Webinar with mayors and municipal councilors in the Netherlands

On 30th November a group of mayors and municipal councilors from shrinking and rural areas from all over the Netherlands gathered in the first Webinar of the Welcoming Spaces Community of Practice. They shared their experiences with the settlement of newcomers in their municipalities, which often deal with population decline and ageing of the population. The lively discussion evolved around the situation of migrants from diverse backgrounds, ranging from EU and non-EU labor migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to migrants from other parts of the Netherlands. The discussion showed: the settlement of newcomers can lead to new opportunities, hopes and also challenges.

One of the central questions discussed was: how to facilitate newcomers’ participation in the local community, in order to strengthen livability in the municipality? The possibilities of municipalities to develop approaches to facilitate participation and wellbeing, differ for migrants of different legal statuses and backgrounds, as they are subject to very different national policies. This means that also locally the offers and perspectives for different newcomers differ.

Refugees in the Netherlands become resettled in all municipalities of the Netherlands, after receiving their residence permit. Municipalities are responsible for organizing housing and civic integration activities for refugees. This also leads to a variety of approaches in shrinking areas. They are developed by local governments, businesses and initiatives to foster integration and participation. One example is a meeting place and personal job coaching specifically aimed at women refugees. Some municipalities mention the challenge that refugee newcomers often move on after living in their municipalities for a short while. This could be because refugees are resettled in areas that they know little of, or far from their networks. But also the sparse employment and educational opportunities in shrinking municipalities in comparison to urban centres, is a deciding factor here. A challenge for shrinking municipalities is, thus, to also become an attractive economically.

Concerning the settlement of labour migrants, the participants noted the challenge to balance between welcoming labour migrants to pursue economic growth, and providing sufficient housing as well as facilitating labour migrants’ engagement and participation in the overall community. Labour migrants from the EU, who often work in the food industry and agriculture in rural areas, tend to stay temporarily or move back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. Therefore, long-term settlement is not always easy and not necessarily the priority. Moreover, there is little policy on national level to facilitate the process of settlement, and local policies are often made ad-hoc, to provide suitable housing to workers living in the municipalities.

Overall, maintaining social cohesion in the villages and stimulating participation between locals and newcomers were considered important topics. Mayors and councilors also see opportunities in the settlement of migrant newcomers in their municipalities, for instance for keeping schools and public services open, organising participation projects including sports or language exchanges, and finding ways to recognise the talents and experiences of the newcomers which can enrich the local community. We are looking forward to organize more exchanges between local and national policy makers, initiatives, businesses and civil society actors in the future.