By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
According to a new article in the New York Times, Italian rural villages are in danger due to mass migration to urban centers over the last century. “According to a 2016 Italian environmental association report, there are nearly 2,500 rural Italian villages that are perilously depopulated, some semi-abandoned and others virtual ghost towns.” This has been a phenomenon across Europe for decades. In 2001 “the Berlin government launched an unprecedented mass demolition programme to tear down hundreds of thousands of unwanted homes in a region where there are an estimated one million empty and largely derelict flats and houses,” according to an article in The Telegraph. There are numerous ghost towns in France.
Headlines about these abandoned villages are myriad. For instance “26 abandoned villages you can actually buy.” Some of them are whole towns. In Spain “entire villages are up for sale.” The Guardian noted in 2015: “Young people are leaving rural areas of Europe for the cities at a time when birth rates are at historic lows. As the countryside empties, should rising immigration be seen as a solution, not a problem?” And more and more articles. “Who will breath life into them,” asks a headline.
Why not house migrants and refugees in these tens of thousands of reportedly abandoned villages and towns. Why not “breath life” into these places by encouraging the migrants to move to these places? Instead what European countries have done is settle refugees and migrants in urban ghettos. In France they are called Banlieue, the suburbs of many cities, made up of brutalist concrete depression. It is in these places where there is more poverty, violence, anti-social activity, crime and problems with the police. In the UK and elsewhere social problems and cycles of poverty are associated with these government-planned “council estates” and other projects. The same is true of places like Malmo. In Brussels the NYT called Molenbeek, the “Islamic state of Molenbeek.” It wasn’t so long ago we had to hear about “Londonistan.” These headlines may be tinged with fearmongering and racism, but they tell us one thing: There is a problem with urbanization and concentration of poverty particularly in areas where migrants end up. They also tell us people shunted into these areas are stereotypes and stymatized.
Wouldn’t it be preferable to encourage migrants and refugees to have the choice to move to abandoned rural areas? They are in need of people and it is where less concentration of people can lead to economic success and less constraints on people’s lives that might lead to negative views of the state?
The state already provides subsidies for migrants and uses government housing, why not buy up the abandoned villages, and encourage migration to them. Some of the migrants and refugees come from rural environments in Syria, Afghanistan and parts of Africa. These are more often people skilled in rural life and used to the routine of rural life. Some articles note that they work in agriculture when they arrive. “Arriving from the Balkans, Africa and Asia migrants have fueled these often labour-intensive regional economies, to work in economically restructured rural areas and increasingly specialising seasonal agriculture.”
Why not provide the option at least of re-settlement in a rural community. Instead of creating a kulturkampf that has happened in some European countries and led to populist parties and probably increased radicalization and alienation, settling newcomers in rural villages would allow for integration at their own pace and allow the breathing space to integrate. Cities are not an ideal place for integration because they throw people together. At the Gare du Nord in Brussels, for instance, a heavily migrant neighborhood is next to the red light district. Does that likely lead to integration and success, or does that lead people to see their new country as a giant brothel, full of drunks and drug users?
If there are thousands of empty rural villages, European states should consider reviving them with migrants and refugees. Rather than trying to beg their former residents to come back or selling them to investors, or tearing down their old houses, let newcomers revive them.