Insights on how small localities in Europe can make a difference in the reception of Ukrainians fleeing from war.
Over the last few years, the EU has received unprecedented numbers of migrants and asylum seekers, often in an unorderly way. This has led to a growing immigrant presence in scarcely prepared small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (SMsTRA). In spring 2022 these localities are again on the front line of refugee reception in Europe following the arrival of thousands of Ukrainians in all EU member states. The way in which these local communities are responding to the challenges related to migrants’ arrival and settlement in their territory is crucial for the future of immigrant integration in Europe.
Experiences of reception in small localities in various EU member states including Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands clearly testify to the challenges faced by these communities as well as the variety of responses, ranging from mayoral pragmatism and civil society activism to protest. To capitalise on the more positive experiences and build effective policies, in a joint report the European Commission and OECD recommend that localities should be considered partners in a framework of multilevel governance for migrant integration, in order to inform national and EU policy through their experience on the ground. A case in point is represented by the Partnership for the Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees established in the context of the Urban Agenda for the EU. However, research shows, multilevel governance policymaking on migration is a highly selective process, where local authorities need the mediation of well-organised City Networks that usually represent big cities holding progressive views on migration. To engage small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (SMsTRA) in meaningful policy dialogues and processes of policy learning on the reception and integration of new inflows from Ukraine, we first need to know more on the policy-making relations that these localities have been developing in response to the 2015 crisis and on the factors that influence such relations.
To this end, the Whole-COMM project has carried out a structured survey in 36 European SMsTRA, which has been completed by 67 local policymakers and local officials responsible for immigrant integration. The survey throws light on how these localities have responded to migration challenges in the turbulent context of the 2015 asylum crisis, thereby enabling us to draw important policy implications for national and European policy-makers willing to engage small communities in constructive policy dialogues and to strengthen their capacity to welcome Ukrainian refugees.
With respect to policy-making relations, Figure 1 suggests that overall local governments of SMsTRA have rare if any interactions related to the integration of asylum seekers and refugees with EU officials and only occasional or non regular interactions with national institutions. Remarkably, rural areas included in our sample never had any kind of interactions with officials at the EU level in the whole time-period analysed and have also had only rare interactions with officials at the national level. Medium-sized towns have comparably more interactions with officials at both levels. Far more intense appear to be interactions with non public actors, and more specifically with NGOs, especially in medium-sized towns, while the business sector seems to be much more involved in integration-related interactions in rural areas than in medium and small-sized towns.
To understand which factors explain these different patterns of relations we have created an index which summarises the total number of interactions that local governments have had with all the other actors involved in multilevel policymaking on the integration of asylum seekers and refugees in the period 2017-21 (Figure 2). Such an index is constructed as the sum of the average interactions of our interviewees with all of the different actors listed in our survey. The figure suggests that, overall, more interactions take place in medium-sized towns and in localities led by progressive local governments. The localities’ experience with cultural diversity also seems to influence the total number of interactions in which local governments are involved: localities with high experience with cultural diversity seem to engage in more policy-making relations on asylum seekers’ integration.
As is clear, SMsTRA are not structurally part of policy discussions with higher levels of government on the integration of migrants and refugees. However, local governments in these localities are deeply engaged in local networks with civil society organisations and, to some extent, with business actors as well, suggesting that there is a potential for the development of innovative approaches to refugees’ integration in these areas.
Another key finding of our survey is that the pandemic has had a very different impact on policy-making interactions in different types of localities. We could assess this because our interviewees were asked to provide details about their interactions before and after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. In particular, the pandemic seems to have remarkably decreased the frequency of policy-making interactions around migrant integration in rural areas and in SMsTRA (particularly medium-sized towns) characterised by unfavourable structural conditions. Considering that the pandemic has considerably reduced the already scarce resources that small localities, especially in rural areas, could rely upon in developing local integration policies, future EU and national policies should consider financially supporting SMsTRA characterised by particularly unfavourable structural conditions in their efforts to assist in the integration of post-2014 migrants.
These findings somewhat echo the Eurocities’ statement on the Ukrainian crisis, Caring Cities: Acting in solidarity with all refugees, that, while welcoming the openness of the European Commission in cooperating with cities in the newly established Solidarity Platform, also emphasises the need for ‘EU and national funding to reinforce local social services and to coordinate the response of civil society in welcoming refugees’. For multilevel governance to not remain a purely rhetorical discourse on cooperation and mutual learning, cities, and even more so SMsTRA should be put in the position of developing more structured and inclusive integration policies beneficial for migrants and local communities more broadly. Favouring the development of interactions between local governments of these municipalities and higher levels of government – but also exchanges between local governments of big cities and SMsTRA – seems to be a necessary condition in order for any process of policy learning and policy diffusion to take place.