Cities Managing Migration: Rural Cities and Towns in the Spotlight

October 18, 2021
9 min read
Photo Credit: Eric Buermeyer /
Among the most salient and current issues related to immigration and integration at the local level are the specific circumstances, challenges, and changes for rural cities and towns.

Immigration and newcomer integration have been the center of attention in large cities and metropolitan areas. Smaller and mid-size cities in rural areas are nevertheless increasingly becoming destinations for migrants and refugees, providing specific opportunities and challenges for both immigrants and rural towns. For rural communities with an aging population and a shrinking workforce, the arrival of migrants and refugees can contribute enormously to the local economy and social life. However, size and cultural contexts entail specific circumstances for attracting, retaining, and successfully integrating newcomers.

Socioeconomic Opportunities for Rural Areas and Immigrants Alike

In Europe and the United States, demographic change has led to an aging population. This tends to be even more pronounced in rural areas as younger generations increasingly move to cities for education and labor. These have suffered from a demographic exodus due to the expansion of the industrial and service sectors and the declining attraction of agriculture. Therefore, rural areas can especially benefit from immigration to fill labor demand and maintain existing infrastructure. Employers and politicians in different rural areas have already recognized these opportunities.[i]

Utica in the state of New York is an impressive example. Between 350 and 430 refugees annually find employment in the Mohawk Valley region through its job-placement program. More than 60 different employers—such as local restaurants, small manufacturers, hospitals, nursing homes, and casinos—participate in the program.

Small cities and towns offer different job opportunities, while opportunities are more limited in rural areas. Although conditions vary, many such regions benefit from tourism, agriculture, or forestry. These labor markets prove to be particularly inclusive of low- or semi-skilled immigrants.[ii]

The availability of low-skilled jobs was advantageous for refugee resettlement in Utica, which offers jobs as meat cutters, greenhouse workers, and nursing-home attendants.[iii] This is an enormous opportunity for many refugees, for instance, who were not able to attend school due to the conflicts in their countries of origin that impeded functioning public institutions. Besides, immigrants from agricultural societies can apply their farming skills. There is a lower threshold to enter the labor market in rural areas as formal application procedures are less relevant than personal contacts, ability or skill, and motivation. The recognition of actual ability to do the work, as opposed to focusing on formal accreditation or certification compatibility, is helpful.

In Sweden, the integration coordinator of the municipality of Valdemarsvik, Djamal Hamaili, who came to Sweden as a refugee, is strongly engaged in a training program to attract refugees to agriculture and care assistance work.

Opportunities and Challenges for Local Governments

Integration managers and local governments in rural areas face different challenges than the ones their counterparts in bigger cities do. Big cities usually divide the administration of municipal tasks regarding accommodation, labor, language, or education, and they follow a common immigration strategy and integration concept. In smaller towns and rural areas, however, a comprehensive approach to immigration and integration is still rare, with competencies distributed between counties and municipalities and integration tasks coordinated with NGOs.[iv]

In addition, rural areas have minimal personnel and a limited range of services and organizations to support education and training. Thus, volunteer commitment and strong personal relations are indispensable to counter limited resources in rural areas.

In this regard, Altena in Germany is an example of best practice, offering integration with civil society and receiving the first integration award from Chancellor Angela Merkel. Each refugee family received the support of a local volunteer and volunteer teachers provided language courses for refugees. Due to its ideal conditions for integration, this city of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants even attracted refugees from the metropolis of Essen in contrast to areas where refugees moved from small towns to bigger cities.v

Besides lower staff capacities, local governments face different challenges in obtaining financial resources for immigrant integration in rural areas compared to bigger cities. Government funding is often designed to support relatively big projects for a large number of immigrant participants. In smaller places, however, language courses, consultation services, and community spaces and events often fail to meet the required financial and participant thresholds to apply for these funds.[v] To profit from existing funds despite their unfavorable design, a larger region or different smaller cities and towns could seize the opportunity to participate in bigger projects and networks. Best practices and innovative approaches are, for instance, shared by the project LandZuhauseZukunft coordinated by the University of Hildesheim in Germany and sponsored by the Robert Bosch Foundation or international networks and projects (see below).

As relatively low amounts can make a difference in rural areas, another option for funding is private sponsorship. Donations by local companies, associations, and citizens who have different interests in immigrant inclusion may support relevant projects. At the same time, they have the opportunity to get involved by volunteering in these projects.

Creating some kind of local trust or foundation offers the advantage that local actors involved have the knowledge and networks to channel the financial means and civic commitment to the areas in which they are needed.[vi] An interesting example is the Bürgerstiftung Holzkirchen in Germany. This civic trust of citizens and local companies is engaged in different local policy fields. To support integration, it offers mentorship, partnership, and tandems to provide learning opportunities, a circle of volunteers, language workshops, and a forum for culture and languages.

Infrastructure Opportunities and Challenges

Despite the socioeconomic opportunities and challenges of immigration and the hurdles for local governments, there are specific infrastructural particularities for long-established citizens and newcomers in rural areas.

Typically, there is a lack of public transport, educational institutions, and employers in rural areas, but not necessarily in small towns or mid-sized cities. One challenge is therefore the longer distance needed to arrive at the workplace, schools and other educational institutions, or shopping facilities. As public transport is less available compared to urban regions, the daily life of citizens of rural areas is car-dependent. However, immigrants, particularly refugees, tend to lack the financial means to purchase a car or obtain a driver’s license. To this end, immigrants consider rural areas as partly less attractive, although that applies only to peripheral areas with poor infrastructure.[vii] Examples of good practice at the local level either support and fund drivers’ licenses for refugees, expand public transportation, or offer transport services by volunteers.

Another aspect of overcoming the mobility issues in rural areas is the exploitation of digitalization to foster online courses for language learning and integration and work remotely. In several rural areas, however, internet coverage is an obstacle to overcome.

While it is difficult for immigrants and vulnerable groups to obtain housing in metropolitan areas, another favorable aspect for immigrants in rural areas is the availability of housing with relatively lower rents and pricing. Besides, tranquility, less anonymity, less traffic, and more space in rural areas are often preferred by immigrant families. Rural areas, however, have less availability of apartments for singles.[viii]

Whether migrants intend to move to rural areas and they are likely to stay depends first on their perspective on rural areas. People who grew up in rural areas and/or had positive experiences of country life are more likely to seek and appreciate rural areas in their new country. They enjoy the tranquility, seclusion, fresh air, nature, slower pace, and the lack of anonymity. Families also appreciate the secure environment for children. Besides demographic, economic, and infrastructural conditions, local governance competencies and strategies and the openness and attitudes of the host society regarding diversity play an important role in local rural integration.[ix] Thus, citizens’ interests and views need to be taken into account and policymakers should not underestimate the value of community building by fostering social contacts between citizens and newcomers.

What Opportunities for Peer Learning and Advocacy Already Exist?

Different local projects foster immigration and immigrant integration in rural areas, as mentioned above, with some connected to bigger networks. National and international networks and political organs are increasingly focusing on this topic, although they are still rare compared to the number of city networks addressing migration. The SHARE network in Europe, the European Committee of the Regions, and the network Welcoming AMERICA in the United States are particularly engaged in immigrant integration in rural areas.

The SHARE network focuses on resettlement in rural areas and fosters knowledge exchange and advocacy in this context. The Committee of the Regions, as one of the EU organs, demands a rural agenda and a rural deal for the EU and works together with the Smart Rural Intergroup of the EU for the recovery of rural areas in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Council of European Municipalities and Regions promotes a long-term vision for rural areas and a common agricultural policy in the EU. At the end of this year, the European Commission will launch the Rural Pact including an EU Rural Action Plan to fulfil the long-term vision for the EU’s rural areas until 2040. Funded by the EU, the projects Matilde, Whole-COMM, and Welcoming Spaces assess and foster the impact of migration and integration in rural regions a well as shrinking small and medium-sized towns.

In the United States, Welcoming America offers an initiative for rural areas to support selected communities by providing free core membership in the network, peer learning, training, and technical support. Community-based initiatives address economic development in the Austin, Minnesota area, community building in Cazenovia, New York, and the faith community in Cactus, Texas.[x]

Challenges for Peer Learning and the Development of Advocacy Strategies

Although good practices are partly carried out within bigger projects and networks, efforts to attract immigrants or to foster immigrant integration in rural areas are often relatively isolated. There remain obstacles to rural areas engagement in international networks or with higher government levels:

  • There are rarely networks exclusively for rural areas. Therefore, in networks representing the local level, bigger cities have more influence due to greater resources in terms of staff, funding, and political weight. Consequently, rural interests get diluted.
  • Information on the possibilities of exchange is often missing in rural areas, along with a lack of awareness of what they could gain from national and international engagement.
  • Mayors or administrative staff of small towns often refrain from engaging in international contexts, due to language issues, infrastructural issues, and/or limited financial or personnel resources.

GMF’s Cities Managing Migration brings together a transatlantic multi-city cohort to share and explore city practice and the role of cities in migration and integration policies at the local, national, and international levels. Specifically, cities will be convened around the topics of creative workforce integration, bridging borders, rural cities and towns, human-centered security, and diversity in civic life and leadership.


[i] Gauci, Jean-Pierre (2020): Integration of migrants in middle and small cities and in rural areas in Europe. European Committee of the Regions.

[ii] Tardis, Matthieu (2019): Another story from the „refugee crisis“ – Resettlement in Small Towns and Rural Areas in France. Etudes de l`IFRI.

[iii] NPR (2006): Utica, N.Y., Draws Immigrant population.

[iv] Schammann, Hannes; Younso, Christin; Meschter, Diana (2020): Lokale Migrationspolitik in ländlichen Regionen Deutschlands: Ausgangspunkte für empirische Forschung. Thünen Working Paper 142, p. 11ff.

[v] Günther, Johanna, Heimann, Christiane; Schammann, Hannes; Younso, Christin (2021): Alles Gold was glänzt? Fördermittel für die Integrationsarbeit in ländlichen Kreisen und Gemeinden. Ed.: Robert Bosch Stiftung

[vi] Günther, Johanna; Heimann, Christiane (2021): Erfahrungsbericht - gute Praxis: Vom Flickenteppich der Einzelförderung zum kohärenten “Kommunalen Integrationspaket” In: Land.Zuhause.Zukunft - Blog. Robert-Bosch-Stiftung

[vii] Weidinger, Tobias; Kordel, Stefan: Kieslinger, Julia (2019): Unravelling the Meaning of Place and Spatial Mobility: Analysing the Everyday Life-worlds of Refugees in Host Societies by Means of Mobility Mapping. In: Journal of Refugee Studies.

[viii] Weidinger, Tobias; Kordel, Stefan (2020): Access to and exclusion from housing over time: Refugees' experiences in rural areas. In: International Migration.

[ix] Glorius, Birgit; Bürer, Miriam; Schneider, Hanne (2021): Integration of refugees in rural areas and the role of the receiving society: conceptual review and analytical framework. In: Erdkunde.

[x] Welcoming America (2021): Welcoming Refugees in Rural Communities: Promising Examples from the Field.