Author: Dr. Magdalena Ulceluse
Guest-editor: Elaine Lebon-McGregor
Despite the overwhelming academic and media attention dedicated to immigration and its governance, for many countries across the globe emigration is a far more significant phenomenon. For instance, almost 40% of Guyana’s population resides abroad, 30% of Armenia’s and Albania’s, 24% of Lithuania’s, 20% of Romania’s, and 10% of Morocco’s and the Philippine’s. The emigration of such significant shares of population has affected these and other origin countries in myriad ways, by, for instance, impacting their (potential for) economic growth, their labour supply and wage levels, contributing to demographic changes such as ageing and population decline, and generating significant political and institutional effects. Some origin countries have responded to these changes by adopting comprehensive emigration policies meant to establish and strengthen a line of communication with their diaspora, to amplify the potential benefits and gains from emigration and to mitigate the potential negative effects. Such policies include, but are not limited to, extending political (e.g. voting) and social (e.g. pension, full worker benefits) rights, offering cultural and education programs, facilitating investments and business creation from their emigrant population abroad or incentivizing return migration.
The effects of emigration, however, are not evenly distributed across a country’s territory. In fact, within an origin country, localities experiencing acute depopulation and economic decline due to emigration can co-exist with localities experiencing population increase and economic growth due to internal migration and even immigration (e.g. in Poland, Romania). Generalized national emigration policies, when in place, do not address the specific issues surrounding depopulating areas, and their outcomes tend to reinforce rather than mitigate these existing spatial inequalities. For instance, return migrants (and their investments) tend to concentrate in the capital or other large urban areas which offer employment opportunities, higher wages, and better man-made amenities, and less so in the opportunity-thin depopulating areas. Faced with debilitating consequences of emigration and little specific support from national governments, more and more localities are developing their own emigration-related strategies.
How does emigration affect the local level?
Emigration is profoundly changing the socio-economic, political, and cultural fabric of some cities and villages. For the local governments in these areas, emigration is not just another local problem, as it affects a broad range of local policy domains, including the provision of services, the labour market, and even local politics. At one end of the spectrum, the departure of people may imply a significant loss of tax revenue, impairing the local governments’ ability to continue providing for local services or to invest in local infrastructure developments. News of depopulating areas and of services like schools and medical clinics being discontinued because of a lack of people are increasingly common, as are news of local labour shortages. Emigration may lead to physical changes in the local landscape, in the form of abandoned places, closed shops, or on the contrary, new neighbourhoods with freshly built houses, new shops or renovated facilities. Emotionally, emigration touches deeper chords within the community, affecting feelings of unity and kinship. Recent research shows how residents in places with a high emigration rate in Romania experienced a loss of communal solidarity and social cohesion, incurred not only by the departure of a significant share of the local population, but also by their (temporary) return with what are perceived to be “Western” attitudes of individualism and lack of spirituality. At the other end of the spectrum, emigration may bring about positive effects. Remittances sent to families left behind can increase consumption and thus local taxes, which can then be used for local investments in infrastructure and services. Emigrants can invest in the local economy by opening up businesses or facilitating business partnerships between origin and destination cities. “Western” attitudes, beliefs or habits inculcated through return or circular migration can contribute to positive social change through; for instance, political engagement inducing progressive local leadership changes and the phasing out of corrupt practices.
For all these reasons and more, local governments in origin countries are proactively creating their own strategies and policies in response to emigration in an effort to address the human and material losses it entails and to ensure that it enhances rather than undermines collective welfare.
How are local governments addressing emigration and its effects?
Emigration may be perceived as an existential threat or an exponential opportunity by local governments, and the local policies will likely reflect one or both of these perceptions. If they perceive emigration as an opportunity, local governments may incentivize emigrant business creation and investments in the locality or foster political support from the emigrant population abroad. If they perceive it as a threat, they may incentivize return migration and reintegration, or internal migration from within the country. Generally, local emigration related policies touch upon economic, social, political, and cultural dimensions, and include a combination of mitigation and adaptation measures.
For instance, recent research on the village of Bosanci, Romania, revealed local emigration related policies that could be broadly divided into four areas, namely, investments in local infrastructure, creating a business-friendly environment and employment opportunities, nurturing relations with the diaspora, and restoring trust in local institutions. Specific measures include local seed funding for opening up businesses, land provision for house building, bilateral visits to local emigrant destination cities abroad (e.g. Brussels), transparent administrative processes, and improvements in the quality and availability of local services. These measures reflect a three-pronged strategy which aims to maintain a channel of communication with the emigrant population abroad, to tap into migrant’s economic potential and encourage return migration. Evidence from the city of Palanga in Lithuania revealed measures whose purpose is to incentivize return migration through investments in childcare and education, and job creation, especially in the tourism sector. The local government has also adopted a benefits scheme which will see return migrants settling in with young children receive up to EUR 1,000 in tax return for a period of up to three years. Similarly, the city of Cēsis, in Latvia, is focused on nurturing relations with the diaspora through personal visits to main destination countries such as the UK or Ireland, and on encouraging return migration by providing administrative support for returnees and more prominently publicizing local job vacancies. Other local governments facilitate formal channels of emigration in an effort to foster skill acquisition and exchange. For instance, an integral component of the Mayors Dialogue, an alliance of mayors from Europe and Africa, is to create mobility options for women and youth for the purpose of skills development, and a number of similar migration pathways have been opened through the MENTOR programme implemented between Milan, Turin, Tunis and several Moroccan cities.
Why is the local turn in emigration governance important?
The local turn in the governance of emigration and its effects should not be surprising, since it is the local context that shapes opportunities and impacts migration decisions. It is also at this level that the positive and negative effects of emigration are most strongly felt, and it is the local (city or village) as opposed to the national level that individuals identify most with. Moreover, a local approach to the governance of emigration and its effects presents the advantage of addressing specific issues and needs, and hence to implement policies that are pragmatic and tailored to the locality concerned. These policies often contrast with the more symbolic (and often broad and general) tendencies of national policies.
Nevertheless, the emergence of a local turn in the governance of emigration and its effects should be considered within the context of national emigration strategies in place, or their lack thereof. In the former case, local governments act out of a pragmatic approach to policymaking or because existing national measures do not address their specific issues and needs. Importantly, local policies are not necessarily extensions of national measures, but can be used instrumentally to achieve own local strategies and objectives which might even be at odds with national interests. In the latter case, the absence of a national strategy means local governments need to act and innovate in order to gain resilience to emigration shocks. In fact, it is often the inability or unwillingness of states to develop effective responses to emigration that prompts local governments to develop their own.
Understanding what triggers and shapes local responses to emigration helps us better grasp the link between national and local levels of governance, as well as how these affect local development processes. Moreover, by promoting ties with the place of origin, local policies incentivize transnational practices among migrants, with reverberating socio-economic, political, and cultural effects for both sending and receiving localities. The upside of these transnational practices might be opportunities for socio-economic cooperation between origin and host localities. The downside might be that transnational practices incentivized by local emigration policies might affect the process of immigrant integration in receiving areas. The depth and breadth of these ramifications make local governments increasingly critical actors in the governance of emigration.
Magdalena Ulceluse is a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Groningen. She has previously held visiting research fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Gottingen, the International Migration Institute in Oxford, the University of Amsterdam, and the Central European Labour Studies Institute in Bratislava.
Her research focuses on several aspects of the migration process, including its relationship with development and socio-spatial inequality, migrant’s destination choice, and the role of local policies in mediating the effects of im/e-migration. She is particularly interested in the policies and practices implemented by local governments in origin countries to minimize the negative effects of emigration and maximize the positive effects.
She has previously worked on projects for several governments and international organizations, including the European Commission, the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration and ESPON, among others.
OM World Migration Report 2020; OECD (2017) Talent Abroad: A Review of Moroccan Emigrants; OECD (2019) Talent Abroad: A Review of Romanian Emigrants; Asis, M. (2017) The Philippines: Beyond Labor Migration, Toward Development and (Possibly) Return; EMN Lithuania (2021) Migration in Numbers.
Ulceluse, M. (2020). Local government responses to emigration: The case of Bosanci, Romania. Migration Policy Practice, 10(3), 9–11.
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Scholten, P., & Penninx, R. (2016). The Multilevel Governance of Migration and Integration. In Integration Processes and Policies in Europe. Contexts, Levels and Actors. Edited by Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas and Rinus Penninx. Springer.