With a particular attention to remote places and marginalized territories, the new book edited and authored by the researchers of MATILDE is now out, published by Routledge (June 2022).

The volume provides a conceptualization of the role of internal and international migration to the local development and resilience of the rural and mountain regions of Europe. In declaring a public and trans-regional position – in the form of a Manifesto for the renaissance of remote places – the book contributes to a new narrative about migration and rural/mountain territories for the future of the entire continent. Mobilizing new data and scientific-based information, this volume calls for putting remote regions and their inhabitants at the core of innovative policies at local, regional, national and EU levels. An important resource for researchers, students and policymakers in human and population geography, rural studies, migration studies, social and political sciences.

To read the book, please click here.

Researchers from MATILDE provide also a list of policy recommendations, as follows.

Recommendations Thesis 1 

Remoteness needs to be reframed as a resource and place-based value for Europe.

In the era of neo-liberalism, the paradigm of growth, spatial concentration and homogenization of life-styles is less and less called into question. However, regional and social policies are called upon to attenuate the adverse effects of these processes through policy frameworks of integration, cohesion, and community building. Realizing the need for a step change in societal organization in order to achieve veritable sustainable and resilient pathways for non-core areas, new strategies are required for the mountainous and rural regions of Europe, which are particularly hard hit by these unfavourable interrelations. With these upcoming discourses, we are facing an unprecedented momentum for remoteness and remote places. Remote areas, and the concept itself of remoteness with its cultural meaning, are in fact acquiring unprecedented value and conceived as untapped territorial assets. Although discourses on the deficiencies of mainstream economic thought are a core source of new frames, the two global macro phenomena of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are increasingly pushing towards shifts in narratives.  

A more positive attitude towards the amenities and socio-cultural contribution of the uniqueness of remote places, with an especial focus on rural and mountainous ones, should be adopted. Leaving reductionist perspectives behind, avoiding any glorification of remote areas as ‘rural idylls,’, and eschewing romantic approaches, remote places and the aspect of remoteness should be re-conceptualized as: 

  • People’s vital and multi-faceted world of experience, resisting neoliberal globalized homogenization, grounding their future on the diversity of their cultural and positional resources, values, and potential; 
  • The basis for place-sensitive and place-based policies capturing the option of physical distance as a benefit and appreciating the space in-between that characterizes scarcely populated areas; 
  • The urgent call for a new and different public voice, a ‘lateral vision’, rich with potential innovation to overcome weak social capital and community development, and respectful of a wider array of themes and spaces, otherwise dominated by the logic of ‘central places’ and agglomeration.  

A balanced view of community life, social contribution, and the key role of local actors thus seems not only a precondition for social and territorial justice but also a cornerstone ot democratic participation. The aforementioned shift is needed to enhance strategies and activities with which to avoid both a potential engagement of the ‘people left behind’ in anti-systemic movements and a potential disengagement of important sectors of the European population with democratic structures and processes. Future territorial strategies and action should make creative use of the new vision of remoteness and remote places (‘remotisation’) which offers an unexpected and unique occasion for restoring places and spaces to the people, putting territorial equity and trans-local solidarity at the very core of “next generation Europe”. 

Recommendations Thesis 2

Rural, mountain and remote regions should be considered a new core of Europe.

Rural and mountain regions should be considered in many respects a new core of Europe, and international migration is having a positive impact on the demographic balance in rural municipalities.

What can also be established is that: 

  • Rural areas are experiencing stress related to the many challenges that they are facing: a demographic situation including decline and an unfavourable age composition; a decrease in services; and expectations of producing raw materials and energy for a growing population elsewhere. 
  • There is a need for rural stress to be taken seriously, particularly in light of the sense of isolation and social injustice experienced in areas where material resources are scarce. 
  • It is important to acknowledge that integration is an ongoing process, that it requires public as well as civil and private structures. Otherwise, the people – the natives and migrants – central to the future of rural Europe risk being ‘left outside’ and ‘left behind’. 

Recommendations Thesis 3

It is time for a new rural and mountain narrative.

The view of regional development action and policy that rural and mountain regions are dependent, less competitive, and ‘marginal’ places in comparison to urban areas is still widespread in Western societies. However, rural development activities and support for mountain regions instantly reach deadlock when they remain confined in predominant polarizing development frameworks. It is increasingly acknowledged that new perspectives on rural and mountain challenges and opportunities that reflect a creative use of positive narratives are urgently needed. The shift towards this better integration of emerging needs has proved to be the decisive change required to enhance the action and performance of these undervalued areas. Set within place-specific narratives, future action should reflect changes in mindsets and create a promising basis for strategies and action in these contexts. These renewed perspectives would also encompass settings of greater attractiveness and places of community building suitable for new immigrants.

Hence, in this new perspective, rural and mountain places are considered to be: 

  • places that conceive attractive living modes, considering in a balanced way challenges and opportunities linked to location. This may involve an increased number of in-migrants and multi-locals of different types, and strategies to involve them without great delay in community life;  
  • places that enable the empowerment and participation of all inhabitants modifying existing power relations. Defensive perspectives of rural areas based on ‘urban’ assessment standards should be transformed into place-based narratives of ‘self-efficacy’; 
  • not stand-alone places, but instead considered in their interdependence with urban contexts. Rural/urban exchange would thus be captured as a fluid interchange of diverse functions, reflecting synergies of combining place-sensitive activities, and mountain/lowland interaction would account for human/nature reflection on a large scale. 

It seems important that such narratives should use a positive language, implying the emerging options and presenting visions of a ‘good life’ in these spaces. They would focus on their own, internally discussed and developed, and iteratively constructed narratives of change. These are built on social innovation and an understanding of transformation oriented to empowerment, participation and community development which enhances local strengths. At the same time, it enhances the positive contribution of inspiring ideas and exchange with other places, as well as cultural and socio-economic enrichment by immigrants and newcomers to the region. 

Recommendations Thesis 4 

International migration to rural and mountain areas is an important but neglected phenomenon.

 Rural and mountain areas have changed from being considered merely destinations for tourism and secondary housing to places now experiencing different forms of migration. While national jurisdictions have different experiences with regard to migration and integration, it is important to acknowledge that one feature seems to be common to all EU countries: a non-coordinated approach, where further co-operation between civil society organizations and government agencies – at the national, regional and local level – should be enhanced.

Integration is an ongoing issue, where challenges remain, e.g., where migrants (often forced) are ‘left behind’ in substandard housing and diminished infrastructures. To be stressed is that, while extraordinary efforts were made by civil society organizations with regard to integration in 2015 and 2016 across Europe, the endeavour is not yet ‘finished’ or ‘concluded’, and integration should be considered a continuous process.

There is also a need for closer consideration to be made of the local dimension in the design and implementation of integration policies.  

What should also be encouraged is the national-level sharing of experiences in local settings, and where both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences should be highlighted.

Recommendations Thesis 5

Migration Impact Assessment is a powerful tool for local development.

Migration Impact Assessment (MIA) considers the effects of migration in broad and systematic terms. Because of the huge amount of migration, the primary focus on its challenges in political and public debate, and great differences of the effects of immigration on the host country or region, there is a need to assess the overall impact of migration in its whole complexity. its positive as well as critical, direct as well as indirect, effects must be tackled. In this regard, MIA can be a powerful tool for enhancing migrants’ integration and local development.  

To analyse the overall impact of migration, a comprehensive approach is needed. On the one hand, the effects of migration must be analysed on an interdisciplinary basis. An interdisciplinary assessment is indispensable, including economic, social and cultural dimensions. This can yield novel research aspects and innovative insights within as well as among the participating disciplines. Moreover, qualitative and quantitative methods should be applied because mixed methods make it possible to capture the overall effects.  

Furthermore, MIA should not be conducted solely by experts, because this could underexpose relevant effects of migration. The use of (participatory) self- assessment and evaluation approaches may shed completely new light on the topic. It should be borne in mind that different regional or national cultures require different approaches regarding self-assessment. Overall, scientific counselling throughout the process could be useful.  

In detail, for a successful interdisciplinary MIA the following steps should be institutionalized: 

  • first, interdisciplinary teams for carrying out MIA must be formed;  
  • second, the framework for cooperation should be set. This includes specification of the research questions and the research design, as well as explicit definitions of terms in order to avoid misunderstandings in the later research process;
  • third, the methods to be used should be defined and the indicators to be evaluated should be operationalized. In an interdisciplinary setting with mixed methods, coordination among researchers/disciplines is of great importance because different concepts could be used to measure the same indicator; 
  • the collection of data should start with quantitative and qualitative methods simultaneously;  
  • there should be regular interaction across disciplines to exchange ideas and perspectives; 
  • the data should be assessed within the discipline and the interdisciplinary team. 

Given the relevance of MIA, the awareness for the issue on all affected levels of government and by different stakeholder groups is of pivotal relevance.

Thus, not only education activities for public administrators that provide the respective skills and knowledge may be helpful, but so too may be awareness-raising activities that involve all stakeholders. This seems to be even more important due to the necessity of participatory elements in MIA. Participatory (self-) assessment/evaluation needs to consider ethical and cultural issues, but it enables a-hierarchical evaluation processes that create room for learning and discussion, and it fosters organisations’ and individuals’ self-determination and empowerment. 

Recommendations Thesis 6

The inclusion of migrants in rural/mountain territories is a multi-level and multidimensional process

The rural and remote regions of Europe offer great potential not only for immigrants themselves and their respective new host societies, but also and above all for something new to be created together and shared with others in the process itself of redefining ‘we’.

The inclusion of migrants is a non-linear and reciprocal process in which both parties must not only take an active part but also be prepared to change so that social boundaries become effective blurred. A new understanding of being local, of belonging, needs to be sought through processes of inclusion and mutual recognition. These require continuous negotiation but they fuel a social innovation in which, this Thesis suggests, the focus should be shifted from integration and assimilation to the co-creation of new transcultural spaces, economies, and communities.

While the integration approach has its benefits, particularly in technical and public policy-related terms, its normative connotations may at times outweigh these benefits – especially if the host society into which migrants are expected to integrate assesses their performance with quantitative measurements in contrast that of the ‘native’ population. Migrants can have a remarkable social and also economic impact long before they are considered to be properly integrated. That is, impact does not automatically necessitate integration – integration does not automatically imply impact.

The pertinent policies could yield greater benefits, for all, with a more pragmatic focus on the incorporation of migrants into the local social life and culture. It is time to centre the conversation around inclusion, engagement and belonginess rather than the traditional concept of integration, which puts the responsibility on migrants to ‘integrate’ into local society, and often punishes those failing to do so, thus wasting valuable potential for reinvigorating the rural and remote regions for the sake of normative ideals which in some cases have been shown to hamper rather than facilitate inclusion. This approach promotes social inclusion as a non-linear and reciprocal interaction through which new population groups negotiate new cultural meanings and concrete rights of citizenship with the existing populations within systems of socioeconomic, legal, and cultural relations, whose basic characteristics need to be considered if a sustainable, equitable, and resilient society is to be created for all.

The role played by existing migrant communities in welcoming and easing the inclusion of newcomers should be more effectively utilised in the process. The resulting communities will not only be different; they will be better adapted to thrive in the context of the current era’s seemingly endless uncertainty. Through such a broad positive impact, the prevailing – often reserved – attitudes towards migration can be improved and a virtuous circle created whereby migrants are likely to be considered not as a burden but as valuable resources for local development.

Recommendations Thesis 7

International migration has to be considered as one expression among diverse mobilities.

In the past and even more today, rural and mountain areas have been and are important destinations for temporary or permanent immigration and domestic in-migration. The huge diversity of protagonists has shaped and still shapes local societies, economies and politics. Individual (success) biographies of newcomers, however, are usually only known to parts of the society.

Disseminating those biographies through various communication channels, in local media, social media, in associations, and especially at informal meetings in everyday situations could help to promote awareness of the benefits of ethnic, linguistic and socio-demographic diversity. This also includes an honest account of why something did not work and how failures were and are dealt with. In addition to the voice of the newcomers, local key actors from economy, politics and civil society should also speak out their perception of immigrants’ and in-migrants’ impact on rural and mountain areas. This can help to reduce prejudices among the local population and sensitize decision-makers in enterprises and administration to the added value of diversity. Existing guiding principles on diversity and welcome culture can serve as a starting point; however, the links to the specific local context in terms of immigration and in-migration need to be acknowledged. A consistent narrative of a diverse rural society is an opportunity to establish immigration and in-migration as a ‘natural part’ of an overall process of experience and change in globalized small towns and villages.  

Furthermore, it is crucial to initiate a discussion among politicians, administrative staff, entrepreneurs, actors from civil society and rural and mountain development about the local handling of diverse immigration and in-migration. This may include sharing knowledge about good and bad experiences as well as needs for action in terms of the settlement and integration of immigrants and in-migrants. In order to encourage also intra-regional and transregional learning processes, i.e. learning from the experiences of other rural and mountain areas, participating in conferences, organizing travelling exhibitions, and fostering media coverage or online databases may be helpful.

Recommendations Thesis 8

Rural-urban relationships are fundamental assets in terms of policies aimed at the inclusion of remote places. 

  • Policy-makers should interpret right-wing populism as the consequence of long-lasting social-economic and political inequality rather than as a pathological issue.
  • Mainstream political parties should focus on social-economic and psychological matters to communicate better with their electorate, who are likely to feel socio-economically, spatially and nostalgically deprived. 
  • The European Commission should recognize that the EU’s “unity in diversity” motto does not successfully translate into the lives of lower-educated, geographically immobile, and socio-economically and spatially deprived social groups, which tend to see both ‘diversity’ and ‘unity’ as challenges. 
  • All the actors at local, national and European levels should be aware of the politics of distraction that has become prevalent everywhere, creating an image of people residing in remote places as marginalized, uneducated, and afraid of change. This is a distorted image. The residents of remote places often generate active forms of citizenship that revalorize those neglected remote regions. 
  • Policy-makers at all levels should establish stronger connections between urban and remote regions based on a metro-montane approach that is needed to revalorize agricultural, mountainous and remote places away from urban spaces. 

Recommendation Thesis 9

The social and economic development, attractiveness and collective well-being of remote, rural and mountain regions strongly depend on a foundational economy. 

Human freedom and well-being are realized in systems that are collectively produced and governed by a set of formal and informal political agreements that are spatially grounded. This spatial significance may concern inequalities between and within city-levels, as well as regional disparities.

Infrastructures are reliance systems that cut across administrative boundaries and that require a new ‘spatial contract’ between different settlements, which must be free of an urban-centric mindset or metrophilia. This concerns the self-appointed superiority of a restricted circle of self-perpetuating urban-centred decision-makers that has ended up pursuing uniformity in policy frames, promoting homogeneous, error-prone public agendas.

Reliance systems and foundational infrastructures are key devices to build citizenship rights, in a twofold sense: places construct people, and people construct places. Hence, newcomers whoever they are, including international migrants, should be considered as members of a local community regardless of their legal /settlement status, if they contribute to ‘constructing the place’. 

No matter what institutional label they have, formal social infrastructures such as utilities, welfare services, schools, libraries, hospitals, public parks, and so on, always and invariably connect people to places, giving them the opportunities to exercise that material freedom which is the backbone of their citizenship rights.

Since people live in places, citizens’ well-being is chiefly based on the contingent role of a formal social infrastructure. Social infrastructure refers not only to foundational goods and services organized as reliance systems, but also to interaction regimes that act as meaning-makers.

Accordingly, in the first instance, formal social infrastructures are the backbone of citizenship rights: namely, the material and the providential basket of foundational goods and services that support the effectiveness of social citizenship. In the second acception, social infrastructures are to be understood not only as ‘pipes’ conveying foundational goods and services to people, but also as meaning-maker devices through which people construct places and the symbolic repertoires of their social identity and capacity for collective voice as a community.

This twofold meaning is key for place-based policies and organized experiments that support citizenship in rural, mountain and remote places. Newcomers are considered as part of the community when they perform ‘acts of citizenship’, i.e. when through their labour, civic engagement, cultural sharing and appropriation, they take an active role in the provision, defence, and reproduction of the material conditions that feed citizenship and basic needs. Informal social infrastructures embed formal ones in effervescent rituals able to generate shared narratives and collective feelings of ‘belonging to places’. Rituals such as these link the immediate, the ‘experience-near’ needs of everyday life to the ‘experience-distant’ cultural conceptions of the good life.  

Therefore, planning and policies should favour positive feedback between the formal and the informal sides of social infrastructures – between their role as ‘pipes’ and their role as ‘meaning-makers’. Citizenship rights, foundational economy, and spatial justice are the minimum building blocks of a place-based planning perspective on citizenship rights and the dynamics of newcomers’ inclusion in rural, mountain and remote areas.  

Recommendation Thesis 10

The COVID-19 pandemic can be not only a threat but also an opportunity for remote, rural and mountain regions of Europe, and for their inhabitants. 

Foreign immigrants constitute a fundamental resource for rural and mountainous regions and for combatting the economic and demographic decline which many of these regions suffer in a (post) pandemic world. Consequently, new measures must be implemented to help keep population in these areas, especially immigrants working in key sectors such as agriculture, construction, tourism, and health care. Therefore, policies in three main areas are necessary: 

  • Empowering rural and mountainous regions by maintaining and expanding the necessary infrastructure and services. This includes policies to promote affordable housing because house prices in rural, touristic areas are often high, and a housing shortage is evident. Moreover, the lack of public transport and/or poor connections with urban areas is another problem that often prevents the settlement of incomers and their permanence. The COVID-19 crisis has shown particular needs for rural areas and their (not only, but also) migrant inhabitants. Since face-to-face meetings have been made impossible by several lockdowns, everything has gone online (e.g., home working, home schooling). This has required, especially in rural areas, a good internet connection and the necessary technical equipment that migrants often do not have. It is therefore necessary to develop virtual communications in rural areas with the appropriate equipment and training in different languages to support their use. 
  • Promoting equal rights and access to services for locals and immigrants. Managing migration flows means considering both human rights and the social inclusion of newcomers, as well as the distinctive features of rural regions. The time has come to strongly and actively promote equal rights (e.g., access to housing and protection systems such as health, education, and social services, including their documentation) and duties for locals and immigrants, thereby enhancing the rootedness and sense of belonging of newcomers within a new common space of socio-cultural interaction. This also requires sensibilisation policies targeted on administrative systems and rural populations, but also faster homologation systems to access the labour market, so that immigrants can validate and complete their training in the destination country. Hence, access to training courses that also consider rural labour-market demands should be provided for immigrants.  
  • Strengthening local and regional governance with place-based immigration policies that consider national and regional demographic trends. This may also require increasing the attractiveness of these regions for newcomers, national citizens as well as international immigrants. Moreover, specific hiring-at-source policies for rural areas need to be expanded, taking the specificity of the expanding sectors into account. Territorial decentralisation, including new territorial and governance/administrative policies can foster this process. On the one hand, countries should strengthen the network of small and medium-sized communities to contribute to a more polycentric and diversified model of territorial development. This includes policies for territorial planning and the distribution of population and economic activities. On the other hand, this decentralisation entails improving governance in rural areas by two means: 1) increased autonomy and decision-making capacity of local/regional administrations to implement integration plans; 2) easier access to (administrative) services such as obtaining/renewing residence and work permits. EU and national/regional policies should take serious account of the geography of places, reflecting spatial and social features, and the diverse needs of rural and mountain areas.