WholeCoMM Policy Brief February 2023

A differentiated approach for small and medium-sized cities?

Publication date:
Maria Schiller, Peter Scholten and Elina Jonitz

Policy Brief February (2023)

Small and medium-sized towns and rural areas have become increasingly important places for dealing with the reception, accommodation, and integration of asylum seekers and refugees. Some of these localities have had limited experiences with migration beforehand, and limited policies, structures, and actors in place for handling immigrant integration. In addition, small and medium-sized towns and rural areas are often further removed from the national level as well as the European level than frequently consulted large cities. They lack the networks but also have fewer staff, less experience and limited involvement in order to directly access EU support and funding schemes.

Conversely, European policymakers have paid limited attention to the specific realities and needs of small and medium-sized towns and rural areas in policymaking on immigrant integration. This is surprising, as there has been considerable attention for the local level and recognition that localities matter in promoting immigrants’ integration in EU policymaking for more than a decade. In light of more restrictive policies by national governments, European policymakers have set their hope on municipal authorities, as they would be better suited to deal in pragmatic ways with the integration of immigrants.

This results in problematic situations, where small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (often) lack experience, expertise, and resources to deal with immigrant integration and are unable to draw on the support mechanisms and funding schemes at the European level. An underlying reason is that larger metropoles and capital cities have often been considered frontrunners and models for immigrant integration policymaking and have received most/more attention and benefited most from European level support. Furthermore, small and medium-sized towns and rural areas have seldom been involved in deliberative fora of policymaking in Brussels, lacking the capacities and resources to participate or not being invited to the table. Conversely, European networks of cities are often spearheaded by larger cities, who have the resources and staff to participate in such deliberations. The result is a vicious cycle. As EU policymaking institutions do not facilitate small and medium-sized towns’ and rural areas’ access to policymaking spaces and processes, their voices are not often heard at the EU level, and their realities are less present in the policymaking process. Consequently, they receive less attention and support.

With yet again an increased inflow of people seeking international protection after the invasion of Ukraine and reception centres filling up quickly, large numbers of asylum seekers are being accommodated in small and medium-sized towns and rural areas. They once again are called upon to help accommodate large numbers of arrivals, yet there are substantial differences in their preparedness to promote and foster immigrant integration.

Therefore, we direct this policy brief to European Commission policymakers with a call to consider the specific needs, challenges, and opportunities of small and medium-sized towns and rural areas in dealing with the integration of asylum seekers and refugees. In the brief, we develop propositions of possible ways forward towards improving existing policies in and towards decreasing policy variation between small and medium-sized towns and rural areas.