Demographic trends in rural Europe and international migration to rural areas

Demographic trends in rural Europe and international migration to rural areas
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Demographic trends in rural Europe1

As Europe undergoes a rapid demographic change migrant workers are going to become more and more important.
The EU Commission, being fully aware of these developments, issued a Green Paper in 2005, in which it is clearly stated that the EU will need 20 million migrants between 2010 and 2030 to cover the decline of its economically active population. However, the designation and implementation of a Policy Plan for legal migration in 2005 does not seem to be a success story until today (Commission of the European Communities 2005). The EU has not resolved still the contradiction of the acknowledged labour needs and the adoption of restrictive migration policies. Nevertheless, net migration into Europe is still increasing and is now the largest component of population change.
In the greatest part of the twentieth century the regional pattern of population change in most European countries was characterised by a ‘rural exodus’ and increasing urbanisation.
However, from the 1970s onwards ‘counter urbanisation’ became a common trend in the ‘well developed’ parts of the world. Together with a parallel process of ‘de-agriculturalisation’ of rural households and an increasing development of non-agricultural activities in rural areas, these processes contributed largely to the formation of a ‘new rurality’ characterising more and more the rural regions of Europe.
Demographic ageing has been an important issue in the rural regions of some Member States, notably Spain, Greece, Portugal and France, where the rural populations are consisted of a higher proportion of people over 65. The same countries show a relatively low ratio of children (0-15) to pensioners (>65), a low ratio of young adults (15-24) to pensioners, and a high overall dependency ratio (total population/ages 15-64). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the ageing of the rural and farm population and the need to accommodate or reduce the flow of young people out of the countryside has been a serious challenge to the generational renewal and the sustainability of the European rural regions. This development reveals the complexity of the rural labour markets and the social mismatch of the demand and supply of employment.
Statistics show that almost 17% of rural population in EU is over retirement age. In the rural regions of France, Greece, Spain and Portugal, in particular, the proportion of retired people is above the EU average and between 18-22% while the dependency ratios are higher.
In EU-25 only 10% of farm holders are younger than 35 years old (European Commission 2006). On the other hand, the continued restructuring and modernisation of Europe's agriculture is expected to place a heavy burden on many rural areas. According to a Communication from the Commission (COM 2006 857 final), on the basis of current trends it is to be expected that in EU-15 some 2 million workers on a full time basis will leave the sector by 2014. In addition, 1-2 million full-time workers may potentially leave the sector within the ten New Member States, and 1-2 million workers in Bulgaria and Romania (European Commission 2007).
Particularly those rural areas which are most remote, depopulated or dependent on agriculture face strong challenges as regards growth, jobs and sustainability in the coming years.

Migrants in the rural regions of Europe

Some of these demographic imbalances have been halted so far by two independent developments: ‘counter urbanisation’, mentioned earlier, and ‘international migration’. The paper concentrates on the latter because migration is considered more crucial for both the demographic and the economic revitalisation of rural regions.
Strong migration flows to rural regions are a relatively new phenomenon in the European context and they have had a significant and growing impact on peripheral and rural areas.
A number of factors can explain that.
On the one hand, the restructuring of agriculture has created significant demands for labour which could not be satisfied because of the unfavourable demographic changes in rural areas related to rural exodus and ageing of the population; on the other hand, the indigenous labour rarely has the necessary motivation and mobility for such work and is unwilling to work for low wages and under poor working conditions. Furthermore, the European countryside has, over the past few years, become an arena for the development of non-agricultural activities - manufacturing, tourism, housing expansion, new consumption patterns, connected to leisure and recreation that have increased demand for labour.
In such an environment migrants come and fill the gaps left in the rural labour markets by the national population. These gaps are socially defined and regulated rather than strictly economically prescribed. Employees end up in different segments of the labour markets on the basis of their ethnicity, gender and class. For migrants, these sectors consist mainly of agriculture, construction, family handicraft, hospitality/tourism, and domestic services in which they provide their labour for the marginal, least secure, highly exploitative, under-paid and non-insured jobs (Kasimis 2008).

Southern European countries

A number of interdependent factors like globalisation, EU enlargement and the particular socio-economic developments in Southern European countries (improvement of living standards and education, women’s integration into the labour market, expansion of the tertiary sector and finally the extended informal economy) have transformed these countries from senders to receivers of migration flows (King 2000).
Evidence shows a rapid increase in migrant employment in agriculture and rural regions that expanded in late 1980s and early 1990s. This is connected to agriculture’s particular weight in the economies and societies of all Southern European countries. In fact, half of the agriculturally employed population and two-thirds of the farm holdings of the EU - 15 were concentrated in the European South before the enlargement (European Commission 2004).
In Italy, migrants are over-represented in agricultural employment in comparison with the economically active population of the country (13.1 percent as against 5.3 percent). They make up 60 percent of the total seasonal labour force in agriculture, while the majority of them are irregular and mostly seasonally employed in the crop seasons. Two thirds of those employed originate from Eastern Euroean countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Romania (De Zulueta 2003; Calavita 2006).
Spain’s 2001 Census showed that 17 percent of all migrants are settled in rural areas and nearly 10% of all insured migrants are employed in the agricultural sector. Moroccans are represented by 40,7% Equadorians by 15,3% and Romanians by 11,5%. Recent evidence shows that Romanians and Bulgarians have nowadays started substituting the once-dominant African migrants (Cánovas Pedreño, 2005; Mendoza, 2001).
Even Portugal’s large-scale agriculture now reportedly relies heavily on inexpensive migrant labour. In rural areas, they are employed in construction and the agricultural sector (especially in the Alentejo, Ribatejo, and Oeste regions) (Baganha and Fonseca 2004).
In Greece the percentage of migrants employed in agriculture is over 17% of their total population. They provide nearly one fifth of the total labour days expended in the sector having become the exclusive contributors of wage labour (Kasimis 2008).
Arriving from the Balkans, Africa and Asia migrants have fuelled these often labour-intensive regional economies, to work in economically restructured rural areas and increasingly specialising seasonal agriculture.
The latter point involves continually hiring new agricultural labourers from the lowest segments of the job market, assigning them the least skilled jobs and/or hiring them on a casual and irregular basis to work in both entrepreneurial and family farms. However, migrants are not restricted to agriculture. They often play a multifunctional role in rural regions alternating between agriculture, tourism and construction. They are also engaged in the provision of an overall support of aged populations, especially in marginal or mountainous rural areas.
Migrants and women (migrant and indigenous) make up the wage labour in the intensive crops where gender and ethnicity define the terms and conditions of employment. In the South irregular migrants are employed to ensure flexible labour relations in a time of continuous efforts for the deregulation of labour markets. For that purpose often the institutional treatment of migration reflects the requirements of a social organisation of agriculture in which the social subject of production is often deprived of the citizen rights (Pedone 2005; Mendoza 2001).
Migrant labour in the rural regions of Southern Europe constitutes a ‘new rural class’ the presence of which has often caused social tensions connected directly with their way of life, work conditions and their regime of residence. On the other hand the continuation of the arrival of irregular migrants services the maintenance of a model of agricultural production that inhibits the process of labour and social integration of migrants in these rural regions.

Northern European countries

In some northern European countries, such as Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany and the Scandinavian countries (particularly Norway), rural areas have particularly benefited from the 2004 EU enlargement. Increasing evidence suggests that the majority of migrant workers from the 2004 accession states have found employment in rural areas rather than in the traditional migration centres.
More than one in three agricultural workers in UK (England and Scotland) are estimated to be migrants almost exclusively arriving from Accession 8 countries representing approximately ¼ of the total number of Workers Registration Scheme (WRS) registrations (Jentch 2007).
One in three dairy farms in many rural areas are employing Polish workers while nearly 300,000 Poles and a few thousand Czechs or Romanians flood to Germany each year during the six-week asparagus harvesting season (The Christian Science Monitor 2006).
The agricultural sector is among the top receiving branches of migrant workers in the Norwegian economy, especially in the summer season. Since 1990, when the Norwegian authorities established a seasonal migration quota programme directed towards meeting the demand for labour in the sector, the number of migrant workers employed in agriculture has been rising to reach an estimated number of 22,000 in 2005 (Andrzejewska 2007).
An initial analysis of migration patterns to Northern European rural regions shows that migrant work in rural areas is mostly organised legally, is more seasonal than in urban areas and geographically concentrated in specific sectors: agriculture and the food industry, hospitality, manufacturing, distribution.
But migrants working in the rural areas of Northern Europe are not always regular and European. Reports related to the fish and the cockles industries make reference to extensive employment of irregular Chinese labourers. Irregular employment, deteriorating working conditions and low remunerations are reportedly expanding. Just before the crisis, increasing shortages in labour hands and the demands for an urgent increase in the seasonal agricultural workers were reported.
In agriculture (dairy farming, fruit and vegetable), fish farming and processing and hospitality migrant labour has become a structural characteristic of the industries according to the statements of the employers themselves.
At a geographical level, once we examine the phenomenon of migration comparatively, it becomes clear that the European countries under consideration do not constitute a homogeneous frame of reference. Thus, the theoretical construct of a ‘Southern’ and a ‘Northern’ European model of migration could be challenged nowadays. First, Southern European countries are not a ‘unified’ geographical entity and within each of them - especially Italy and Spain - regional differences are substantial. Second, more emphasis should be placed upon the differences observed between the Southern European countries, mostly in relation to the composition of the migrant population and the relations between the recipient country and the countries of origin.
Hence, the theoretical models of Northern and Southern migration discussed should not be treated as static models given the development of the phenomenon and the changes a number of other developments can bring to most countries. Changes in the socio-economics and the demographics of migration, as well as the discussion on integration and diversity in the European South, could lead to a convergence of the characteristics of the Southern and the Northern models of migration.

The expected implications of the economic crisis

The present economic crisis has highlighted even more the contradictions of Europe’s migration policies and the dangers of loosing the contributing factor to rural sustainability in the possibility of a gradual withdrawal of migrants from the rural labour markets.
The crisis is expected to affect migration on 4 levels: employment, return migration, remittances and social integration (Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation & Poverty 2009).
In agriculture and the food sector international trade pressures, the reform of the CAP and the consequent reduction of subsidies and crop changes, followed by the recent economic crisis, have led to increasing pressures to either reduce the size of migrant employment and/or re-engage more family members in order to cut down labour costs. Such a development would imply a redefinition of labour relations and of family division of labour on and off the farm, in particular, and may have consequences for the future of migrants in rural regions.
The crisis has also brought changes to the attitudes of indigenous population towards agricultural work. There were indications that Britons were “now applying for some of the more seasonal, agricultural-type jobs” they might have rejected before (The Financial Times 2009).
The situation is rather different for the non-EU migrants. Despite the close distance with receiving countries like Greece and Italy, no mass returns are identified for Albanians for example. The family structure and long duration of their stay in parallel with the weak economic prospects in their home country make decisions to return less easy.
In other cases too the cost of return, the weak human capital they carry and family conditions make return a difficult decision to take.
In the midst of an economic crisis, the direction of the developments and the size of the threats for he sustainability of the rural regions of both receiving and sending countries are still difficult to foresee. It all depends on the depth and duration of the crisis and on the structural characteristics of the labour markets and of the migrants themselves.

Conclusions and implications for policy

Migrants have been employed in many tasks, with differing skills, and significant geographic mobility over the seasons. In short, they have provided a highly flexible labour force. They have not supplanted native wage labourers; rather, they have improved the organisation and management of farm enterprises, relieving family members of manual tasks. Hired to do arduous, health-threatening, and low-paid jobs, they have greatly served rural areas and have been very important for the agricultural and wider economic development of them.
In regions where agriculture holds a significant position in the local economy, the positive consequences of migrant labour have ranged from farm preservation to farm expansion and modernisation. In marginal areas, migrants have provided rural households with the labour necessary for the maintenance of their traditional/cultural life. This last contribution is key to understanding the social and demographic implications of migrants’ presence in the rural regions of Southern Europe in particular.
Migrants have offered great services in other forms of rural economic activities such as construction, hospitality/tourism, and personal/domestic services providing the necessary labour at low cost. They have also improved demographic indicators in many rural regions. In some regions lacking women willing to get married and to stay in rural areas, migrant women offered ‘solutions’ as spouses, improving fertility rates and keeping young farmers on the land.
While the work of migrants is becoming increasingly important, most Member States have few policies designed to attract, admit, and benefit systematically from the work of migrants. On the contrary member States design unsuccessfully programmes for the repatriation of migrants when the persisting problems of Europe’s agricultural sector and rural regions require policies that will regulate and monitor their employment and integration. These policies need to adhere to principles of social justice, and should resolve the problems of regularisation, of equal pay for jobs of equal value and of social rights. They should promote economic efficiency through job training and education. Such an approach must also support the restructuring of the agricultural sector and the development of the countryside.
We must recognise the fact that rural areas also need to deal with the new EU policies of rural environmental protection, the production of quality agricultural goods, and the requirements for multifunctional agriculture, which in addition to producing food and fibre, will preserve the landscape and create rural employment.


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  • 1. This paper draws from a presentation of the author in the Thematic Symposium “Mobilities and Stabilities in Rural Space” organised by the European Society of Rural Sociology in the context of the XXIII ESRS Congress held in Vaasa, Finland in August 2009.