Conference ‘Welcoming Europe’? Understanding Migration In The Context Of Global Ageing, Depopulation And Rural-Urban Transformation- 21 June 2024

Background:
Current discussions about the link between migration – ageing – depopulation often end in polarised debates about whether or not migration is ‘the’ solution – the contribution migrants can make to
‘filling gaps’ and/or the revitalisation of shrinking areas. There are however multiple paradoxes and dilemmas. Based on the outcomes of our H2020 Welcoming Spaces programme (2019-2024) and multiple UU-related research programmes we want to broaden the debate – unravel the connections between ageing – shrinkage and migration; and come with concrete suggestions for achieving ‘spatial justice’ and ‘leaving no one behind’.

Keynotes:
Helga de Valk, Director, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute
Tanja Bastia, Professor, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester

For more information and to register:
Conference: ‘Welcoming Europe’? Understanding migration in the context of global aging, depopulation and rural-urban transformation – News & Events – Utrecht University (uu.nl)

Activating the migration-development link in medium and small municipalities – H2020 Joint declaration

Five ideas for getting the most out of the Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (and for a better reception of refugees)

Joint declaration of the Horizon2020 project

Welcoming Spaces and Whole-COMM

April 2022

Since 2015, there has been a redistribution of asylum seekers throughout the country, even in the most peripheral areas. Specifically, territorially and economically most disadvantaged areas of the country are often those most capable of leveraging the arrival of refugees to start rethinking the future and investing in economic, social and cultural revitalization.

Yet these promising experiences have remained substantially isolated, at best awarded formal recognition as “good practices”, in a context where the link between welcoming migrants and territorial development of marginal areas has not been placed at the centre of any real national policy.

To counter this lack of attention, the researchers involved in two ongoing projects, all funded by the European Commission’s Horizon2020 program—Welcoming Spaces and Whole-COMM—want to unite their voices to emphasise the importance of some key principles for the creation of a stable and profitable link between the integration of migrants and the development of marginal areas. To prevent territorial and social exclusion from reinforcing one other, and starting from the kind of development that also leverages cultural and environmental dimensions, we believe that the following principles should be placed at the centre of a serious program of coordinated investments and interventions, from the local level to the national and European one.

  • Produce shared imaginaries of possible futures regarding migration and development of inland areas. Migration is often narrated as a problem, a crisis to be solved, while peripheral areas are often romanticised or trivialised by traditional media. Given that narratives on migration and inner areas can influence and are influenced by policies, it is necessary to co-construct a “third imaginary” to bring out the link between migration and development, with space for cultural diversity and a clearly defined added value for territories and communities. The various welcome initiatives present in some peripheral Italian areas are already working in this sense (e.g.: photographic exhibitions and public seminars, street art contests, summer schools, collaborations with local and national newspapers, blogs, theatrical performances, documentaries, etc.).
  • Support development for the benefit of all. The development of inner areas should be considered in an integrated way, combining the dimension of socio-cultural well-being with the environmental, economic and political dimensions. From this perspective, it is necessary to take charge of the needs and aspirations of all the people who are part of the new intercultural communities present in the inner areas, in order to preserve their dynamism and development. It is essential to overcome the shared vulnerabilities of the residents. This means ensuring a good quality of life through the consolidation of local networks and social infrastructure and access to public services, housing and decent employment opportunities.
  • Support a participatory and inclusive (whole-of-community) approach to the integration of migrants and local development. The development of inner areas and the creation of positive relationships with migrants must necessarily involve the whole community, and the multiplicity of voices and organisations that characterise it: the local administration, civil society associations, businesses, individual native citizens and migrants. It is only through mutual knowledge and dialogue that it is possible to build cohesive communities of which everyone feels a part, where hospitality and integration are not a burden but a chance to imagine and build new opportunities for economic and social development.
  • Think about local development and the integration of migrants starting from the relationship between rural and urban areas. Local development and the inclusion of newcomers in peripheral areas cannot be thought of as isolated and impermeable to the dynamics of urban centres, which represent relevant poles of the labour market and services. The relationships between urban and rural areas consist of material and immaterial flows: people, economic resources, information, skills and practices are all elements that make up this relationship. An example of this is the food chain, where many migrants are employed and where the dynamics of large-scale distribution often generate negative effects on producers and workers, as well as on the environment. The joint strategic planning between rural and mountain areas of these flows is therefore indispensable to guarantee spatial and social justice and to promote sustainable development.
  • Establish decision-making bodies that connect the different levels of government and also involve medium and small municipalities. The smaller municipalities are often excluded from decision-making processes which nevertheless have a decisive impact on their territories. Interventions capable of supporting local development and the integration of migrants in major urban centres may be unsuitable for rural and mountain contexts, characterised by different needs and resources. At the same time, Regional and central governments, even if they want to, do not have effective tools at their disposal to keep in touch with these areas and closely follow their transformations. It is therefore essential to develop stable institutional mechanisms that allow for continuous, and not just occasional, exchange between levels of government and facilitate the involvement of smaller municipalities.

These could become inspiring principles for an adjustment of the Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which so far has underestimated the very real danger of ethnic and territorial disadvantages reinforcing each other. By putting these principles into practice, it may be possible to counter the risk of proposing standard solutions in the face of very heterogeneous paths of both the territories and the migrants, or the danger of draining funds through calls for projects that fails to connect individual initiatives to an organic, medium-long term strategic planning framework. With an eye to the immediate horizon, these same principles could guide us in managing the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, so that reception becomes a tool for pursuing lasting processes of economic, social and institutional innovation.

The battles of Riace: A town torn between immigration and emigration

By Ester Driel (Utrecht University)

What can we learn from Riace, a ‘ghost town’ that revived socio-economically by hosting refugees, despite being located in a poor region mainly known for the ‘nDrangetha mafia? Is it possible to revitalize shrinking European areas while also offering a home to refugees? And also, what have been the consequences of the way in which the so-called ‘Riace model’ was dismantled and from the recent sentence against its pro-migration mayor Lucano, convicted to 13 years of prison? 

How it all started

In 1998, long before the so-called European ‘refugee crises’, 300 Kurdish refugees landed on Riace’s coast. In the absence of a formal national reception system for refugees that only got established years later, the Kurdish newcomers spontaneously received help from local volunteers. For weeks, youngsters were busy collecting mattresses and warm clothes to keep everyone warm,  while the older inhabitants cooked meals to ensure no one went to bed hungry. Temporarily, the refugees were hosted by locals or provided with shelter in the old local sanctuary of San Cosimo and Damiano.

One year after the arrival of this first boat, a group of young locals led by Domenico Lucano, who would later become Riace’s mayor, founded the NGO Città Futura Puglisi, named after a Sicilian priest who was murdered by the mafia. Together with the municipality, they developed an innovative settlement program for refugees, the so-called ‘Riace model’ that combined the reception of refugees with the revival of the local community. Various initiatives were started by local Italians and refugees together, such as the ‘laboratori’ (workshops) to revitalize local ancient crafts, the sustainable agricultural projects, and the restoration of the old town.

A local refugee of Riace working in the ceramics workshop, by now forcedly closed down. Photo by Ester Driel.

The main goal was to create a different socio-economic environment characterized by welcoming refugees and by actively combatting the exploitation and exclusion of migrants, which unfortunately were standard practices in the region. Riace’s refugees also perceived the town as a place where they were received with warmth and hospitality and had the opportunity to pursue a normal and dignified life. Also, their experiences in Riace stood in sharp contrast to the overcrowded asylum centers and to the exploitation and discrimination that they faced elsewhere in Europe:

“I got shot in Catanzaro – it was a hate crime, possibly fueled by the mafia. But after this incident “il sindaco” (the mayor), opened his heart to me, took me into his village and offered me this nice job. I never experienced racism here” (T., male, refugee, construction worker for Città Futura)

The story of Riace led to large international media attention, such as films, documentaries, and academic publications, and in 2016 mayor Lucano even got listed in Fortune magazine as one of the worlds’ 50 greatest leaders. Moreover, many other towns copied the Riace model, which also inspired the foundation of a national system that financially supported such initiatives. But, unfortunately, this success also incited intimidation and violence by people who tried to maintain the old power balance, often affiliated with the ‘Ndrangetha mafia. The last violent attack in Riace took place in 2009 when members of the ‘Ndrangetha attempted to shoot the mayor through the glass door of Riace’s solidarity restaurant, where he was having dinner. Despite such intimidations, the mayor continued running the associations and the program that further expanded until 2018.

From emigration to population growth

Like many other shrinking, rural European regions, Calabria suffered from waves of emigration[1]. Firstly, many people left for America between the Italian unification in 1861 and the Great Depression of the 1930s after World Wars I and II. The emigration peaked again in the 1960s and ‘70s when many moved to Northern Italy during the industrial boom. Due to poverty, a corrupted political system, and the traditional power of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, Calabria remains an undeveloped area with high unemployment and an aging population, pushing the emigration crisis to continue nowadays. 

In this context, the Riace-model is exceptional, as it demonstrated that the reception of refugees could turn the tide for a dying town. In only a few years, the local school reopened. Businesses flourished again thanks to refugees who were both customers and employees. The population even grew again from about 1.600 in 2001 to over 2.300 in 2016. In this period, on average, about 400 to 500 refugees resided in Riace. The rest of the population growth was because the new young generation was able to stay in Riace to work in the refugee projects instead of feeling forced to emigrate. For example, a young inhabitant who lived in many countries for work but came back to Riace and worked in a refugee project explained:

“I travelled the world, and realized that Riace really is not a bad, or actually even a very good and special place – compared to other cities. A small town, that serves as an example of hospitality towards migrants, of different ways to create a social and fair economy” (V., male inhabitant, 28)

Interestingly, the changing social climate, the decreasing power of mafia related-forces, and the improved socio-economic conditions in town also inspired older emigrants to come back. One of them (a young social worker) vividly remembered the story of his father who was forced to leave Riace ‘back in the old days, but who by now had safely returned to his family in Riace:

“..back in the days, my father did a “job” for them [referring to the local mafia]. A ‘capo’ (local boss) approached him, because the word was on the street that my father, back then a healthy young man, could be of help with the escape of an important clan member. After this ‘success’, the mafia approached my father again, but he did not want get caught up in that world. Therefore, he joined friends in Northern Europe to find work there, where he stayed for years..”

Is there a future for the ‘Riace-model’?

Despite the success stories above, the tide seems to have turned for Riace. Nowadays, the fight against Riace’s approach seems to have shifted from violent ‘Ndrangheta in the early 2000s to the legal and bureaucratic arena. The appointment of the far-right minister of the interior, Salvini, resulted in Italy’s more restrictive migration and integration policies. The government abolished the scholarship that allowed refugees to work under Decree Law 113/2018 and replaced a national system that financially supported all asylum seekers with a system that merely offers financial support to recognized refugees. Additionally, a legal process – that is considered by many a political process –  was started against the pro-migration mayor Domenico Lucano.

On September 30, Riace’s former mayor and current NGO-leader Domenico Lucano was sentenced to over 13 years in prison for abetting illegal migration and for ‘irregularities’ in the management of asylum seekers. In addition, he has to pay a fine of 700.000 euro. An example of the ‘crimes’ of Lucano is that he aimed to help a Nigerian woman, who had been forced into sex work, to marry a local Italian man to prevent her from being exploited. He was sentenced with 25 other locals, such as social workers and project leaders who, in the midst of Europe’s refugee crises, gave all their time and energy to help the many refugees that were sent to Riace by the Prefect, often on a voluntary base due to the delay of public funding.

At the 60th anniversary of the famous ‘Peace Walk’ from Perugia to Assisi on October 10, 2021, many people took banners to express their solidarity with Domenico Lucano. Photos by Gianluca Palma.

This sentence was received with much upheaval and sparked protests in cities across Italy, as it was twice as long as requested by the prosecutors and because other criminals that include murderers received lower sentences, such as the man who beat the young Nigerian Emmanuel Chidi Namdi to death in 2018 and got only four years of house arrest. Moreover, the supreme court of cassation, the highest court of appeal in Italy, previously dismissed all the charges in a 2018 case against Lucano by the Guardia di Finanzia, and even referred to them as “crimes committed for morally appreciable purposes”.  

Though this previous decision by the highest court of appeal makes some Italian experts hopeful about the appeal of the current sentence, the damage to Riace’s reception program has already been done. The town is rapidly on its way to change from being a village of immigration and an example of hospitality to becoming a ghost town once again. The number of refugees has dropped significantly, and local Italians who worked in the refugee projects have lost their jobs and emigrated to search for work elsewhere. As a result, the total number of inhabitants in the municipality declined from 2,313 in 2017 to 1,869 in 2021.      

However, what gives hope is that the socio-economic revitalization of Riace and similar towns has inspired an increasing number of other shrinking European communities to initiate programs for refugees. The social composition of these shrinking communities is often quite similar to Riace, and they struggle with similar challenges. Therefore the lessons learned in the development of the Riace-model can give them crucial guidance. For now, let’s hope that we continue to remember and live the values which the people of Riace taught to the world. The Riace-model showed us that hospitality and solidarity towards those in need and sustainable local development can go hand in hand and that migration is not a threat to “fortress Europe”.


[1] Borzomati, P. (1982). L’Emigrazione calabrese dall’Unità ad oggi: atti del II Convegno di studio della Deputazione di Storia Patria per la Calabria, Polistena 6-7, Rogliano 8 dicembre 1980. Centro studi emigrazione.

A bright start for the International PhD School on Migration and Socioecological Change

How to contribute to the fair and sustainable development of European localities other than large metropolis while at the same time offering a welcoming space for non-EU migrants to pursue their life projects?

This is the question driving the International PhD School on Migration and Socioecological Change organized by Utrecht University´s Focus Area on Migration & Societal Change and 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.

The PhD School runs on a collaborative, interactive and transdisciplinary methodology which allows for PhD researchers to discuss their research plans and especially their ongoing outcomes with fellow PhD researchers, more senior scholars and non-academic experts and practitioners. The School kicked off last March 9 with an online “Intro Day” with the 17 registered PhD researchers from 11 countries. On March 12, the “Open Day” of PhD School gathered 8 speakers around two online roundtables with 57 participants. The main part of the PhD School involves a one week-long workshop in Soria (Spain) tentatively scheduled for the last week of September.

The PhD School is coordinated by Dr. Alberto Alonso-Fradejas from SGPL´s IDS group, and includes Dr. Bianca Szytniewski and Dr. Marlies Meijer from SGPL´s Geography & Education and Spatial Planning groups, respectively, among the members of the international facilitation team.

Powerful women-led organisations in shrinking regions

by 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 shows 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.