more frequent practice in recent years. This is in part due to dispersal policies, which ask small and mid-sized cities to integrate refugees to prevent overcrowding in large metropolitan areas. There is also an increased desire in small towns to simply help out and be of service.

A research report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Europe explores the expanding role of rural municipalities in welcoming refugees and migrants. The research argues that if rural regions of Europe are included in E.U.-wide immigration policies, then integration efforts as a whole in both urban and rural areas will potentially be longer-lasting and more sustainable.

Challenges Refugees Face

Rural areas may not have very specialized services, especially for refugees and migrants with complex challenges, trauma or disabilities. Limited employment opportunities are also common, usually for both newcomers and long-time residents. Often life for refugees in rural Europe can be cheaper and more spacious than life in a big city, but that is not always the case. In fact, without a job, it may not be a benefit at all.

The homogeneity of rural regions can also be isolating. Although social interaction with locals may happen more frequently, it doesn’t necessarily lead to meaningful connections. Young people, for example, may find it hard to form deep friendships in rural areas with mostly older residents. There is also less access to public transportation. This can make the other challenges more extreme if there is no easy way to find jobs or social connections in a nearby city. In the MPI study, transportation proved to be one of the most challenging barriers to overcome for refugees in rural Europe.

Opportunities For Refugees in Small Towns

Smaller towns are often more personal, meaning that essential services are easier to navigate and meeting locals happens naturally in day-to-day life. Newcomers also tend to learn the language more quickly and receive a more personalized and tailored welcome than they might in a large city. Rural development is an important opportunity because it benefits not only refugees in rural Europe but also the receiving communities.

Liam Patuzzi, a policy analyst at MPI Europe and an author of the aforementioned MPI study, spoke with The Borgen Project about the development opportunities that national funding provides. Recalling his research, Patuzzi said, “[W]e heard about this alliance of small municipalities in southern Italy that tried to use the resources and funding that come with resettlement to create community enterprises that would also then employ resettled refugees. [. . .] At the same time, they would help revive certain local trades and skills such as viticulture.” In the case of these small municipalities in Italy, funding from the national government helped towns create jobs for migrants and refugees that simultaneously brought back local industries.

Aside from national government funding for resettling refugees, small towns also benefit from the increased population. Businesses and institutions that rely on regular attendance can keep their doors open, such as doctor’s offices, grocery stores and schools. The larger and more diverse population also leads to new learning experiences. In the case of Martelange, a small town in Belgium, the local school added additional French and math classes to its roster when more students began attending. The town also added a new medical center because of higher demand. In Sant’Arcangelo, Italy, school teachers learned how to teach Italian as a foreign language for the first time.

Hope For Rural Resettlement

Countries will need to address the changing demographics — many older residents, young newcomers and the depopulation in rural areas —  in the near future to ensure a decent standard of living for all. With the right government policies, funding and local initiatives, there is hope that small municipalities will have a positive impact on integration despite these difficulties

For example, a new nonprofit in Spain, Towns With A Future Association, is connecting refugees and small towns. It helped one Venezuelan family relocate from busy Madrid to Pareja, Spain, with a population of just 400. In this family’s case, moving to a small town allowed them to make connections with locals more easily, find suitable jobs and go off of government support sooner. The town has had great success in welcoming refugees, and the area’s desire for new life and increased prosperity is clear.

Patuzzi and his fellow researchers in the study emphasize the importance of adequate preparation and support in order to bring prosperity to receiving communities and refugees in rural Europe. However, with examples like Pareja, Spain, and Martelange, Belgium, the benefits of resettling refugees in rural Europe are clear.

– Caitlin Harjes
Photo: Flickr


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