Welcoming Spaces roundtable at ESA RN37 midterm conference

On January 29th, took place virtually the last day of ESA RN37 IV Midterm Conference “Urban Theory and Urban Praxis: Past, Present and Possible Futures”. The conference hosted the roundtable “Welcoming spaces? Opportunities and challenges for newcomers”, chaired by Pierluigi Musarò, Maurizio Bergamaschi and Paola Parmiggiani (University of Bologna), an occasion for the Welcoming Spaces team to gather (online) and discuss about the recent developments of the project.

The event started with the presentation “Managing ´Welcoming Spaces´ middle-up-down: impressions of a selected municipality in Thuringia” by Laura Foelske and Sabine Meier (University of Siegen), in which by giving a short insight into the perspective of the integration manager of the city of Altenburg, the crucial factors for the creation of welcoming spaces were presented.

The researchers of the Warsaw School of Economics, Justyna Szałańska, Marta Pachocka and Paweł Kubicki, presented the contribution entitled “Welcoming Spaces in a Non- Welcoming Country. Who offers hospitality to migrants in Poland?”, where they highlighted the importance of considering different migratory statuses and the relevance of the contribution of migrants in revitalising shrinking areas.

The third speaker, Tiziana Caponio of the University of Turin and CCA, presented the just started H2020 research project “Whole-COMM: Exploring the Integration of Post-2014 Migrants in Small and Medium-Sized Towns and Rural Areas from a Whole of Community Perspective”. Whole-COMM perspective on integration as a whole-of-community process influenced by different factors fostered a reflection on challenges such as the relation between integration and interaction of multiple actors and how to compare different kinds of localities among different countries.

The presentation of Jana Finke and Karin Geuijen (Utrecht University) “Migration policy in the Netherlands: opportunities and constraints for welcoming spaces and for refugees in shrinkage areas” started from a key question: How does asylum and refugee dispersal policy foster or constrain the emplacement of refugees and the revitalisation of shrinking areas? The analysis revealed the constraints of the Dutch refugee dispersal policy and screening and matching procedure and their impact both on migrants’ quality of life and on the process of revitalisation of shrinking areas.

The contribution of Leticia Santaballa (University of La Coruña) aimed at addressing the situation of immigrants living in shrinking areas in Spain. The case studies considered, Burela and Celanova, showed clear examples of the migrant trends more representative in Galicia and highlighted how migratory models can influence the dynamics of the welcoming initiatives.

The last contribution of the roundtable, presented by Alice Lomonaco and Melissa Moralli from the University of Bologna, showed some preliminary insights about the presence of non-EU migrants in Italian shrinking areas. After a short introduction on the case studies selected, some first paths of refection emerged: a link between the reception system and the welcoming initiatives creating opportunities both for migrants and for local development; the multidimensional sustainability of the implemented activities and the relevance of economic sustainability for integration initiatives.

From all contributions arose the peculiarities of each territory, the resources, the problems, but also the positive consequences that can be produced by innovative welcoming initiatives. Furthermore, the issues presented have reminded us  of the importance of considering different kinds of migrations and different levels of individual and mutual agency, of interrogating ourselves on processes of change and the need to reshape the meaning of concepts often taken for granted. The roundtable has been an important occasion to exchange ideas and new angles, to discuss concerns and common challenges and to value individual and especially collective work, that is the added value of Welcoming Spaces project. In the next years, all partners will work together to systematize and find out which contextual and success factors lead to successful welcoming initiatives, providing new perspectives on the issue of migration and revitalisation of shrinking areas.

Shrinking areas as dynamic spaces of care and resilience

25 January 2021

By Desirè Gaudioso – University of Bologna

Shrinking areas, “the lands of the margin”, are often depicted as places of disadvantage, depopulation, abandonment, marked by lack of opportunities and services (e.g., logistics, education, health, transports) that negatively affect the quality of life of their inhabitants. The fate of these areas oscillates between the transformation into “bonbonniere villages” and a resigned extinction.

In recent years, throughout Italy, we have been witnessing a constant effort to invert these trends and to recover these regions, starting from a change of perspective in the way we approach the Italian territory. The development of this different gaze shifts the focus from the centre to the margins, with the aim of making them liveable places again. A fundamental point towards the revitalisation of shrinking areas is the concept of “Restanza”, theorised by the Italian anthropologist Vito Teti.

The idea of “Restanza” implies both the verb to stay and the noun resilience. Restanza means choosing to stay in a place in a conscious, active and proactive way by actively guarding it, being aware of the past while enhancing what remains, with an impulse towards the future where a new community is possible. In this sense, staying is a dynamic concept, it is a form of journey, a manner to affirm a different existence: an existence made of presence, an action to hinder absence and abandonment. Presence brings life back, places become liveable and are perceived as sources of opportunities not only for the ones who stay, but also for those who arrive. Moreover, the meaning of staying is strictly linked with living, inhabiting, as an intense relationship that is characterised by enjoyment and realisation of resources and, at the same time, by care of collective assets. In describing the term “restanza”, the Italian anthropologist Vito Teti asserts that staying “is tied to the painful and authentic experience of always being out of place”, and of “feeling in exile and foreign in the place where one lives”. Exile, disorientation, uprooting, mark the life of people living in shrinking areas. Similarly, the emotional bond with space and the feeling of loss and distance characterise the migratory experience, often in addition to a journey without arrival, or an arrival in which it is not allowed to stay. A position of marginality is shared by who stays and who migrates as well.

Living on the fringes, however, should not just be seen as something entirely negative. In this regard, the contribution of the American writer Bell Hooks is extremely interesting. The author elaborates a vision of marginality as place of radical possibility and resistance able to provide a new perspective from which to look and reimagine alternatives and “new worlds”. In Welcoming Spaces, the creation of these “new worlds” takes place. Quoting Teti, it contributes to “little daily utopias of change” with others. In this process, relationships based on collaboration and solidarity that were previously destroyed, limited and devalued are mended. Moreover, they prove to be fundamental for sharing and taking care of places as communal assets. Care earns a central role in the relation with the territory and between the people who live in it and is based on the recognition that we are all dependent on each other. Interdependences, if enhanced can turn into additional sources through which communities can develop and prosper. Consequently, in this framework, “the other” ceases to be a threat and becomes a companion to cultivate a common future. Acting towards the others in a constructive manner, therefore avoiding oppositional behaviours, promotes a notion of care that goes beyond the meaning that diminishes it to concern and attention exclusively directed to who and what we recognise as similar and close. Furthermore, the dilatation of the traditional idea of care discourages the diffusion of cultures of identity based on exclusion. Breaking down walls, opening up to those previously identified as different, and embracing a broader concept of care favours the creation of inclusive communities and belongings, in which identities are contaminated and formed in relation to the others in a regenerative manner.

As emphasised in the “Care Manifesto”, published by The Care Collective in the most critical months of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking the idea of ​​care as an organisational principle seriously and make it a priority not only in the domestic sphere but in all areas of life, “is necessary for the cultivation of a caring politics, fulfilling lives, and a sustainable world”.  The authors realise the power of care as practice and core value on which a new society can be built. When a community turns into a caring community, the values ​​that guide care in intimate spheres orient the public realm towards actions aimed at creating spaces for a life “in common” that can bring to light the intrinsic political potential of the community itself. Eventually, this political element renews, fosters, and improves democratic processes and encourages a more participative citizenship.

In shrinking areas, communities based on care invest in their own resources and in strengthening the ties not only between those who live there, but also towards the outside world, transform marginality from a disadvantaged context into a virtuous space, or rather, citing Bell Hooks, “into a place to live in, to which remain attached and faithful, because it nourishes our ability of resistance”. In Welcoming Spaces, care and resilience are the engine for the conversion of strangers into familiar figures and of shrinking regions into welcoming, sustainable, and liveable spaces.

Powerful women-led organisations 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 organisations 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 organisation, 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 organisations 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? Organisations 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 organisations 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 organisations. How do other agents interact with migrant community organisations in shrinking regions? How are communities organised 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.

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

Webinar with mayors and municipal councilors in the Netherlands

On 30th November a group of mayors and municipal councilors from shrinking and rural areas from all over the Netherlands gathered in the first Webinar of the Welcoming Spaces Community of Practice. They shared their experiences with the settlement of newcomers in their municipalities, which often deal with population decline and ageing of the population. The lively discussion evolved around the situation of migrants from diverse backgrounds, ranging from EU and non-EU labor migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to migrants from other parts of the Netherlands. The discussion showed: the settlement of newcomers can lead to new opportunities, hopes and also challenges.

One of the central questions discussed was: how to facilitate newcomers’ participation in the local community, in order to strengthen livability in the municipality? The possibilities of municipalities to develop approaches to facilitate participation and wellbeing, differ for migrants of different legal statuses and backgrounds, as they are subject to very different national policies. This means that also locally the offers and perspectives for different newcomers differ.

Refugees in the Netherlands become resettled in all municipalities of the Netherlands, after receiving their residence permit. Municipalities are responsible for organizing housing and civic integration activities for refugees. This also leads to a variety of approaches in shrinking areas. They are developed by local governments, businesses and initiatives to foster integration and participation. One example is a meeting place and personal job coaching specifically aimed at women refugees. Some municipalities mention the challenge that refugee newcomers often move on after living in their municipalities for a short while. This could be because refugees are resettled in areas that they know little of, or far from their networks. But also the sparse employment and educational opportunities in shrinking municipalities in comparison to urban centres, is a deciding factor here. A challenge for shrinking municipalities is, thus, to also become an attractive economically.

Concerning the settlement of labour migrants, the participants noted the challenge to balance between welcoming labour migrants to pursue economic growth, and providing sufficient housing as well as facilitating labour migrants’ engagement and participation in the overall community. Labour migrants from the EU, who often work in the food industry and agriculture in rural areas, tend to stay temporarily or move back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. Therefore, long-term settlement is not always easy and not necessarily the priority. Moreover, there is little policy on national level to facilitate the process of settlement, and local policies are often made ad-hoc, to provide suitable housing to workers living in the municipalities.

Overall, maintaining social cohesion in the villages and stimulating participation between locals and newcomers were considered important topics. Mayors and councilors also see opportunities in the settlement of migrant newcomers in their municipalities, for instance for keeping schools and public services open, organising participation projects including sports or language exchanges, and finding ways to recognise the talents and experiences of the newcomers which can enrich the local community. We are looking forward to organize more exchanges between local and national policy makers, initiatives, businesses and civil society actors in the future.

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.