End of Year Reflection: Repopulating Rural Areas through Migration

Johannes C. van Nieuwkerk
9 min readDec 14, 2022


Looking back on 2022, a new refugee crisis is looming and there is a fierce discussion going on about the dissimilar treatment of groups of people. This year I wrote four essays about improvements or solutions: one discusses people’s reinclusion, one proposes to use dignity instead of equal treatment as a basis for support, one shows how to enhance a refugee’s cultural adaptation, and one recommends modernization of the Geneva refugee convention. The current article is a complement to the previous four and is about a proactive relocation solution, namely to repopulate rural areas and use them as a starting point or buffer for displaced people, thus preventing irregular migration and replacing it by a regular solution.

Although accepting refugees and displaced people should not be primarily measured in their current or future economic contribution to the host country or community, the cost of a non-participation mismatch can financially severely restrict a society’s capacity to absorb people. If people cannot adapt to one place whereas they could to another, or in case they will be in need of permanent support, better tuning of the relocation environment with the profile of the displaced people could substantially increase the number of vulnerable people to be helped within the same budget.

Matching is not a refugee’s task; displaced people just look for shelter and safety. They choose the destination that in their mind offers them most chances or benefits. However, in reality, their assumptions may not be true and can easily lead to overburdening of certain locations. At the same time, absorption capacity elsewhere often remains unused.

In order to become proactive and facilitate better matching, we will need to modernize the Geneva refugee convention. It has to cover also IDPs, climate refugees and people who are forced to migrate because of overpopulation and a related lack of dignified livelihoods at home. By redesigning the convention this way, we cover all people that predictably are at risk of becoming forcibly displaced.

Migration pressure needs to be addressed at the source and should include local measures such as speeding up the demographic transition and creating local livelihood opportunities. If there are no such options available, organized relocation has to follow automatically.

To summarize: we need to change our society’s attitude from passively waiting for displaced people to arrive at, and cross our borders, to proactively helping and relocating people who are victims of forced migration pressure. In order to optimize the matching process, it should as much as possible be coordinated by all worldwide societies as part of their common global human responsibility.


Although most people stay in their often low-income region, a current major mismatch remains that many refugees are magnetically attracted to cluster in the most developed and more prosperous, densely populated, areas in the world. The issue is that these areas, from the point of view of labor skills requirements, also tend to be more specialized and that refugees often do not possess the educational background and language/working/knowledge skills to immediately or even longer term properly connect or participate there.

The above makes people dependent on social welfare and integration programs. As an outcome, upon adaptation, they frequently tend to end-up in culturally separated relatively low social positions. Looking at cost, these areas are facing the highest living/welfare expenses per person. This results frequently in a strong pressure to connect people to the labor market as soon as possible; education-capabilities-wise mostly thus not exploring the migrants’ full potential.

Of course there are many exceptions. For example, already well educated or skilled people often perfectly connect or match and are very motivated to participate. However, this is not the rule but the exception. For example, on average, it takes 5 years of welfare dependency before refugees connect to the labor market in Europe.

A second factor is that social housing is mostly very scarce in these developed areas. The current asylum crisis in The Netherlands is a good illustration of this. To maximize the number of people who can be offered a dignified future and to exploit their personal potential, it is consequently necessary to match displaced people with all solutions available and use the synergy that can be found this way.

Refival’s proposition is therefore to better match the geography of relocation with the profile of displaced people and to better prepare people from an adaptation and education point of view. This way, social inclusion can be maximized and social mobility can be optimized. Rural repopulation is one of such solutions and will be discussed into more detail now.

Rural decline

According to the World Bank, the balance between the rural and the urban population worldwide is steadily shifting in favor of urbanization. In spite of this, on a global level and in absolute numbers, the global rural population is still growing. This is misleading though. If one looks on a deeper level at different locations, the growth is actually a sum of growth and decline and is thus unbalanced. Analyzing certain areas (mostly in developed counties) over the past 60 years, 100 million people (in absolute numbers) have actually left the countryside for the city. This number equals the current number of displaced people worldwide. It is hence very worthwhile to analyze if a solution can be found to connect both issues and address them simultaneously.

For example, in Europe 35 million people have left the rural areas since 1960, often leaving the elderly or empty villages behind. The main reason for their departure has been a spiral of decline. As a start, the role of agriculture as a percentage of GDP has become reduced. Furthermore, farming has faced mechanization and a strongly increased use of technology over the past decades. For the society as a whole, including rural areas, this caused a demand for labor specialization. However, rural areas were unable to diversify their job opportunities and as a result rural flight started.

A second factor is that a more specialized society in general also requires better, more specialized, education to perform tasks. Again, rural areas were unable to offer this and younger people had to leave to the cities in order to study or skill themselves. Since this process mostly happens at a “social-connection-wise” critical age, many of them never return and they become urban citizens.

A third, pull factor, is that a shrinking community normally leads to less economic activity and worsening business conditions. As a result many people move to better paid opportunities elsewhere if they can. However, this does not imply that the jobs they leave behind are immediately gone. They only become permanently lost when nobody succeeds them. Alternatively they could be filled by, less demanding, satisfied others.

As a result of the above factors, many countryside areas faced and are still facing rapid depopulation. But repopulating them without a sustainable economy based strategy does not make any sense; they would become/remain locations without future. The question is thus whether there is no other scenario available.

Rural repopulation

Relocating people to areas without opportunities is a dead-end street; people only get stuck and remain reliant on others. Nonetheless, for some illiterate or uneducated refugee groups such dependency is unfortunately inevitable. In reality, it is their situation. Still, also these vulnerable groups of displaced people need and deserve our support.

In the above situation, matching becomes a question of optimizing the cultural fit between displaced people and their hosts. For all other cases, the target must be to create economic opportunities. Through a livelihood creation process, areas must become able to increasingly absorb people and reverse the rural flight tendency, even if some people may move on to urban areas after being reincluded and culturally adapted in the end.

Currently most of the rural areas focus, besides retaining their agricultural position (which for now, but increasingly unlikely in future, still requires a lot of seasonal manual labor) on specializations like ecological crops, artisanship and rural tourism. A more recent development is that some areas now try to attract digital nomads, who can be based and work from anywhere. Nevertheless, although stimulating such activities is very useful to slow down a further decline, they will most likely be insufficient to reverse the process and structurally attract and retain a new generation of young people. More is needed to achieve this.

The key is to attract new people and let them, in relation to culture and skills, adapt in a way that they match with diversified types of job opportunities; this way building the potential for creating new additional local livelihoods in small rural communities. Unlike in the past, many jobs or tasks can be executed remotely; not only the “relatively privileged, often very specialized, digital nomad type” ones. With the upcoming use of AR and VR, the prospect of generating new diversified economic activities will only grow.

To be able to fill-in such jobs, one needs qualified, educated, and culturally matching people. However, it will remain very hard to attract people who once left the countryside for the city to return. The cities they moved to, mostly remain more attractive to them. Yet, if one revitalizes a rural community, some previously rural residents may return.

Refival’s conclusion is therefore that it is easier to relocate people from elsewhere who possess enough potential to be educated and to let them afterward fulfill such positions. For reinclusion of displaced people, this approach has a lot of potential and is a step forward. An additional advantage is that as soon as relocated people find safety, the probability that they will permanently stay and structurally settle in to be revitalized rural communities is high. Refival foresees that this way one is able to reverse the rural flight process even if some of the relocated people may, after reinclusion, nevertheless find better opportunities in urban areas.

Of course one needs the willingness of the private sector, governments, and policy makers to include remote rural workers in the workforce, even if this maybe has to be a disproportionate percentage because of a lack of other livelihood opportunities in the countryside. A problem remains that a majority of decision makers have by now an urban mindset and often do not imagine a valid reason for such affirmative action.

Policy-wise there is another scenario that may play a role here. Looking at the generation of baby-boomers, who are currently retiring, and the labor-shortages this causes in Western-Europe. Considering that the East-West stream of labor migration within Europe is slowly exhausted. There is a resulting increasing demand for migrants from outside of Europe. This implies that there are more cultural gaps to be bridged than before. By relocating displaced people and reincluding them in smaller communities, one creates a buffer and prepares people for possible social mobility to urban areas.

Starting point for reinclusion is to bring education back to small communities in the countryside, strongly reducing their dependence on cities this way. Partially using modern distance learning technology, this can be realistically implemented by now. Refival for example designed its IKNAL approach, which can offer a full spectrum of education from Kindergarten to University level for a minimum school size of 100 pupils in total. The same approach can be used to create education on demand in cooperation with future employers.

The smaller community size in the rural areas has hereby a substantial advantage for reinclusion and cultural adaptation. It forces people to interact more with each other and prevents the build-up of non-integrated parallel societies, thus increasing mutual understanding.

Last, whereas proper housing is scarce and therefore difficult to provide in densely populated areas, this issue is much less problematic in the countryside. Although often in need of renovation, many houses have been left behind and are waiting to be occupied again. Further, temporary mobile housing can mostly be easily realized as an intermediary step until permanent housing is ready again.

To summarize Refival’s vision: -1- To create the “buffer” capacity to relocate up to a maximum of 100 million displaced people to underused rural areas. -2- To offer education and adaptation in small communities in order to improve people’s matching to their new cultural and employment environment. -3- To, this way, generate both local non-agricultural jobs as well as a source of remote workers and provide social mobility to/of educated people. -4- Some people will stay; some people will move on to urban areas, rural reinclusion is a fluid migration strategy.

The future of Refival

Being a business developer, the publication of articles in order to lobby for my “Refival” frameworks comes to an end. After seven years of full-time dedication to the project without receiving any financial external support, and rowing against a stream of ever increasing exclusion of Non-European refugees, it is high time to practically act instead of to further write or talk about my propositions. There are by now more than enough academic reports and journalistic publications available. Unfortunately, very few corresponding business solutions or implementations can be found. Europe needs pilot-projects instead of more discussion. Are you the one assisting me to succeed with Refival’s mission by becoming its partner to change this?