Explaining integration policies and processes of post-2014 migrants in small localities in Europe. A whole-of-community approach

In this final Working Paper, we present the key research results produced throughout the different work packages of the Whole-COMM project, assessing them in light of our ‘whole-of-community’ (WoC) approach to study migrant integration at the local level.

During the last 3 years, the Whole-COMM project explored how small and medium-sized towns and rural areas in Europe address the challenges of refugee integration and the key outcomes related to social cohesion in these localities. While most research tends to focus on big cities, we aim to fill the gap by providing a comprehensive analysis of migrant integration processes and outcomes in smaller localities.

Specifically, the document aims to answer the two key research questions of the Whole-COMM project: 

  • How do the various actors whose actions affect local communities decide, implement, and/or act upon local policies related to the integration of post-2014 migrants in small towns and rural areas? 
  • What kind of outcomes in terms of local communities’ ‘quality of social life’ emerge in small towns and rural areas?

This working paper initially discusses local inclusion policies, frames held by actors involved in integration governance, governance relations, and migrants’ access to services. It crucially shows that policies and approaches to integration vary significantly across different localities, with some areas taking more proactive measures than others. We then move to discuss outcomes related to social cohesion, exploring local residents’ attitudes to migrant integration, social relations between migrants and long-term residents and migrants’ experiences. 

In conclusion we identify six key obstacles that, our research suggests, are preventing the emergence of more robust and inclusive responses on migrant integration in small localities and rural areas:

  • Lack of capacity, funding, expertise, and resources: Many small localities lack the necessary resources and expertise to effectively develop and implement integration policies. Specialized municipal bodies on integration are often missing, and officials responsible for integration typically lack specific training or expertise in the field.
  • Isolation from multilevel governance structures: small towns and rural areas are highly isolated from broader governance structures, including rare interactions with the EU and national levels, and often conflictual relations with the regional level. This isolation prevents policy diffusion and the spread of good practices, and interactions within localities are often segmented and conflictual.
  • Limited weight at the EU level: smaller localities have negligible involvement in policy debates and frameworks at the EU level. EU policy documents and transnational networks often do not differentiate between localities of different sizes or address the specific needs of SMsTRAs, leading to a focus on the realities of larger cities.
  • Narrow understandings of responsibilities for migrant integration: Local governance actors often view integration as primarily the responsibility of migrants, which hinders the development of proactive initiatives by local actors. This narrow conceptualization limits the scope of integration policies and measures.
  • Politicization of integration policymaking: The growing politicization of integration at the local level, influenced by political affiliation and the presence of anti-immigration parties, significantly impacts the development of inclusive and robust local integration responses. Policymakers’ perceptions of local residents as hostile to integration measures further exacerbate this issue, despite evidence suggesting relatively little opposition among residents towards more developed integration measures.
  • Policymakers’ misperceptions of local residents’ attitudes: Policymakers often perceive local residents as highly hostile to the development of more integration measures. However, survey results challenge this perception, indicating that residents in smaller towns do not have more negative attitudes toward migrant integration compared to those in big cities. Notably, more than half of the respondents in smaller localities support more developed integration measures, with only 21 percent convincingly against such measures.

Future research should further investigate such challenges and obstacles, further enhancing our understandings of the drivers and effects of local integration policymaking in small localities and how such drivers differ with those shaping responses in bigger cities.

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