Powerful women-led organizations in shrinking regions

11 January 2021

Leticia Santaballa Santos

During the pandemic, fieldwork became a challenge. Nevertheless, the University of A Coruna team was able to start the Welcoming Spaces research on two of the selected case studies, thanks to the low prevalence of active COVID-19 cases over a period of several weeks in the autumn of 2020.  

Map showing the location of the two municipalities, Celanova (south) and Burela (north). Source: Google Maps.

Celanova is a Spanish municipality located inland in the Galician region, in province of Ourense. Burela, in turn, is a coastal village in the far north of the same region, in the province of Lugo. We could be forgiven for thinking that the two municipalities would have little in common; nevertheless, once out on the field, we were able to identify a shared singularity: powerful women-led cultural organizations with scope that extends far beyond their geographical boundaries. Indeed, our conversations with various agents in situ revealed a clear trans-local relevance.

Both locations are characterised by large migrant communities, albeit with widely-differing migration projects underlying people’s movements.  In Celanova, most of the “new” neighbours formerly lived in Venezuela. They already held Spanish citizenship, as many of them are returned Galician descendants, although some had never previously visited their ancestors’ country of origin, whilst others had travelled there regularly to spend their summer holidays.  Nevertheless, influxes and effluxes to and from Latin American countries had existed since the Galician diaspora of the early 20th century. In recent years, a steadily rising one-way trend, consisting mainly of migrants fleeing Venezuela, has rejuvenated an otherwise rapidly ageing population, the result of constant outward migration and falling birth rates.

Forty-five years ago, Burela, once a small village, began to receive people of Cape Verdean/Portuguese nationality, mainly for economic reasons related to the building and fishing industries. As the structural situation was prosperous at the time, people from other villages/regions/countries arrived and settled, and many were able to regroup their families. In a few decades Burela became a fully serviced municipality with a population of over 10,000 and more than 40 nationalities. However, the extent to which they integrated is an issue for study in future analyses.

The Batuko Tabanka Association had a long-standing trajectory as a cultural organization, although it was further strengthened under female leadership in the wake of Bogavante, a social project that ran from 1998 to 2020. In turn, this led to the creation of a Batuque dance and music group whose origins lie in the dreadful times of slavery. You can listen to one of their songs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efmP5hEwWBA

Mural dedicated to the Batuko Tabanka Association on a street in Burela. Source: Servizo de Audiovisuais da Diputación de Lugo, 2019.

In addition, the Cantaclaro Association started life as a cultural organisation that aimed to conserve and promote Venezuelan culture and values, as well as creating intercultural shared spaces within Galicia, providing interested participants of all ages with the opportunity to take part in traditional music courses (learning to play the cuatro stringinstrument, for example), dancing, workshops and many other activities. 

Some of the activities carried out by Asociación Cantaclaro (Celanova). Source: La Región newspaper, 2020.

When it comes to migration discourses, memory tends to be short-lived. Due to its relevance, we must never forget Galicia’s long-standing tradition of emigration that is still alive today. Indeed, the popular saying “there’s a Galician on the moon” is indicative of the scope and extent of a phenomenon that extended as far afield as Switzerland, Germany, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Cuba, Belgium, Canada and even Australia – just some of the countries where it is possible to find Galician cultural organizations that remain active even today.  

Example of a Galician cultural organization in Switzerland. Source: Expaña Exterior Journal, 2019.

So, what do they have in common? Organizations in shrinking areas could be seen as the visible face of a migrant-based community, but their reach is wide and deeply rooted in the location. It goes far beyond the workshops, activities and concerts, and in many cases provides a supportive hand to hold along the way, when carrying out the basic procedures, or providing a sense of direction in a new environment, which comes from experienced voices in both realities. During the interviews, many of the returned Galician voices reminded us of the importance of the cultural organizations abroad, whose impact extends far beyond the actual migrant community, proving essential for development and schools houses, business and medical centres, all crucial for cultural reproduction, as well as enhancing development and social wellbeing for both reception and sending countries.

We began to perceive that their impact is far from trivial. In this sense, research into Welcoming Spaces should thoroughly and ethically address the contributions of cultural organizations. How do other agents interact with migrant community organizations in shrinking regions? How are communities organized and what are their demands? Are they really considered as key agents for development? It may well be that we will discover valuable and underestimated reception know-how.

Job Offer WS Knowledge broker/social expert

As part of the WELCOMING SPACES project, Cepaim foundation has launched a job opening for the role of knowledge broker/social expert. The opening and description can be found here:


Interview Laura Oso in ‘La Voz de la Galicia’ on welcoming spaces in Spain

The Galician newspaper ‘La Voz de la Galicia’ interviewed WS team member Laura Oso on the topic of welcoming spaces. The interview can be found here:


Reflections on how to turn rural Europe into a Welcoming Space for migrants

Irene Ponzo (FIERI) has written an inspiring commentary on migration and rural areas the International Affairs Institute, summarising some of FIERI’s research findings: https://www.iai.it/it/pubblicazioni/how-turn-rural-europe-welcoming-space-migrants

Meeting of mayors from the province of Soria in Spain on Welcoming spaces

21 December 2020

By Estela Vallejo Latorre

Despite COVID-19, the pandemic has not prevented the organisation of Welcoming Spaces events in 2020. As has happened into every aspect of our daily lives, we became more flexible and we adapted to the needs of the moment. As a consequence, and due to the circumstances, all our events have been organised in a virtual format.

As part of our WS programme, we organised three of them. Poland brought together NGOs while the Netherlands and Spain focused on meetings with mayors. In Spain, seven mayors from the province of Soria – with different ideologies, ages and size of municipalities – came together and presented  various integration initiatives that take place in their localities.

Soria province suffers severe demographic issues. Makin up only around ten thousand km2, it is only populated by 89.501 inhabitants. The territory counts 183 municipalities of which 63% have a population under 100 inhabitants. The population average in the province of Soria is 8,6 inhabitants per km2 – in some areas, there are not even two inhabitants per km2. 

During the Spanish meeting that took place on 10 December 2020, different topics were discussed such as the emplacement of the first generation of migrants, the reluctance of some natives to receive foreign populations and the benefits that newcomers bring to our territories.

This event with mayors form the province of Soria is part of a series of Webinars organised by CEPAIM Foundation. The objective of all these events is to provide knowledge, exchange best practices and start a dialogue related to the revitalisation of depopulated areas through the integration and participation of migrants.

In 2021, we will continue with organising these events, hoping that little by little, it will be possible to jump from a virtual to a face-to-face world.

Some reflections on Welcoming spaces in Soria:

“To integrate: first not to make a difference. Second, when integrating them [the newcomers], include them in the dynamics of the people. Simple things, but that can help to integrate [everyone], from the oldest to the youngest” – Alberto López, Mayor of Arenillas

[Speaking about the vision that migrants also bring something to local communities]: “From Soria, we see the rural world as something pessimistic and they [the newcomers] encourage us to see strengths that we normally do not see” – Juan Carlos García, Mayor of Fuentecantos

“Have we asked the people of the towns, if they want people to come? People have not asked me, but I know that people are a bit reluctant in principle to allow people from abroad to come. I speak of nationals or foreigners” – Juan Carlos González, Mayor of Gómara

“In many cases, those who move from their place, for economic, political or social reasons, yearn for a return. This is an important factor when it comes to integration because they are always thinking about returning” – Rosa Pérez, Deputy Mayor of Langa de Duero

“Integration is achieved in the second generation, in the first, people have the idea of ​​returning. The second generation is the one that no longer wants to leave” – Pablo Febrero, Mayor of Yangüas

“The idea is to create a global collective so that the new generations grow up in common society” – Miguel Cobo, Mayor of Burgo de Osma

WELCOMING SPACES presented at Congress of the German Association of Sociologists

In September 2020, the WELCOMING SPACES projected was presented in a panel at the 40th Congress of the German Association of Sociologists. This panel was moderated by Sabine Meier (University of Siegen), Heike Herrmann (University of Applied Sciences Fulda) and Nina Schuster (TU Dortmund).

In the name of our whole team, Maggi Leung and Alberto Alonso Fradejas presented the aims and the main research questions illustrated by several examples of welcoming initiatives in Poland, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Next to our team, a number of other German scholars have presented ongoing research on migration and the (re)development of places. Johannes Becker (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) examines the relation between characteristics of places and processes of emplacement of refugees in the Jordanian capital Amman. Mila Brill (Universität Bonn) explores to what extent the concept of emplacement offers a way of theoretically grasping everyday cultural practices of making local reference via gastronomy. Based on data from the ongoing research project ´Solidarity at the social level of locally organised actors´ in the SOLDISK research network Michael Corsten and Patrick Kahle presents first research results. In a last paper, Lutz Eichholz, Annette Spellerberg and Christoph Giehl from the TU Kaiserslautern Department of Spatial and Environmental Planning discussed which factors have an influence on the quality of life and satisfaction of refugees in Germany. In doing so, they focus in their research on the great importance of housing, social contacts and neighbourhood.

WS team at 17TH IMISCOE Annual conference

In July 2020, our team organised a panel at the international 17th IMISCOE Annual Conference.

The panel was moderated by Karin Geuijen, Maggi Leung and Annelies Zoomers, where first of all the research questions and objectives of the project were presented. Besides the participation of several members of our project, other social scholars took part. With the lecture on the topic ´New welcoming spaces? Concepts, plans, and conflicts in diversifying neighbourhoods´, Ms. Madlen Pilz from the Leibniz Institute for Spatial Social Research discussed the question of how the strategies for producing welcoming spaces of local governmental and non-governmental actors are received by the residents of these spaces. Moreover, Ester Driel and Tihomir Sabchev from the Utrecht University have presented their papers. Ester Driel examines to what extent Riace’s reception program (1) supports the successful settlement of refugees, and (2) affects the local community and the attitude of the local population towards newcomers. Tihomir Sabchev presented evidence from a qualitative comparative case study of two municipalities located on the opposite sides of the metropolitan area of Thessaloniki, which hosted a large number of forced migrants after the closure of the Balkan route to safety.

Jordan flag and Arabic food in shrinking regions of Rhineland-Palatinate

2 October 2020

Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske

During the first explorations of the German research regions, we visited a number of small towns situated in the district Mayen-Koblenz. This area between the Rhine and Moselle is characterized by the different landscapes along and above the two rivers. The villages of the municipality of ´Maifelt´ are characterized by agricultural use and wideness, while the villages along the Moselle (´Rhine-Moselle´ municipality) are characterized by wine growing on rocky, steep locations. The latter has a long tradition in wine tourism. In both municipalities together ca. 51,600 people, thereof about 3,200 migrants, i.e. people without German citizenship.

Photograph of the map ‘Oberes Mittelrheintal’, Landesambt für Vermessung Rheinland Pfalz

From 2015 onwards, civil society actors together with the local and regional governments have supported migrants during the first phase of arrival in several villages. During our visit of Rhine-Moselle and Maifeld, we went in search of visible signs of migrant presence and activities and tried to get into conversation with people on the street and in pubs. In a small town called ´Lonning´ (see map above), we unexpectedly came across a Jordan flag that was attached to one of the houses.

Jordan Flag in Lonning
Picture: Sabine Meier

Photographing this flag attracted the attention of a man on the street. We asked him what the flag meant. He told us that this flag was hoisted by a young athlete because of a certain sportive event. However, he said, in Lonning people from Syria and Afghanistan are living. In total, he guesses that about 30 asylum seekers have arrived since 2015 and some of them have remained until today. The local government of Maifeld has rented a small number of apartments in the village to accommodate them.

Since 2015, he himself has been accompanying a number of asylum seekers together with other volunteers. “Last year we drove about 7000 km more than usual. This is due to the extra trips we made for our refugees to the hospital, school, authorities, etc.”, he laughed. “Especially the families have stayed. In addition, most of the men have succeeded in finding a job, for example at a logistics company in the village Polch or at the post office in Koblenz”. He also said that in his opinion it was necessary that refugees, regardless of their residence status, should be allowed to work. “Only then, they are able to permanently participate in social life and could give their lives a new meaning, after they had often experienced terrible things. A young man, I accompanied for a long time, started drinking. Furthermore, it is a fact that especially the women are poorly educated, have difficulties to learn the German language and with it, had difficulties to find a job – especially when they have got young children”. 

© Sabine Meier: Syrian restaurant which advertises with “Arabic Food” in Winningen, district Rhine-Moselle

Further signs of the presence of migrants were found in the villages along the river Moselle. These places have a long tourist tradition. Today, the region advertises itself with its terraced and rocky vineyards, young and innovative winegrowing families, numerous wine taverns and newly established bicycle networks with good connections to train lines. Thus, the region more and more profiled itself as an ´ecotouristic´ region. Besides the traditional taverns with German cuisine, there are migrants who take over old-established restaurants, for example in the village Hatzenport. In the idyllic village Winningen a Syrian family opened the Syriena restaurant, at the beginning of 2020. Further internet research shows that they are not the only ones in this region. Syrian immigrants have also opened restaurants in Koblenz and in the small town of Andernach.[2]

Based on these initial observations, our research project ‘welcoming spaces’ is e.g. concerned with questions like: which resources migrants draw on to emplace and establish themselves as neighbours, entrepreneurs, employees, political actors, home owners or volunteers. Which actors support them in this process? How do they generate financial resources? What role do local government actors, regional integration programs or economic development programs play? In this way, we want to underline and discuss their role as ´city makers´ in European shrinking regions.

Covid-19 and welcoming spaces: a synthesis

1 September 2020

By Rianne Hadders

In the previous months, we provided snapshots of the Covid-19 situation and its impacts on migrants and shrinking areas in the countries participating in the WELCOMING SPACES project. Not all the places were affected equally, and the lockdown measures varied widely. However, with regard to migrants and shrinking areas some stark similarities arose from the blogs of our colleagues.

The first thing that came to the fore in all blogs was the strong dependency of our economies on labour migrants, as well as the connections between the welcoming spaces partner countries. In Poland, the Ukranian labourers provide a vital part of the workforce, while the Netherlands heavily relies on Polish workers in the agricultural sector and the industry. Also in Italy, Germany and Spain the governments realised the crucial role migrants play in their food provision and installed various measures to enable workers to continue their work. In Italy and Spain, measures were taken to regularize certain groups of irregular migrants. The Netherlands spoke out the intention to make it easier for migrants with a medical background to exercise their profession to help in the crisis. Various blogs observed a renewed appreciation of groups of migrants that seemed unthinkable in times before the Covid-19 crisis. However, this recognition of migrants is highly selective. Migrant workers that are ‘useful’ could count on renewed appreciation, but other migrants such as asylum seekers faced obstructions and delays in their asylum procedures.

Also, despite appreciation, health  risks during the covid-19 crisis have been found to be higher for migrants in all countries. Migrants are overrepresented in sectors that cannot shift their work to the home. The Spanish team strikingly quotes Antonio Iziguero who stated: ‘there is a clear difference between those who can be confined, and those who are exposed out of necessity’. Of course, this is not only true for migrants, however the immigrant population is overrepresented in the battalion of “exposed” who, from the agricultural fields, the supermarkets, transport, care, have to take more health risks, they write.

This dichotomy exposed/confined work is also visible in the urban/rural sphere. City dwellers experienced stricter confinement than rural residents during the last months. Suddenly, the perspective of a shrinking region with a low population became a safe and positive vision. Numerous articles appeared predicting the shift to the rural areas, now that urban dwellers experienced the disadvantages of living in the city. For example in the Netherlands, various news items already mentioned a rise in interest in rural houses as observed by real estate agents. To what extent that really will happen is to be seen. However, as the Italian team points out: there are still great inequalities between rural and urban areas that need to be overcome, particularly in infrastructure and services.   What effects the crisis will have on welcoming initiatives will be integrated in our project as COVID-19 will remain part of our current reality.

Migrants and shrinking regions in times of the COVID-19 pandemic: blog series

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on our daily lives. Suddenly, the world changed from a mobile world into an immobile one. In these blog posts, the WELCOMING SPACES team gives an insight into how the pandemic has affected the lives of migrants in shrinking regions across Europe, in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain.