Towards a more robust and effective policy response to migrant integration in small towns and rural areas

‘Integration happens in every village, city and region where migrants live, work and go to school or to a sports club’, as stated in the Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion. The involvement of the local level in designing and implementing integration measures is therefore crucial. The Whole-COMM final Policy Brief provides EU policymakers with actionable recommendations to overcome obstacles and promote inclusive local communities.

Little research has been done in the past two decades on how medium-sized towns, small towns  and rural areas (SMsTRAs) are responding to the challenges of migrant integration, despite these localities having received a great share of asylum-seekers and refugees that reached Europe in the last decade. While the EU acknowledges that effective integration policies at the local level are pivotal for nurturing cohesive and inclusive communities across Europe, EU policy documents rarely make explicit reference to these localities. 

The Whole-COMM project has aimed to fill these gaps, analyzing migrant integration policies and governance in 40 SMsTRAs in eight EU countries. Researchers crucially found that integration policies in these localities are largely underdeveloped. In particular, while some localities developed integration measures on the areas of language and access to employment, policies on social integration, promoting political participation, intercultural dialogue, and discrimination remain largely underdeveloped, hindering long-term societal inclusion of migrants. 

This final Policy Brief highlights six main factors that – Whole-COMM has found – are obstructing the development of more inclusive and effective integration policies in SMsTRAs, including the following:

  1. Most localities do not have institutional bodies or officials dedicated to migrant integration and trained personnel.
  2. Local governments have very limited interactions with higher-level governmental levels, and with other localities, which hampers knowledge-sharing and the diffusion of best practices
  3. EU policies and funding schemes are largely targeting big cities and neglect the unique integration challenges in small localities.
  4. Local stakeholders have very different understandings of migrant integration and many see migrants as primarily responsible for their own integration in local communities, which impacts policy scope & effectiveness
  5. Local integration policy making and governance are increasingly politicized and influenced by political dynamics, including the presence of anti-migrant parties in local councils and dynamics of multi-level party politics.
  6. Local policymakers perceive public attitudes to migration to be highly negative (more than what public attitudes really are, according to available data) which creates barriers to more inclusive integration efforts

To address these challenges and promote the development of more inclusive and robust migrant integration policies in SMsTRAs, the following recommendations are proposed:

  • Promote the involvement of SMsTRAs in EU policy debates and networks to overcome their isolation and improve integration efforts. 
  • Overcoming the marginality of SMsTRAs in current EU-level funding schemes and making additional targeted efforts to increase access to existing EU funds by SMsTRAs (e.g., creating separate funding schemes for small localities, informing local governments of SMsTRAs of available funding schemes, creating a special Technical Assistance Office etc.).
  • Overcoming challenges related to policymakers’ and stakeholders’ understandings of responsibilities for migrant integration, organizing campaigns targeting local policymakers and local stakeholders to promote in SMsTRAs the EU conceptualization of integration as a two-way process
  • Overcoming challenges related to the politicization of integration policymaking, promoting and funding initiatives aiming to depoliticise the migration issue in local debates and improving social interactions among local residents and migrants 
  • Overcoming challenges related to policymakers’ negative perceptions of public attitudes to migration providing evidence-based information about public attitudes to migration and tools on how to develop successful inclusive communication strategies
  • Encourage local governments of SMsTRAs to develop local integration strategies and support them in such efforts.
  • Promote collection of local level data on migrant integration outcomes (and data on implemented local policies) and encourage monitoring of existing policy measures and interventions.
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