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.

Dutch Welcoming Spaces in Covid-19 times

3 June 2020

By Rianne Hadders, Jana Finke and Marlies Meier

The Covid-19 crisis highlights inequalities and the position of lower-skilled migrants in the Dutch society. For example, due to the crisis, the harsh living and working circumstances of many seasonal workers in the agricultural sector was highlighted in mainstream media. The workers union FNV called for attention as workers often are placed by their employment agency in holiday parks where they have to share rooms with multiple people. Keeping the 1.5 metres distance is impossible there. Various agencies were also fined because they were transporting the people in full buses to their employment site.

The effects of such circumstances are reflected in the findings by the Statistics Agency Netherlands (CBS). They found that migrant’s health is more at risk during the COVID-19 crisis. The death rate for people with migration background (second and first generation) within the first six weeks of the pandemic (until mid-April) was 50 percent higher than the expected death rate. For those without migrant background the rate was only 40 percent higher than expected. Possible explanations are the relatively high number of migrants working in professions that require contact or cannot be done from home, such as the aforementioned example. Other factors may be a lack of access to official information in a language they understand, and the wider spread of risk factors among migrant groups (e.g. diabetes).

The effects of covid-19 measures on asylum seekers and asylum processes

In the Netherlands, everyone is restricted in their mobility; people are asked to stay home as much as possible. However, it is allowed to go out for a walk and relax at the park. For people living in asylum seekers’ reception centres, the mobility is far more restricted and everyday more intensely affected by the restrictions. This is because asylum seeker accommodation (AZC) in the Netherlands mainly takes place on a large scale with many people living in one place. As contamination might happen easier due to the shared facilities and limited space per person, measures for them are even stricter than for the broader population.

For asylum seekers in particular, the impacts go beyond their living situation in the asylum centres. The Dutch immigration authorities halted all operations (the processing of asylum procedures) except for emergency ones. Those who intended to claim asylum during the Covid-19 crisis are provided with emergency accommodation, which is collective accommodation.

In the midst of halted and delayed admission processes two interesting exceptions can be observed, related to the interest of the Dutch society in the current crisis. Specifically, migrants working in the agricultural sector as well as migrants with a medical professional background receive special treatment. The Dutch farming sector depends to a large extend on the labour of seasonal workers from Eastern European countries. While at first the possibilities for workers to enter the Netherlands for the asparagus and strawberry harvest season seemed limited due to border closing and the cutting of transportation, access has in the end been allowed and suitable transport has been arranged widely so that hundreds of migrant workers could cross into the Netherlands’ fields. While the recognition procedure of diplomas for migrant medical professionals from countries like Syria and other non-EU countries is rather complicated and lengthy , it seems to become easier for doctors were not yet officially allowed to get to work, as the Covid-19 regulations that led to exemptions in the regulations. While there are still quite some requirements that have to be met, working under supervision of another registered doctor is possible for asylum seekers with a medical professional background who are still in the recognition procedure. Even some people who are still in their asylum request procedure were admitted to work in hospitals temporarily (COA).

Thus, in addition to the acute negative health impacts for migrants, some have speculated that this crisis underlines their importance to keep the economy afloat, which can lead to better treatment for those who are seen to be of immediate use for the economy. 

Responses in shrinking regions

At the moment it is difficult to identify how depopulating regions will be affected by the Corona virus. Projects that stimulate interactions between migrants and other inhabitants of these regions have been put on hold, and also meeting places (community centres) have been closed. However, some activities have successfully shifted to online support. Our students working on welcoming spaces in shrinking areas have also observed a shift in the functions of the welcoming initiatives. For example, an initiative in the Limburg region signaled that the migrants they were supporting did not understood the messages from the government and took up the task to translate all statements to Arabic and opened a helpline. Currently, they are hosting online language-cafes, but volunteers identified they mainly use these interactions to check on the wellbeing of the refugees in the current crisis.

Nevertheless, for many initiatives the Covid-19 crisis causes immediate financial problems, and their future is unsure. This implies that possibilities for interactions, casual encounters and meeting each other more in structured ways have become very limited. Migrants can be affected in negative ways, as their ties within the local community are often less strong; or they may be advantaged, as their online ties are stronger. Both hypotheses have been raised.

Additionally, some argue that the countryside is the future: less crowded, more (socially) cohesive, and potentially thriving with a renewed interests in local food production. Also living in lower densities is advantageous: currently the (predominantly rural and sparsely populated) North of the Netherlands is hardly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rural communities are believed to be more resilient in a lock down situation. Neighbors always have been more dependent on community care, as formal and commercial services are distanced or absent. Green space is nearby and accessible. Generally speaking, people living in rural (and shrinking) areas are less affected by a lockdown, than those living in urban areas.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash