Reflections on the consequences of Covid-19 pandemic on shrinking areas in Italy

31 May 2020

University of Bologna

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought new attention and new conceptual and practical challenges for Italian shrinking regions. The pandemic stages an imaginary polarisation between a city suddenly demonised as a place of settlement density and excessively compressed sociality and an idyllic vision of rural areas, suddenly relaunched as romantic, healthy, and safe places to live. However, as Chiodelli points out, it is necessary first to verify whether residential density is a problem. The data currently available do not clearly confirm this. In fact, also areas characterised by residential dispersion can be highly affected by Covid-19 emergency.

Furthermore, even if we embrace the idea of a possible “urban shrinkage”, rural areas are still characterised by too many limits, from inaccessibility, to the lack of essential services and jobs, often combined with  poor infrastructures and limited technological connections. These points are even more important if we think that in Italy these rural territories represent a quantitatively non-marginal area. In these areas, 23% of the Italian population settle, covering a large area of the national territory, equal to 60% and about half of its almost 8,057 municipalities. In this context, the impending crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic reopens a debate already existing in Italy, offering new opportunities for revitalisation of “old” problems.

In particular, Covid-19 crisis has boosted the reflection on shrinking areas on a double level.

The first level refers to the narratives and the representation of internal areas, gaining a renovated place in mediatic and political discourses. In Italy, a turning point is represented by a newspaper article where the archistar Stefano Boeri, famous for the “Vertical Forest” project in Milan, suggested to consider small villages as central places for our future. This article led to further public discussions, such as the online event “Riabitare i Piccoli Borghi” (“Re-Inhabit Small Villages”), where academics, writers, civil society organizations, mayors and experts in local development, discussed together on the future of internal areas, while considering the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for shrinking regions. Similar debates are supported by the Association “Dislivelli”, which dedicated its last publication to the topic of Covid-19 pandemic and Italian mountain areas.

Moreover, public discourses are now re-framing certain characteristics of internal areas, transforming them from limits to opportunities. It is, for example, the case of the possibility to work in isolated contexts, such as in the agricultural and pastoral sector, among the few productive fields that did not stop due to the coronavirus outbreak. Or the case of the very interesting discussions about the reconfiguration of the public health system through what is called “a community-centered care” approach.

The second level refers to policies and concrete projects that have been supported since the pandemic scenario was wide-spreading. Through the development of bottom-up initiatives, for instance, rural areas are showing different signs of active resistance (and resilience). An example concerns the “cooperativa di comunità di Biccari” (Biccari community cooperative), that has activated a voluntary service of home delivery for the elderly and lonely people. An experience that shows the importance of social capital and solidarity in shrinking regions, also confirmed by the fact that this exchange is not based on money but on mutual trust. Similar initiatives are developing in different Italian villages, confirming that Covid-19 emergency is (also) a tool to activate solidarity and reflect on replicable models, even considering the differences related to specific local contexts.

Among some of the numerous initiatives promoted by public institutions, we report the recent call launched by the region Emilia-Romagna to sustain with 10 million euros a total of 119 municipalities, and in particular those individuals or families who intend to buy or renovate a real estate in the Apennines area. Another interesting initiative was promoted by the Ministry for Culture and Tourism, which is supporting non-repayable financing for the re-development and renovation of the historic centers of municipalities with less than 10.000 inhabitants in the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily.

Numerous initiatives aim to sustain forms of local and sustainable development through the support of slow and responsible tourism.

Indeed, as Covid-19 has highly impacted on the mobility of people, restraining international tourism flows – both in terms of incoming and outcoming –, tourism destinations within national borders are gaining a renovated political and entrepreneurial attention. In this scenario, tourism in internal areas is not only seen as a possibility for tourists to enjoy alternative leisure experiences far from the crowded – and, therefore, “dangerous” – urban centers, but also as a viable and sustainable strategy for endogenous development of shrinking regions. This idea is supported by initiatives such as the replacement of the “tourist tax” with the “tourist award”, a creative idea promoted by the mayor of Valle dell’Angelo, the smallest municipalities in Campania.

Supporting sustainable tourism and agriculture is, instead, the aim of the call launched by Regione Puglia to sustain start-ups that provide innovative services for the sustainable use of rural and coastal areas in the territory of Alto Salento. However, as many experts suggest, tourism cannot be considered the only strategy to boost local development of internal areas. First of all, because of the risk of a “tourism monoculture”, namely the risk that the development of these areas starts to depend on a highly unpredictable sector such is tourism. Secondly, because tourism, if not developed through a responsible approach, has often showed its “dark sides” (e.g., pollution, social/cultural conflicts, unequal access to resources, etc.). It is therefore necessary to consider as a priority the needs of local inhabitants, promoting their active participation in decision-making processes. Thirdly, shrinking areas urge systematic interventions to respond to a fragile situation in terms of lack of services, jobs and infrastructures.

To conclude, the COVID-19 outbreak is leading both to new challenges and opportunities for shrinking regions. Surely, it can represent a reflexive node to understand better the mechanisms at the basis of territorial inequalities and exclusion, but, at the same time, the processes of successful revitalisation through inclusive and sustainable development.

The changing situation of migrants and refugees as a result of “freezing the Polish economy”

12 June 2020

Katarzyna Kubińska (Ocalenie Foundation)

The situation of non-EU migrants in Poland has been affected in different ways through COVID-19 epidemic. Migrants working in the service sector face unemployment, there is limited access to public social assistance (access varies depending on their legal status of the migrant) and also delays in access to legal support have impact on the living conditions of migrants.  

Economic challenges

It is estimated that there are about 1 million migrants in Poland. Most of them are labour force from Ukraine, but there was also a growing number of Belarusians, Moldovans, Georgians, Indians, and Nepalese. In mid-March, the Polish government ordered the closure of all sales and services outlets, except for pharmacies and grocery stores. As a result, thousands of migrants lost their work and the right to social assistance. About 150,000 Ukrainians left Poland in March, which is about 10% of the entire Ukrainian community in Poland. There is no data on how many of them lived in Warsaw. It is also difficult to estimate how many people of other nationalities have left. For many of them leaving for their home countries became impossible due to the suspension of international flights.

One of the examples can be found in the Georgian community. Many Georgians came to Poland on the basis of visa-free travel and, after their period of legal stay expired, they could not legalise their stay and had to work without a work permit. Many people in this situation were employed in Georgian restaurants, popular in Poland. After the economy “froze”, many of them were dismissed immediately, sometimes without getting paid and without any legal basis to claim their rights. Their return to Georgia was not always possible. The Georgian government organised a return plane, but it turned out that the number of seats was insufficient for all interested and the prices exceeded the financial capabilities of those in crisis.

Difficult situation of asylum-seekers

Asylum-seekers who decide to live outside foreigners’ centres receive financial aid, but the money is not enough to cover the cost of living in Warsaw (the aid is less than an average monthly cost of renting a single room). Asylum-seekers have the right to apply for a work permit after 6 months from their application (unless they receive the decision earlier), and most of them find at least part-time employment. When this group of foreigners lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the Foreigners’ Office suggested they should return to the centres. However, the centre where the Warsaw based asylum-seeker could return to is several hundred kilometres away from their current location. Asylum-seeker families in Warsaw do not want to return to these centres, because their children would have to change school. In addition, after restrictions are lifted, these families would like to return to Warsaw. Moving back to a centre would mean looking for a flat, work, and school in Warsaw again. The Ocalenie Foundation has stepped in to support migrants through food aid, 391 people in Warsaw with food coupons or food.  

Łomża: Urban area within a shrinking region

The situation of migrants living in Łomża, which is situated in a shrinking region in North-East Poland, is different and to some extent better. Almost all clients of the Ocalenie Foundation are refugees (about 60 families). Only few have lost their right to social assistance for various reasons. As Łomża does not have such a well-developed service sector, which was most affected by the lockdown, people did not lose their jobs as was the case in Warsaw. Migrants working in Łomża usually work in the construction and transport sectors, which have suffered less from the freezing of the economy. Due to the fact that the cost of living in Łomża is much lower, loss of jobs or reduced income have not led to such extreme situations as in Warsaw. The only families who have found themselves in a critical situation are those who have lost their right to social benefits and work due to protracted procedures, delayed court cases or other legal causes.

Poor legal support for refugees

Already before the lockdown, legal assistance to deportees was restricted by physical and administrative barriers and those marked as deportee were taken to an airport or locked in a guarded centre without prior notice. Contact with a lawyer was impeded. Now, the situation has become even more difficult, because the restrictions on contact with a lawyer are explained through epidemiological regulations. The legal situation of people who before the epidemic applied for the extension of their residence card has also become complicated, as border guards in charge of the applications decided that there are reasons to refuse further residence. Their cases must be considered by a court, and from mid-March courts proceed at a slower pace and postpone many cases. This means that some refugees live in a legal vacuum. Their stay permits in Poland are no longer valid, they have lost ability to take up legal work, and they fear deportation.

COVID-19 and the situation of migrants in Poland: Challenges in home schooling and the work situation

By Ewa Jastrzębska and Paulina Legutko-Kobus (SGH Warsaw School of Economics)

In his position dated 13 May 2020, the Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects did do not affect everyone equally. Regularly excluded persons and groups, including refugees and immigrants, are particularly exposed to the consequences of pandemic-related restrictions, such as closed borders and the inability to apply for international protection. In the case of Poland, we see challenges for migrants in home schooling and in the work situation.

One of the areas of exclusion of foreigners, especially children, is home (remote) schooling (which started in Poland on 25 March). Access to home schooling is hindered for children staying in foreigner centers, guarded facilities and those applying for international protection. The main challenge, especially shortly after switching to distance learning, was the lack of computer hardware and equipment for video and audio communication with the teacher. The situation has improved over time owing to citizens’ campaigns and not as a result of systemic solutions. The pandemic has also prevented a significant number of foreign children from participating in extra Polish language classes provided for in the relevant regulations (this is partly managed by cultural assistants, most often volunteers from community or civil society organisations). The deepening of the educational gap among foreign children is also attributed to the lack of or inadequate support from their parents in home schooling. The possible reasons are:

1) the lack of ICT skills and competences (moreover, online communication tools provided by teachers are only in Polish),

2) language barrier: parents do not speak Polish well enough to support their children’s remote education. Parents’ digital exclusion and insufficient conduct of the Polish language also translate into the lack of communication with teachers.

Another challenging area for migrants during the pandemic is the situation on the labour market (especially since many of them operate in the shadow economy, and obtaining work permits during the pandemic is much more difficult).

In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the government announced the freezing of the economy and the sealing of state borders, migrants, especially Ukrainians working in Poland, started to leave the country in great numbers. Reasons for leaving Poland were the loss of a job, uncertain future, and vague and unclear communication and information from the government (including the lack of information in languages other than Polish at the beginning of the lock down) coinciding with unclear government messages from Kiev.

It is common property that the “defrosting” of the economy without migrants returning will not go smoothly (about 90% of Ukrainians who left Poland after the lockdown work in catering, services, and the hospitality industry). This is already evident in the agricultural sector which is lacking workforce. For this reason, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Chief Sanitary Inspector issued Guidelines for Agricultural Producers Employing Foreigners for Seasonal Work in the Face of SARS COV-2 (Warsaw, 8 May 2020).

Entrepreneurs are encouraged to get acquainted with the document by the IRIS Ethical Recruitment, COVID-19: Guidance for employers and business to enhance migrant worker protection during the current health crisis. The Responsible Business Forum, a renowned organisation promoting the subject of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), has also drawn up guidelines on how business can support employees from Ukraine.

In a sociological study conducted on 9-15 April, foreign employees, who stayed in Poland for the period of the pandemic, clearly respond (85% of respondents) that they prefer to stay in Poland because of their earnings and work opportunities. 26.6% of them admit that they were forced to change their sector of employment because of the pandemic. The surveyed foreigners feel safer in Poland than in their own country (72.5%) and, just like Poles, they are mostly concerned about losing their job due to the COVID-19 pandemic (57.8%).

In conclusion, the situation in the country is dynamic and it is worth waiting for further government decisions regarding restrictions on mobility, especially considering the important role of foreigners (e.g., from Ukraine) for the domestic labour market.

Kick-off meeting 5-6 March 2020

In the last week before the corona virus constrained our mobility, the WELCOMING SPACES team came together to celebrate the start of the research project. Just in time, the researchers from Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain came to the Netherlands to discuss the programme of the four forthcoming years. The WELCOMING SPACES team looks back on an inspiring kick-off, where interesting discussions followed the presentation of the partners and engagement with Dutch stakeholders. Hereby, we would like to thank you all for your contributions! Check out our newsletter here.