Why are mountain & rural regions relevant for Europe?
Mountains cover approximately 33,5% of EU territory, while approximately 74% of all EU land mass in EU countries (without Turkey) is classified as ‘rural area’ according to the degree of urbanisation classification of Eurostat on municipal level. Rural regions host a population of approximately 97 Mio. inhabitants, which is 21% of the total population. Rural and mountain regions offer relevant eco-system services, rich bio-diversity, local products, cultural heritage, touristic facilities among much else.
Despite their rich developmental potential, rural and mountain regions are often neglected by EU policies –often marginalized by urban-centred economies and over-exploited in their natural resources. As a consequence of a city-driven and industrial modernization, they experienced enduring depopulation processes, leading to loss of power for local communities, brain drain and demographic ageing.
As a bigger segment of the European population lives in the cities, people living in rural and mountain areas are experiencing the shift of both private and public services to major cities. Although these areas have recently gained a role as destinations of recent internal and international migration flows, their specific needs are still not adequately reflected in the governance of migration. If unaddressed, the sentiments of people in these ‘places that don’t matter’ (Rodriguez Pose, 2018) risk fuelling an authoritarian dynamic, offering breeding grounds for anti-elite sentiments.
At the same time, mountain and rural areas of Europe show great potential in terms of high quality of life, environmental sustainability, circular economy, social innovation, and similar. This seems particularly evident in a post Covid-19 world, in which the role of even remote areas could become all the more relevant in terms developmental opportunities they offer.
Why are Third Country Nationals (TCNs) relevant for rural and mountain territories?
In the recent years, some rural and mountain territories began experiencing reversal trends, in particular on the demographic side, as a result of both internal migration flows (influx of neo-rurals, new highlanders, amenity migrants) and international ones (labour migrants, refugees)
Evidence tells us that mountain and rural regions are becoming more attractive for different populations, in particular for international migrants. Often firstly settled in major cities, international migrants are attracted to rural and mountain regions as these regions offer job opportunities not taken up by local/national people (agriculture, forestry, elderly care, maintenance, etc.). Availability of housing at lower prices, better quality of life are additional pull factors. And in recent years, some of these territories have also been experiencing increased reception of asylum seekers and refugees, due often to the presence of empty spaces (abandoned buildings, social rarefaction, ..), both within bottom-up projects run by local actors and top-down resettlement, managed by central authorities.
As shown by innovative practices, migration to rural and mountain areas can play an important role for European rural regions by contributing to revitalise social and economic local milieu, reducing territorial inequalities and rejuvenating urban-rural interconnections. Migration increases diversity in rural and mountain areas, while operating as a counter-process to depopulation and economic decline. Simply put, migration has a potential to trigger development in the medium and long run. Of course, there is the need of negotiation between old and new populations in the same territory, of wider policies supporting an integrated development of rural and mountain territories, avoiding any representation of these areas as the backyard of urban ones.
How can scientific evaluations help us understand the true impact of migration?
Migrants’ presence is often overestimated in EU public opinion, as fake news foster misinformation that leads to racism and widespread misperception. Scientific data about migrants in rural and mountain regions of Europe is largely lacking, and migrants’ productive role in local economies is often not recognized.
Free movement of TCNs to rural and mountain areas as resettlement of refugees require adequate public policies, based on reliable scientific data and public awareness at EU and national/local levels. To favour balanced territorial development, we must take spatial specificities into account in integration and migration governance. At the same time, the arrival and settling of TCNs should be acknowledged in development strategies for rural areas at the European, national and sub-national levels. Evidence-based knowledge on migration outside urban areas is needed to include migration in the policies to promote balanced development planning.
Overall, there is the need for a scientific assessment of social and economic impact of migrants in these regions, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Accordingly, MATILDE seeks to conduct a comprehensive evaluation directly involving local communities, migrants and stakeholders through a participatory approach. So that in return, the data obtained can foster public debate about the role of mountain and rural regions for the EU, and the role of migrants within developmental processes.