Migration to Europe from outside the continent is largely, and most noticeably, an urban phenomenon. In some countries, however, the presence of migrants has an equally significant impact on rural areas. The European Mediterranean (EUMed) countries are on the frontline of migration from outside Europe, at the borders of radically different cultures, so it is instructive to look at the impacts they have experienced in recent decades and the changes these impacts have brought about. In this paper, we use the examples of Greece, Italy and Spain to examine the consequences of migration from outside Europe in rural regions and how the dynamic interaction between migration and rural Europe has transformed the economic, social and cultural fabric of these areas. We also aim to point out that the rural development (revitalisation) model applied across Europe, based on the resettlement of migrants, is unsustainable and, in addition to its short-term benefits of dubious value, imports further unsolvable and long-term problems into the region.

Transformations in the second half of the 20th century

After the Second World War, agriculture in the EUMed countries was affected by three major impacts: changes in agricultural practices, globalisation and, from the 1980s, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Historically, the agricultural sector has been the backbone of the rural economy in these countries, dominated by small farms using traditional farming methods. However, the post-war era brought a paradigm shift towards agricultural modernisation. This transition was driven by technological progress, mechanisation and the introduction of fertilisers and pesticides to increase productivity and efficiency in response to growing food demand and global economic pressures. (Agnoletti et al., 2019) The tight price competition has encouraged farmers to reduce production costs. This, together with the priority given to productivity, pushed producers towards the cheapest possible labour that could be easily mobilised.

The opening of international markets and increasing competition from imported agricultural products has put pressure on local farmers to adopt more intensive and efficient farming methods. This change has transformed not only the physical landscape, but also the social fabric of rural communities, leading to the decline of traditional farming practices and the loss of local knowledge and cultural heritage related to agriculture. (Nassauer & Wascher, 2008) At the same time, a younger and more dynamic rural population moved to the cities in search of better living conditions and more lucrative job opportunities. The modernisation of agricultural activities and the mechanisation of labour-intensive tasks have increased the demand for seasonal guest workers. They are the ones who mainly take care of the fruit and vegetable plantations, where manual labour is still needed. European Union policies, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), have played a key role in shaping rural landscapes in the EU’s Mediterranean countries. The CAP was originally designed to create food security and stabilise markets after World War II, but the implementation of these policies has also led to unintended consequences, such as the intensification of agriculture and the abandonment of less productive areas. This further fractured the rural landscape structure and its socioeconomic environment. By the 2000s, agriculture still played a significant role in the economies and societies of all southern European countries. The share of the agricultural sector in the GDP of Southern European countries was twice the EU average, while half of the EU’s agricultural population and two-thirds of agricultural holdings were concentrated in Southern Europe.

While the resulting situation made agricultural work and the rural environment less and less attractive to the local population, newly arriving international immigrants saw the agrorural space as a favourable arrival environment,

as it provided them with easier access to livelihood resources than urban areas (in many cases, they migrated on to the cities after a while).

Since the 1980s, the EUMed countries have undergone a decisive change in the nature of migration routes, first as transit countries and then as destinations for migratory movements. In the “Mediterranean migration model”, migrant workers are seasonal, typically in low-skilled jobs (agricultural labourer, manufacturing worker, porter), and their numbers can only be estimated due to the prevalence of illegal and semi-illegal employment and the lenient attitude of the authorities: by the 2010s, the share of migrants among agricultural workers was around 25% in Spain, around 37% in Italy and over 50% in Greece. (Nori & Farinella, 2020) These rates have increased significantly since then. It should be noted, however, that the majority of migrants in the labour market have arrived from Europe: the share of Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian migrants arriving since the 1990s has until recently exceeded the share of non-European migrants.

Migrants in rural areas of Greece, Italy and Spain

The political changes in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 led to a sudden and uncontrolled surge of immigrants in Greece. Although the country was one of the less economically developed members of the EU during this period, it had the highest immigration rate relative to the size of its labour market. At the beginning of the 1990s, the number of migrants was only 6% of the population, but this figure doubled by 2020. This increase illustrates the dynamics of immigration flows over time. Albanians were the largest ethnic group, making up a third of all immigrants in 2020. Recently, the so-called “Eastern route” has become popular again for migrants, with Syria, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Somalia among the countries of origin. Both in Greece and in other parts of southern Europe, the sudden increase in the pace of immigration has been an unexpected challenge. The beginning of a new socioeconomic era was marked, among other things, by increased unemployment and crime rates. (Kasimis et al., 2003)

Greek agriculture is suffering from several structural problems: a small and fragmented farm structure, low levels of organisation and productivity, lack of new technologies and tools, low levels of vocational training and research and development (R&D), dependence on subsidies and lack of branding. Young Greeks living in rural areas are reluctant to take seasonal, unstable and low-paid agricultural jobs, preferring to seek a more stable livelihood in the cities. Despite these shortcomings, intensive crop production and the massive employment of migrants mean that agriculture accounts for around 4% of GDP (compared to an EU average of 2%). In order to remain competitive, farmers reduce production costs by not declaring temporary migrant workers and often fail to provide even basic working conditions.

The agricultural sector is thus becoming entrenched in an obsolete and fundamentally unsustainable structure, which, however, at the cost of giving up the future, provides farmers with a relatively stable income for the time being.

The question is whether this productive structure can be maintained without second generation migrants, who, following the example of the native Greek youth, are also migrating to the cities in search of higher-quality jobs.

However, the social inclusion of migrants is not only an economic issue, but also a question of national and cultural identity. This is evidenced by the fact that rural communities are less open to the idea and practice of multiculturalism than urban communities. The increasing number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Afghanistan, with cultures radically different from the host Greek society, has further strengthened this resistance. Whereas in the past there may have been some mutuality between Albanian, Romanian and Bulgarian migrants and local communities, closer (non-work) contact with non-European migrants is strongly rejected by rural people. (Papadopoulos & Fratsea, 2023)

Italy is a prime destination for migratory flows from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The economic crises of recent years have fundamentally reshaped the social and geographical dynamics of migration: by directing migrants to rural and peripheral areas, Italy’s small rural communities have become “new destinations of immigration”. In addition to relieving the burden on towns and cities, the development of rural welcome centres was aimed at revitalising rural areas that were becoming depopulated and ageing. In the first decade of the 2000s, around 1.5 million migrants settled temporarily or permanently in southern Italy. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of foreign workers employed in the southern Italian economy increased by 67%. (McAreavey & Argent, 2018)

Europe, having previously experienced large waves of emigration and labour movements within its own borders, now finds itself on the front line of receiving a significant influx of people from the Islamic world.

Italy currently has the third largest Muslim population in the European Union, with between 2.8 and 3 million. This makes Islam the second largest religion in the country, but it is not officially recognised as a church in Italy. The first Muslim immigrants (mostly men seeking work) arrived in the 1980s from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, and there are now significant numbers of Albanian and Senegalese Muslims living in the country. They are mainly found in the economically developed northern and central urban regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, and, reflecting broader labour market trends, many are factory or construction workers, porters, domestic helpers, cooks, mechanics or agricultural workers. (Bettin & Cela, 2014)

However, this does not mean that Muslims do not live in rural areas, but their presence is much less noticeable to the outsider. To understand this phenomenon, it is worth noting that there are currently eight mosques in Italy (compared to around 2,200 in France, for example). Since Islam is not a recognised religion, the places of worship are mostly in buildings maintained or rented by Islamic cultural associations, which were originally civilian buildings. In rural areas, such spaces are limited, and local residents see the gathering of Muslim invaders to pray in a sports hall or a shop’s storeroom as a symbolic intrusion into their own space. Muslims in Italy are an ethnically heterogeneous group, who do not always understand each other’s languages (only about 20% are Arabic) and may belong to different branches of Islam (Sunni or Shiite) (in addition, the majority of Senegalese are Sufi). This diversity is almost unacceptable to the basically devout (and religious) Catholic rural majority, who are understandably suspicious of newcomers who are radically different from them, both ethnically, culturally and ideologically.

Since the 1980s, agriculture in the south of Spain has also undergone a major transformation. The intensification of production and export orientation required the use of new technologies such as greenhouses and fertilisers, and new types of food crops required more manual labour. Farms were looking for workers who were flexible, seasonal and could make do with lower wages and poorer conditions.

This change coincided with the period when southern Europe became an area of immigration, and immigrants became an important part of the agricultural labour force. Southern Spain was at this time referred to as “the California of Europe”, because of its high production levels and the social tensions that had developed. The indigenous population has gradually moved to the cities from the countryside, while the proportion of foreigners in formal employment has increased significantly. The agricultural workers of the region at that time were Eastern Europeans (Romanians, Bulgarians), North Africans (Moroccans, Algerians) and people from Latin America (Ecuador, Colombia), who were treated as necessary labourers, as people who needed to be put up with. In the words of one mayor, “every immigrant is needed in the morning, and by the evening they are all redundant”.

Labour and migrant management practices have operated for decades seemingly without opposition or controversy, although in fact there have been both hidden and overt conflicts.

Neo-liberal thinkers and migration advocates refer to the model that has emerged in these regions as multicultural coexistence. In reality, the situation can be described more as an “ethno-fragmented” local society living side by side. (Avallone, 2013) Ethnic groups from different cultural and economic backgrounds share public services and other important areas but are distinctly distant from each other. Revitalising “empty Spain”, the empty and ageing interior Spanish countryside as a result of the exodus of locals, by resettling migrants is equally unlikely to succeed.

The failure of the rural migration strategy

The idea of using immigrants from outside Europe to revitalise rural areas has not proved to be a sustainable strategy in the long term, and is fuelled by a tragic misunderstanding of the countryside and ruralism. We support this claim on four points:

  • Firstly, the integration potential of rural settlements and rural society is significantly lower than in urban areas. The structural and functional aspects of rural communities, deeply rooted in decades or even centuries of shared history, are resistant to rapid change. These communities are characterised by a tightly knit social fabric that cannot be easily changed or adapted to accommodate newcomers.
  • Secondly, it is a misconception that once a person has been integrated, the process is complete. Integration is not a static result, but a continuous, dynamic process. The second generation of migrants often struggle more deeply with identity and belonging, and sometimes take a more radical stance than their parents. This phenomenon calls into question the simplistic view of integration as a one-off task, and underlines the need for continued support and engagement between generations.
  • Thirdly, deep-rooted social differences often overshadow the superficial similarities brought about by multicultural economic integration. Cultural, religious and social norms can differ significantly, creating barriers that are impossible to overcome through economic activities alone. These differences lead to segregation and social tensions, rather than the cohesive and integrated communities that the resettlement strategy aims to create.
  • Finally, the shift towards industrialised and intensive agriculture in rural areas, which is often used as an economic justification for the resettlement of migrants, is not always the right direction. Such agricultural practices, while potentially more productive in the short term, can lead to ecological damage, loss of biodiversity and erosion of traditional ways of life and community ties. Moreover, this agricultural model may not be sustainable in the long term, with negative environmental and social consequences.
The failure of the rural migration strategy shows that replacing the dwindling population of rural areas with external migrants is not a sustainable solution. The integration challenges of rural communities, the dynamic nature of integration, social and cultural differences, and concerns about intensive agricultural models are all factors that undermine the efficiency and sustainability of this strategy.
• Migration and spatial structure

Following the demographic losses of the Second World War, highly industrialised Western European countries decided to import migrant workers from Southern European and North African countries in order to rebuild their industries. The first wave of immigrants settled in industrial regions.  As industrialisation, a strong service sector and transport infrastructure go hand in hand with urbanisation in the West, and cities provide the conditions for settlement, migration is largely an urban phenomenon. Following family reunification in the 1970s and 1980s, immigrant communities were established in the formerly working-class suburban neighbourhoods of Europe’s major cities, leading to ethnic tensions between the indigenous population and the newcomers. Immigrant communities remained oriented by the economic and social norms of their country of origin, which discouraged integration efforts in the host countries.

Europe remains the number one destination for migration today, but the European Union and the governments of the countries concerned have failed to provide comprehensive and effective responses to the economic and social challenges posed by immigration. Our series of analyses aims to explore the regional nature of migration, its impact on local societies and the motivations behind the migration policies of the European Union and host countries.