Learning in and from a marginalized-but-welcoming Europe

By Alberto Alonso-Fradejas (Utrecht University)

How to contribute to just and sustainable futures in depopulating and socioeconomically marginalised European localities, while at the same time offering a ´welcoming space´ for non-EU migrants to pursue their life projects? It was with this question in the back of our minds and the thrill of meeting face to face that we travelled to Soria, Spain, during the last week of September 2021 for the on-site phase of the International PhD School on Migration and Socioecological Change.

We were a crew from thirteen different countries in Europe and beyond, including eighteen PhD researchers, nine instructors, three babies and the same number of lovingly baby-sitting fathers. The PhD School was sponsored by Utrecht University´s Focus Area on Migration & Societal Change and organized by the International Development Studies Group of the Human Geography and Spatial Planning Department at the Faculty of Geosciences, in collaboration with the partners of the Welcoming Spaces Consortium.

After two previous online sessions, the intensive week-long programme of the PhD school in Soria run on a learning by doing methodology that combined conceptual-methodological discussions with field visits. There were lectures, peer-review sessions, walk-shops, and a “methods fest” including workshops on aesthetic and visual methodologies, participatory action research, intercultural competences and diversity, and a framework for the analysis of multi-dynamic politics of migration and socioecological change. But special attention was devoted to the participants´ hands-on experience on the complexities behind the “emplacement”[1] of migrant newcomers and older residents in demographically shrinking and socioeconomically marginalized small and mid-sized towns in Europe. To this end, our colleagues from Cepaim Foundation and the University of Valladolid welcomed us in such a unique region for the PhD School purposes as Soria. With a distinct blend of Celtiberian, Roman and Arabic historical traits, Soria city and the towns and landscapes part of the province with the same name show a great deal of cultural and natural wealth. However, Soria was left behind the Spanish industrial bandwagon of the Twentieth Century to fall into a downward spiral of socioeconomic marginalization and depopulation. With less than two inhabitants per square kilometre Soria is known today as the ´Lapland of the South´, in direct reference to the sparsely populated Finnish territory in the Artic circle, and stands at the core of the so-called ´Emptied Spain´.

A walk through the challenging ´new trails´ of an ancient region

Residents, civil society organizations, and local and regional governments in Soria are joining forces to fight back shrinkage and marginalization through a diversity of (re)development efforts. These include  initiatives to attract and facilitate the settlement of new residents. A particularly interesting initiative on this regard is led by PhD School host and Welcoming Spaces consortium member Cepaim Foundation. Since 2006, Cepaim´s “Nuevos Senderos” (New Trails) project promotes the professional and social participation of migrant families in shrinking areas. As expected, this is easier said than done and these pathbreaking sociocultural ´new trails´ are anything but smooth. The PhD School participants had the opportunity to ´walk´ these new trails and discuss the challenges and opportunities for migrant settlement and area development with representatives from local governments, educational and environmental institutions, and civil society organizations in the Sorian towns of Yanguas and San Esteban de Gormaz.

With less than 100 residents and sitting at more than 1,100 metres above sea level, Yanguas is a well-preserved medieval town that was declared a National Historic-Artistic Site in 1993. It also features in the list of ´the most beautiful towns in Spain´. For more than a decade now, the Municipality of Yanguas has been running a decent housing & employment programme to attract new residents. As a result, a few migrants from other areas of Spain as well as from Argentina, Ecuador, Morocco and Romania have settled in Yanguas. This has helped to keep the village alive and to re-open the primary school. But as our informants explained to us, nine out of ten newcomers end up leaving shortly after arrival. They felt this was due to the lack of amenities and the difficult access to education, health and other social services in a town which is some 48 kilometres away from Soria city.

With Yanguas´ deputy mayor in front of Santa Maria´s church. Source: PhD School participants.

Meeting with residents and municipality representatives at Yanguas´ castle. Source: PhD School participants.

Despite being 20 kilometres further than Yanguas from Soria city, San Esteban de Gormaz is home to a bit more than 3,000 residents. The town combines its medieval architecture and unique Romanic churches with a wide range of social services. But it also enjoys a favourable geographical location at 850 metres above sea level and along the fertile banks of the Duero river. This allows for the production of high-quality Ribera del Duero wines. In fact, the PhD School participants who were up to it had the chance to taste San Esteban´s wine. This was thanks to the hospitality of the local government and of 78-year-old Don Pablo who kindly invited us to visit his traditional underground winery and taste the wine he makes there. In San Esteban, the municipality and civil society organizations behind the EU´s LEADER programme Local Action Group (LAG) have been implementing a participatory local development plan in recent years. As a result, San Esteban´s mayor argued that they now offer high school, vocational and adult education services, managed to build two public sports centers, and are home to a district-level healthcare facility and fifteen commercial wineries. This has also attracted new residents from other parts of Spain, Europe, Africa and Latin America, and helped others to remain in town.

However, our hosts also explained to us the complex challenges their local development plan faces. For instance, San Esteban is at pains to keep its wide range of social services running due to the lack of professionals willing to settle there. There is also a lack of housing for migrants interested to work in the wineries and other agricultural ventures. And San Esteban´s benefit package to investors, including cheap land and soil tax waivers, cannot compete with similar ones offered in more vibrant and relatively close areas like Madrid. Moreover, there is still a long way to go for migrant newcomers from other cultural and religious backgrounds to feel at home in San Esteban. During our visit to the adult education centre we had the chance to hold a conversation with two Moroccan and one Algerian women who enrolled in a Spanish language course. Whereas they made an overall positive assessment of their live in San Esteban, they still miss a madrasa for their children to learn Arabic.

With Don Pablo at his traditional underground winery in San Esteban. Source: PhD School participants.

A nurturing learning experience that deserves a follow-up

In Yanguas and San Esteban de Gormaz, two extremely different places with common histories and current challenges, the PhD School participants were confronted with some of the many and diverse ups and downs in the new trails towards the socially-just and environmentally-sound emplacement of migrant newcomers and older residents of the Emptied Spain. But we were also witnesses to the eagerness of all Sorian residents to address these wicked problems and to the high stake these issues have in the political agenda. The PhD School in Soria enjoyed the support and attention from multiple actors, including from the regional public news channel.  

It was precisely the warm welcoming the School received, together with the unmatched commitment, hard work and positive attitude of the PhD researchers, facilitators and hosts, that made of the PhD School a highly nurturing experience in scholarly, societal and personal terms. To be continued! 

[1] For Glick Schiller and Çağlar (2016, p. 21), “emplacement can usefully be definedas the social processes through which a dispossessed individual builds or rebuilds networks of connection within the constraints and opportunities of a specific city”.