A reflection: What is a newcomer?

By Jofelle P. Tesorio

For someone who has moved places, whether from Utrecht to Harlingen, or from Damascus to Arnhem, perspectives can be different. Are newcomers the only ones who need to adjust to the new cultures, new people, new environment, or should it be a two-way, perhaps a circular process? Newcomers could also mean new inspirations and new ways of thinking.

Sometime in July, in the beautiful city of Nijmegen, our Welcoming Spaces group collaborated with Samenwerkingsverband Burgerkracht Europa (SBE) to organize a symposium unpacking the question ‘who is a newcomer?’ where around 150 professionals and residents from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany came to discuss how, with mutual effort, everyone can shape the embedding of newcomers in the community in a positive way.

As countries with shared borders, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are often confronted with similar issues, and in many cases, coordinating, sharing experiences and knowledge help unpack the issues and identify best practices. Like other countries in Europe, dealing with newcomers is one of most pressing issues in the last years. How do newcomers see themselves into our communities? How can they best integrate or is ‘integration’ (‘integreren’ or ‘inburgeren’ in Dutch) the right word to use? As Wahabou Alidou, the coordinator of a citizen-led initiative for newcomers Colourful Het Hogeland, said, community members should ‘outegrate’ (‘uitburgeren’) to also learn from newcomers. The theme collaborating with newcomers is not a new concept but in the wake of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, this is timely to revisit and put into perspective. What can newcomers do to become part of the society, and what can communities do to ensure that they feel welcome? There are many similarities but also significant differences, in which we can learn from each other.

Telling stories and perspectives on once being newcomers and now part of the society. (Photo: Jofelle Tesorio/Welcoming Spaces)

Participants with migrant backgrounds engaged in a conversation wherein they were asked: Are you still a newcomer if you have been living in the country for 20 years? How do you manage to be part of the community? For them, there were no standard answers but common to their experiences was the need to connect with people, the community and to be able to feel that they were welcome.

“I always say to them, you survived, you are safe here and it is also genuinely nice to also show your gratitude by giving something back to the society where  you  are,” said Farisa from Arnhem. She added that while there is talk about conforming, the best way to collaborate with newcomers is not to be in front or behind them but beside them. “They will soon be able to find their own place in the future.”

Farhad, who volunteers at a reception center, said residents need to connect. “I told them you have to work, volunteer, no matter what it is…so you can make contact.”

The bright side

Welcoming spaces and initiatives are the bright side that are often invisible, says Prof. Dr. Zoomers. (Photo: Jofelle Tesorio/Welcoming Spaces)

The bright side, according to Prof. Dr. Zoomers, is that there are existing examples of ‘welcoming spaces’, but often remain invisible and dispersed in various European regions, which play a very important role in the reception of newcomers, but also  in working together with the newcomers.  She stressed that newcomers can really make a difference. “Thanks to the arrival of these migrants, schools  can remain, a hotel  can be reopened, shops  are opened, the industry  is  kept  afloat…” Explaining the outcome of the project, she stressed the harmonious relationship built around citizen and migrants-led welcoming initiatives, which are also often supported by NGOs and mayors. “I am very much convinced that mayors can really make an enormous difference. It is not hard for us to show this, and it is possible.”

While looking at this bright side, Welcoming Spaces is also gradually finding out about the number of restrictions for newcomers, which have to do with policies. Many migrants in general are not in preferred locations. “We can describe in many cases how harmoniously people work in small   locations and seem to keep  small  communities  afloat, but if  you put it from the perspective of newcomers themselves, their development opportunities are often  very limited.” She also posed a question on the distinction of newcomers from the point of view where they come from, which becomes ‘stigmatizing’. “In the end it does not help us build a bridge. If we do not talk about where people come from… If we manage to  fuel the debate  and  ask for more. What are you  going to do here? What contribution do you want to make? Then you get a completely different discussion.”

Newcomer policies: Belgian, Dutch, and German perspectives

While all three countries operate within the European asylum policy, there are also different perspectives, principles and realities.

Mayor Kees van Rooij of Meierijstad notes that we need to be aware it is a balancing act. At community level, people might be receptive of policies on integration and welcoming initiatives but he is also often told “our children also want a roof”, not just newcomers. “In all those discussions, you’re already trying to manage each other, in such a way that  you want to keep  some support, but also at the same time try to give  perhaps even an extra impulse for all those starters and all those young people  who also want  a home…”

In the Netherlands, the discussion is mainly on the shortage of collective places for asylum seekers and some are situated in municipalities where many people are against large shelters being built near them.

For Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Nicole De Moor it is also finding a balance.  “I try every   day  to  work  on a better migration policy, a  fair  migration policy, a  policy  whereby  we can protect people  fleeing from war or persecution… as well as for  people  who may  not  be  fleeing the war, but who want to come to   Europe  to  work or to study.”

According to her, there are many different channels, but there are also  many  challenges  that   come with it. The past few years have been ‘historic’ and particularly challenging year, she said, because of people fleeing from war  and  persecution  from  different  countries, including the Ukrainians.

She is in constant communication and meetings with her counterpart to learn and improve the Belgian system, for example in asylum reception and integration. Now, the federal government is in favor of voluntary asylum centers. They have about a hundred collective centers spread over different municipalities and local shelter initiatives, which are managed by municipalities on a voluntary basis. “These are municipalities that actually take over the task of federal asylum reception and often receive asylum seekers in many small-scale or individual homes.”  She said that they encourage local reception initiatives because those places are important for specific target groups of asylum seekers, people who may find it more difficult to join a collective center and “they are much better for integration”.

Workshops and ways of moving together

After the opening plenary, 14 interactive workshops followed. Based on concrete initiatives by residents, municipalities/governments and civil society organisations in Belgian-German-Dutch rural regions, the participants discussed specific themes in relation to newcomers. During the workshops and during breaks, the participants gathered suggestions for ways to look at collaborating with newcomers differently, creatively and good practices, which were discussed in the closing panel.

Listening and learning from each other. (Photo: Jofelle Tesorio/Welcoming Spaces)

Throughout the panels and breakout workshops, participants listened, shared experiences, and critically analysed various aspects of the theme. The following are the ideas for recommendations from the participants:

A. Collaborating with newcomers

  • Approach the newcomer by not asking where he/she came from
  • Talk to newcomers and not about newcomers; involve them more
  • Make the encounter easier by thinking along about possibilities
  • More newcomers are needed to use their experiences in the inclusion processes at support organisations
  • Have newcomer guides as coordinators and process supervisors
  • Introduce reciprocity for newcomers; think about volunteering
  • Build self-confidence and language skills through the active involvement of newcomers in the activities for and with newcomers
  • Questions about needs – what do newcomers need to find their way when they arrive and settle in. Start from what people themselves say they need or worry about

B. Policy and guidance

  • Treat all newcomers equally: both from Ukraine and from the rest of the unsafe countries
  • Ensure an integrated approach. Not to approach everything from the perspective of target groups of status holders/asylum seekers/family reunifiers
  • Use the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainians as a basis for the reception, integration and placement of all newcomers
  • Provide information at the right time and in phases at the pace of the newcomer
  • Subsidy schemes for associations and local foundations that want to go the extra mile
  • Make sure that you are not the only driving force, but along with several people in your organisation to support newcomers
  • Flexible,  structured cooperation so that the newcomer can be integrated into the system

C. Asylum reception

  • Use the potential of everyone who enters the asylum seekers centrum (AZC)
  • Create opportunities to participate and learn equally
  • Provide a larger range of languages at the AZC (e.g. English lessons)
  • Think from the perspective of the local society and see how to realise an ideal reception
  • Connect with employers, sports clubs, educational institutions, etc.
  • For municipalities, provinces and the state (including COA), create opportunities for early involvement of local residents to work towards humane and sustainable shelters that serve both the neighborhood and newcomers
  • Make the shelters smaller; think from the perspective of local communities

D. Inclusion and work

  • In order to participate, giving the newcomer enough information is important
  • Let asylum seekers work without obstacles
  • Learn from projects such in the nursing/care sector where newcomers learn the Dutch language and work. Make this possible for other sectors and professions

E. Other tips and general recommendations

  • View newcomers as a possibility/opportunity and not a burden
  • Kindness helps!
  • Personal attention starts with a smile on an equal basis
  • Use food to connect


At the end of the symposium, the participants signed the Manifesto “Collaborating with Newcomers” that called on all governments, agencies and residents in the (border) regions to look and support opportunities for newcomers. The manifesto also included the above mentioned recommendations that will be passed on to all stakeholders involved with newcomers.

Shrinking areas as dynamic spaces of care and resilience

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.

Jordan flag and Arabic food in shrinking regions of Rhineland-Palatinate

2 October 2020

By Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske (Siegen University)

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