With 80 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, it’s an issue that disarms many. But there’s another side of migration that doesn’t get much coverage – depopulation in rural areas. In fact, in the past 50 years, 26 million people have left the European countryside. By connecting the two issues, I believe we can cancel them both out or at least minimise them.
It’s my personal opinion that, coming from a business development background (and having spent time in these rural areas), fixing the migration issue lies in economic solutions.
Last September, the European Commission published migration recommendations on how to temper irregular migration. This included strengthening border protection and developing a more effective return policy. Tragically, the current proposal does not prevent refugees from embarking on a very dangerous and often deadly journey before they’re able to apply for asylum.
Parallel to this is the conversation on a rural vision 2040 to tackle demographic changes, limited access to services, and the sustainability problems rural communities face. Digging a little deeper demonstrates the opportunity for a great economic and social synergy if we connect the two issues.
Addressing human needs and ambitions
Not all of us are born with the same opportunities. War, poverty, restrictions on personal liberties, among other challenges, cause people to relocate. The tensions that prompt a migration, which will be discussed, can range from voluntarily seeking a new home, to being in physical danger and the need to survive.
The complexity of human migration requires a discussion that touches on various solutions. Policies addressing eventual friction caused by migration also try to touch on the economic supply and demand of the labour market, smoothening eventual incompatibilities and reducing welfare cost for the unemployed. Since different types of migration require unique solutions, I’ll explore four of them, followed by presenting my initiative – Refival, which seeks to create a synergistic link between refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) and their resettlement in remote rural areas in Europe.
Scenario #1: Refugees and ‘internally displaced persons’ as a result of war, climate change and political persecution
This high-pressure migration scenario is entirely supply- or push-driven. There’s no other option for people than to flee and seek shelter from violent regional conflict. The UN has already agreed on a solidarity-based international convention on how to help ‘refugees’ and address their needs. Still, many people are ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs), forced to flee between regions within their country of origin. They’re not covered as ‘refugees’ by international law because they don’t cross any international borders.
Because of the kind of crisis they endure, this group of refugees and IDPs requires the highest priority and affirmative action. Vulnerability should be the basis for whom to select first for resettlement. There is no room for selecting the most lucrative people for our benefits or demands: we need to find a solution for everyone. Otherwise we would very likely leave the most vulnerable in jeopardy since there is nobody waiting to welcome them.
The immediate action would be to relocate people safely, as quickly as possible.
All countries should collectively participate in large-scale resettlement, according to their economic ability to support refugees and IDPs.
Simply rehoming isn’t enough, as people will need the time and other basic resources to adapt and connect to the host country’s labour market in order to realise a new and successful future.
Unfortunately, today’s reality does not illustrate this approach. The majority of refugees and IDPs end up being displaced inside their country or seek refuge in an adjacent one. This is why neighbouring countries in a crisis frequently become overloaded.
We need to do better.
Scenario #2: Economically-forced migrants, fleeing from a place with no perceived future
The second high-pressure scenario is caused by people who perceive no future or employment opportunities at their current location. Similar to the first situation, it’s supply- or push-driven. Although not a matter of life or death, people are often willing to take big risks to reach places where they expect to flourish.
Fleeing countries with a weak economic outlook, these kinds of migrants reach their new land of hope only to be welcomed by residents that often cannot cope with their presence. This also frequently happens to the first group of refugees after escaping to safe neighboring countries where they end up in legal and economic limbo. Examples include Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and various African countries.
There are two types of solutions to reduce their migration pressure:
1. Structurally create a proper existence at their current location through development aid. This requires more than just giving money to buy food and paying for shelter. We’ll have to create sustainable livelihoods. For example, this is proposed by Kamala Harris’ ‘call for action’ for Central America.
2. Legally resettle people to where they can find employment. These types of migrants feel forced to leave because of the perceived economic outlook; not necessarily because they understand whether there is actual work waiting for them abroad. However, the current policy for this group is often to keep them out of destination countries by strengthening border surveillance (expanding the mandate and increasing the funding for Frontex). This results in an arms-race between smugglers and guards. People coming from safe countries are often trapped this way because of regular push-backs. Reinforcing border surveillance may reduce the number of refugees but it doesn’t fix the many inhuman conditions as on the Greek islands and on the “Balkan route”.
Scenario #3: Voluntary economic migrants seeking better paid job opportunities
The third scenario details the situation of migrants in search of better careers. It’s demand- and not supply-driven. A good example is a substantial part of the internal EU migration – where better opportunities in more prosperous member states attract workers from less wealthy member states. EU internal freedom of movement enables such mobility.
The EU further attracts people from outside the Union to either study or legally work there via programs such as Erasmus+ and the Blue Card system. Yet, friction can often be found on the supply side, too.
If highly certified and educated people like doctors or nurses, as well as skilled craftsmen and unskilled workers leave their country by the masses, this results in a shortage of experts in the countries facing the departure of their nationals; thus causing economic decline, depopulation or unsustainable population aging. When, for example, a village carpenter takes a job even in a nearby city, his old position often remains vacant. This creates an important unfulfilled labour demand that can snowball through the entire local community, an effect from which it may never recover.
This is very similar to unsustainable forestry practices: if new trees aren’t planted and replenished, forests are eventually and permanently destroyed.
Scenario #4: Knowledge workers, digital nomads, who are free to choose to live wherever they wish
The final scenario is one that is free-choice-driven. There’s a large group of knowledge workers who can supply their services remotely from anywhere. They technically possess the total freedom of where they want to live and work. The EU could integrate this group into policies to support the resuscitation of small rural communities (defined as those with less than 500 inhabitants). Without such jobs, these micro-regions will not have much of a future.
No two migrants are the same
As we can see, there’s a scale of pressure when it comes to resettlement. Priorities must be set to address migration friction. In the final two scenarios, it’s primarily the labour market that regulates migration. The only eventual negative side-effect that must be considered and addressed would be the brain drain the country of origin would experience. However, the first two scenarios would require fast action, because lives lay in the balance.
It’s clear: we need policies to bridge the supply of migrants with existing or future demands of the labour market.
But, we need to differentiate cases according to urgency. Refugees and IDPs should be considered as the highest priority. Affirmative action can play a role in matching these people with labour demands in Europe, thus creating the possibility of a better future for them.
However, for the most vulnerable group (often the most challenging to provide educational training), full participation may not be achieved until the next generation. For others, adaptation or incubation may bring a faster result. Although refugee status is meant to be temporary, it can take a long time before these migrants are able to safely return home. Policies must take into account and reflect the lifespan of migration and needs associated at its different stages.
Refival: Directing migration through rural pathways
My initiative, Refival, addresses some of the above issues by proposing a new type of refugee resettlement policy: to open-up a large-scale, safe and regulated complementary pathways to refugees with the purpose of offering a future in rural Europe. Other than the current community sponsorship initiatives such as the humanitarian corridors program of Sant’Egidio, Refival’s scheme is based on public funding, as it generates value to society as a whole by tackling ageing and depopulation.
Another reason for public funding is because most of the communities and hosts that would be involved aren’t wealthy enough to sponsor refugees on their own. A budget should be carved out for rural revitalisation either way. Public funding also helps to scale the initiative.
Refival’s solution can realistically help tens of thousands of migrants per year. It can further shift part of the focus from border reinforcement to legal resettlement.
Finally, it would reduce the number of life-threatening passages and the criminal involvement of smugglers and human traffickers. Implementing the right policies could save many lives.
My initiative proposes to optimise the match between the supply of people to be resettled and the labour market demand for workers as soon as they have adapted and acquired a certain level of education. This maximises the number of refugees to be benefitting within the budget limitations for accomplishing their integration. This implies a clear selection of people and the hosts that could help them assimilate.
This raises the question: How do we select migrants?
Unfortunately, the most vulnerable and often the least educated refugees are frequently difficult or impossible to integrate. In case proper shelter can be supplied, this group is mostly better-off in culturally similar and safe neighboring countries. Cost-wise, more people can be resettled if one selects them based on their education or ability to connect to a new local culture and labour market.
The good news is, the current UNHCR mechanisms are already focusing on this group, within the limits of available possibilities and budgets. Refival’s resettlements would work in addition to this to replace irregular migration.
Although it’s tempting economically to relocate only the most educated refugees, this isn’t the group where the greatest benefits can be realised. These highly-skilled and educated workers can have other important responsibilities – supporting communities in crisis and contributing to their home country to rebuild it, post-conflict (if they wish to take these on, of course). Educated refugees further believe rural areas offer insufficient direct opportunities, so they move to big cities as soon as possible.
At Refival, we focus on the middle group of refugees with more bridgeable education and skills gaps, but little hope. Serving this group adds the most value to the resettlement destination.
Offering refugees (and their families) the opportunity to be incubated via education and economic participation in a new community, instead of staying welfare-dependent where they’re currently located, is a win-win.
Choosing the resettlement location
Currently, the time it takes to integrate a refugee in the European labour market is on average five years – a number we aim to shorten through our initiative.
Since there’s no immediate connection to the labour market at the demand side, it may still take a number of years before resettled people learn the local language and acquire employable skills.
Besides the fact that in most remote small rural communities the cost of living is much lower than in big cities and thus more refugees can be helped within the same budget, there are other synergies in resettling refugees there.
The ticket is in the small size of their communities to fast-track adaptation. There will be more interaction with local people and therefore a better chance of integration for newcomers. Previous host examples like Riace in Italy and the island of Bute in Scotland show this to be the case. With additional people living in a village, there is a wider share of the infrastructure cost. The communities also get the chance to diversify their economy by offering education on-demand, teaching newcomers the skills for modern employment and grounding them.
Furthermore, in our proposition, migrants immediately become European citizens. So, as soon as they can find employment elsewhere, they can freely move just like any other EU citizen. This continues the empowering upward mobility and likely attracts new migrants to join, which continues to feed the rural communities.
A whole new world for migrants
An important part of my Refival initiative is education, individualised and offered partially online. By combining artificial intelligence-based adaptive learning with collective social integration processes, it’s feasible to create a local rural education and integration system – offering schooling levels from kindergarten to university to as few as 100 students. This way, migrants can prepare themselves for digital livelihoods such as tele-consulting, distant-teaching, back-office and call centre tasks, e-commerce and various IT jobs.
Rural incubation would benefit both the refugees and the communities that host them.
It’s ultimately a good thing: whether the goal is to qualify newcomers to stay in the village, join the European labour force elsewhere or to prepare people to return and rebuild their lives in their home countries. Becoming equipped for the digital world, refugees will acquire the skills to work anywhere, starting in rural villages.
Settling migration pressure, through policy
As we look back at the mix of issues – irregular migration, border security and rural depopulation – now we can see the opportunities that can be unearthed by connecting solutions. The starting point is to create legal alternatives to release migration pressure by developing systematic pathways for resettlement to areas that are desperate for people. With this multi-step approach, we can keep these charming villages alive… as well as the millions of humans in need.