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1Sanctuary, as a politics of hospitality welcoming people with precarious migration status, is often explicitly linked with urban environments, particularly where it has been intentionally tethered to the city by its very title (“sanctuary city” or “cities of sanctuary”). However, two things changed for the City of Sanctuary charity, which works to nurture a welcoming culture towards refugees and asylum seekers throughout the UK and Ireland, in 2015. [1] The summer of that year represented a new moment of heightened anti-border politics and the prominence of the movement in social and media fora, like many other refugee charities and related forms of activism, increased dramatically. The photographs of the drowned toddler, Alan Kurdi, provoked an intense reaction on social media, under the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, and the City of Sanctuary charity received a groundswell of messages of support, as well as unprecedented media coverage and financial donations. At the same time, the movement also experienced a marked diversification in the types of places seeking to become “cities” of sanctuary. The movement had started in the city of Sheffield in 2005 and had always had a decidedly urban focus. The name City of Sanctuary captured the largely unspoken assumption that welcome and sanctuary occurs in cities and indeed, the first thirty groups to join the movement in the UK were urban. From the summer of 2015 onwards, however, the groups joining represented much smaller places, including villages and small towns, largely rural districts, and constellations of urban and rural areas that did not correspond to particular cities. By mid-2017 there were ninety-five members of the movement either established or emerging, of which twenty-four did not directly correspond to a major town, [2] city or part of a city. [3]

2This development prompted reflection within the City of Sanctuary charity on the role of places involved with refugee welcome and activism that could not be defined as cities. The first village of sanctuary to be recognised by the City of Sanctuary charity was East Hoathly and Halland in East Sussex (population 1,600). Villagers nominated trustees and a management committee, received and distributed large donations of both cash and clothing, delivered tonnes of clothing for onward transport to Calais and elsewhere, published various media demanding greater political flexibility over refugee admissions, requested and secured access to accommodation for refugees from local landlords, and organised a series of events, from soup making to drama, to raise awareness about refugee issues in their area. So marked was the upswell of activism in rural areas during this period that The City of Sanctuary movement had to reassess its geographical lexicon in the wake of these developments, adopting terms like “places of sanctuary”, “areas of sanctuary”, “boroughs of sanctuary”, “districts of sanctuary” and “valleys of sanctuary” to refer to the new recruits.

3The primacy of the urban embodied in the “City of Sanctuary” nomenclature is not unique to this movement, but a common habit of thought and practice in cultural and academic discourses surrounding welcome and migrant activism. Often, migration literature is biased towards a focus on the political potential of urban space, while forms of refugee and migrant activism that do not fit within the urban framing tend to be overlooked. Contributing to broader discussions and scholarship on migration, activism and rurality, we consider what the changes to the sanctuary movement in the UK might teach us about how sanctuary is playing out within geographies that do not fit within the urban framing. This paper offers a portal into forms of refugee and migrant activism taking place within rural areas. We hosted a one-day event called The Radical Rural: ‘peripheral’ geographies of refugee and migrant activism, in the summer of 2017. We consider empirical material from the day, which was attended by over thirty refugees and rural or migrant activists who fed into our research via interviews, focus groups, presentations, artistic reflections and written submissions. We follow Woods (2018a) who develops the concept of rural cosmopolitanism to discuss the experiences of migrants who travel to rural communities, arguing that these experiences can be distinctly shaped by the small size and intimacy of the rural communities.

4In this article, we seek to unpick some of the political distinctions that are constructed through terminology relating to rural and migration activism. We apply the term migration broadly to describe all groups of people who move across borders, including those who are forcibly displaced, in recognition of the politics of the term “refugee” (Zetter, 1991; Hathaway, 2007). Refugee is a discrete legal category codified in international law, which has significant implications for how the movements of people into Europe are labelled and how these labels provide the basis of the legal and moral obligations of receiving states (Sigona, 2017). In expanding beyond the urban-centric politics of migration, we are also sensitive to the tensions that can be created by essentialising places into categories such as rural, urban, cities and countryside. Doing so can scale human behavior in fictitious ways (Marston et al., 2005), and also act to reproduce the political imaginaries associated with such places, which can be debilitating: sidelining sites and forms of solidaristic struggle and activism. The very word “countryside” subordinates the rural as peripheral to the urban. There are various symptoms of this depoliticisation: in the United States, the rising prominence of Sanctuary Cities in the Trump era is a centrally important moment in the development and survival of Left activism in the heyday of right-wing exclusionism, but nevertheless reproduces the imagination of the urban as the fulcrum of migrant activism. In the British context, a whole host of literary work — from Byron to Keats to Wordsworth — produces a deep-seated geographical imagination of the countryside as mono-cultural, inward-looking, disconnected and disengaged from politics and struggle. This helps to mobilise the concept of the rural idyll, which is highly active in disguising the political realities of poverty and homelessness (Little and Austin, 1996; Cloke et al., 2010), and gendered (Little, 2017) and racial violence (Pain, 2015; Chakraborti and Garland, 2004) in the countryside. As Chakraborti and Garland argue, the sense of rural villages as “warm” environs where there exists a shared sense of belonging, fails to acknowledge the process of “othering” that minority ethnic rural dwellers can experience (2004).

5Residents of rural areas in Britain have an older age profile than urban residents, they are more likely to have been born in the UK, to be of “White British” ethnicity and to report a Christian religious affiliation (Office for National Statistics, 2013). Among residents in employment, a larger proportion of rural residents also work in either skilled trade occupations or as managers, directors and senior officials than residents in urban areas (ibid.). Rural dwellers in Britain were both more likely than urban ones to vote “Leave” in the Brexit vote, and more likely to lean rightwards politically — characteristics that have been interpreted as expressing a nostalgia for an irretrievable, fictitious, white past, and a profound concern over threats to rural culture and identity (Prospect Magazine, 2019). On the other hand, by the middle of 2018, just 17% of English people lived in rural areas (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2019), raising questions about the sustainability of the countryside and the rural way of life. The UK has the lowest percentage population living in rural areas of all the large European countries (Eurostat, 2017). The number of people living in British cities is the highest in Europe (49.3 million in 2018), greatly exceeding the next highest (Germany, at 36 million) as well as the rest of the top five (Spain, at 29.5 million; Italy at 28.6 million and France at 23.6 million) (Eurostat, 2019). A prominent national newspaper, The Guardian, published a story in 2015 asking whether migration was the answer to the “haemorrhage of people leaving the countryside” and the “silent blight” of “empty homes and shut shops” (The Guardian, 2015).

6The issue of how British rural areas approach migration is interesting because the statistics and characteristics of rural living reflect a long-standing pattern in British cultural life of rural residents leaving to pursue careers in urban areas. How are these changes related to the sanctuary politics of the countryside? How did sanctuary initiatives arise within this comparatively right wing and anti-migration context? And to what extent must sanctuary politics adapt within this context? We explore these questions with reference to the response of British rural areas to the steep rise in migration, and in particular refugee flows, to Europe of the mid 2010s.

7With this paper, our intention is to outline the ways in which progressive migrant activism is constituted outside of cities, an attentiveness to which might be complementary to, and even augment, urban projects. We argue that in the current climate of racism and exclusionary politics, these opportunities are increasingly important for global migrant activism. Over the last few decades, rural residents of the global North have increasingly constituted themselves as constituents of contemporary politics in overt and vocal ways, engaging with an increasing number of political struggles from environmental change and the location of nuclear plants, to fox hunting (Woods, 2003). With the increasing politicisation of the rural in mind, rather than deferring to the city as the site for mobilisation, what does the rural have to teach us today in relation to migrant activism? Why should scholarship pay attention to the processes that connect urban and rural sanctuary movements?

8We begin by setting out the details of The Radical Rural event and providing a discussion of the practical challenges that migrant activists face in rural areas. We elucidate three forms of sanctuary practices that reflect how activist politics is played out in these locales in ways that are distinct to rural settings (Woods, 2018a). We find that, first, owing to the relative abundance of space and lower population density in rural areas, rural activist networks often operate through a de-compartmentalised politics that allows the intersectional relationship between migrant activism and other forms of activism (environmental, pro-poor, etc.) to develop. Specialist activism is largely untenable in the countryside, but rather than undermining its potency, the necessity to forge alliances and make connections with other progressive causes functions as an important form of solidarity. Second, while we object to the simplistic association of slowness and sleepiness with the countryside, we suggest that there are unique temporalities in the countryside that shape political activism, which enhance mobilization in support of migrant justice. Third, we argue that migrant communities can, at times, benefit from the distinctive type of social networks present in rural settings.

Situating Rural Refugee Activism in Geographical Research

9With more than half the world’s populations living in urban places, it is often claimed that we now live in an urban world (Angel et al., 2012). Projections made by international organisations such as the United Nations estimate that this proportion is set to rise by 13% by 2050 (UN, 2018), so it is perhaps unsurprising that the urban often gains more attention as a starting point through which to understand both the problems of displacement and its politicisation (Hiebert, 2000; Jacobsen, 2006; Bauder, 2016 and 2017; Darling, 2017). The justification for studying the urban geographies of migration often hinges upon figures such as those produced by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which calculates that “over 60% of the world’s 19.5 million refugees and 80% of 34 million IDPs live in urban environments” (UNHCR, 2018). Places that do not fit within the notion of “the city” are, in this context, bracketed. Those who are dispersed in rural areas or other locations are framed as remainders — urbanisation’s residue.

10Significantly, cities are not only often considered as key sites for academic work that seeks to understand the problems associated with displacement, they are also situated as “hubs” for creative change and activism. From a Canadian perspective, Bauder (2016 and 2017) focuses on cities in North America, while British scholars have focused on northern industrial cities to understand pro-migrant activism (Darling, 2010). The authors contributing to this article are no exception to this urban-centric approach to sanctuary (Bagelman, 2016; Gill, 2016). In addition to sanctuary movements, which seek to promote hospitality and challenge exclusionary bordering practices, a variety of political movements, such as Occupy, are primarily understood as urban expressions (Pickerill and Krinsky, 2012). Such action has been labeled in various ways: Tactical Urbanism, Guerilla Urbanism, Temporary Urbanism, Pop-Up Urbanism, and Insurgent Urbanism. Whilst diverse, all focus on the ways in which urban residents take it upon themselves to do what cities will not, or cannot, do to address urban issues, using what Iveson (2013: 941) calls “micro-spatial urban practices”.

11Underlying a focus on the urban within migration studies — and sanctuary studies more specifically — is a deeper assumption about where politics is imagined to take place (Sennett, 1992). This assumption is part of a long-standing tradition that presents political life in the city as paramount. Cities are variously framed as the eminent space for innovation (Benjamin, 1999; Wirth, 1938), political contestation (Magnusson, 2013), and improvisation (McFarlane, 2011; Finn, 2014). Their bustling atmospheres and “thrown-togetherness” (Massey, 2007) provoke playful and political encounters (Amin and Thrift, 2002). They are places where attitudes epitomising “the” modern condition are said to emerge (Simmel, 1903).

12City streets are often depicted as the material condition of possibility for political encounters. Crowded city streets, Jacobs (2011) famously suggests, are the stage upon which political “ballet” comes to life. Born out of the city’s “proximate diversity” we dance through corridors, bump into strangers, and find ourselves in complex relationships that we are forced to politically negotiate (ibid.). Through claims to “a right to the city” (Lefebvre, 1996), urban settings are imagined to be the everyday fabric of our political worlds. They are the public places where claims to citizenship are challenged (Isin, 2013; Nyers, 2010). They are framed as sites of political creativity and struggle; they are the places through which we are called to learn and live (McFarlane, 2011). In this paper we question the urban-centricism of this dominant academic and popular discourse, following other rural scholars that have asserted “rural power” in the face of “passive rural voice” that is often attributed to the countryside (Bell et al., 2010: 205).

13While the city offers important opportunities to better understand activist work, we suggest there is politically more at work here. Urban communities do not exist in isolation from the rural, just as rural communities do not exist in isolation from the politics of city life. Rural geographers have suggested that rural geographies and lives need not be subsumed within an urban lens (Cloke and Thrift, 1990; Little and Austin, 1996; Cloke and Little, 1997; Milbourne, 1997; Halfacree, 2007, Neal, 2013; Woods, 2017). Violence is a case in point: drawing on Pain’s (2015) work on the intimacies of domestic violence and Springer’s claim that “violence sits in places” (2011: 90), Little (2017) suggests that we must become more attentive to the ways in which violence is spatially expressed and experienced in rural environments. Rather than subsume the particularities of rural living within a logic of “planetary urbanism” (Brenner and Theodore, 2002), Little carefully exposes how “panopticon techniques” of surveillance and control operate in a unique way in rural locations. Warrington (2001) similarly shows how “close-knit and supportive relations” within rural communities, though at times empowering, can serve to secure and obscure forms of domestic violence. Relatedly, there is a rich and growing literature exploring how intersecting forms of violence — relating to housing, gender and race — are enacted within rural geographies, and cannot be collapsed into urban-centric political analysis (Brandth and Haugen, 2005; Cloke, 2002; see also Neal and Agyeman, 2006 and Tyler, 2012). Though diverse, this literature shares the belief that these experiences should not be understood as entirely separate from other (urban) geographies. Indeed, the point is not to replay distinctions between rural/urban but rather to unearth how rural experiences are part of wider political processes. As Magnusson has argued, this requires less a focus on particular urban centers, and rather an analytical approach which centers an understanding of interconnected logics of urbanism which produce — often profound — inequities (Magnusson, 2013; see also Williams, 1973).

14It is important to examine rural refugee and migrant activism and sanctuary for a variety of reasons. First, border checkpoints are frequently located not in cities but in remote locations peripheral to the heartlands of neoliberal economies, which generates a need for both monitoring state practices at these obscure places, and responding to the immediate protection needs of migrants who have just crossed state borders. Second, in terms of sanctuary, urban sites are increasingly intensely surveilled and policed, whilst rural communities may be able to offer respite and escape from the attentions of states. This may be especially important for those who originate from rural locations and find that the challenges of living in a big city for the first time may compound the challenges of migration (Schech, 2012). Third, large-scale rural migrant exploitation, especially in the agricultural sector, is largely invisible and yet also very common. In Canada, for example, the structural exploitation of state temporary worker programmes combine with disciplinary logics and norms to produce subjugating conditions for migrant workers whose lives are largely outside the purview of state protections (Basok and Belanger, 2016; Perry, 2012; Walia, 2010). In the US, although the increasing ethnic diversity of rural southern towns might represent “the most important but least anticipated population shift in recent demographic history” (Lichter, 2012: 3), there remain key impediments to the full incorporation of Hispanics in rural communities. In the UK, asylum-seekers and migrants without legal status are forced to regularly report to the Home Office, at often remote, and difficult to access locations far from city centres (Schmid-Scott, 2018). These are related not only to economic precarity, but to stigma, ostracism and ethnoracial boundaries (Lichter, 2012). The existence of these exclusionary practices in non-urban areas highlights both the need for, and challenges of, migrant solidarity in non-urban locations. There is a need to critically examine what Torres et al., (2006) refer to, in their study of migrants in the US, as the “silent bargain”: a grudging acceptance of migrants in rural areas, but only on the condition that they accept jobs that the incumbent population are unwilling to do.

15For these reasons, scholars have turned towards ways to think about and emphasise “rural cosmopolitanism”: an approach to rural migrants that objects to their neoliberal exploitation and instead pursues relationships of “obligation and mutual regard” (Popke, 2011: 242) as well as “tolerance and cross-community interaction” (Woods, 2018b: 107). The approach explicitly questions the implicit association between the countryside and a “static, natural, disconnected, unsophisticated and monocultural” way of life (Krivokapic-Skoko et al., 2018). In doing so, it emphasises how migrants provide new ideas, cultural influences and technologies to rural places (Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan, 2003) and highlights examples of rural places, including towns with strong links to agriculture, which have benefitted from long histories of immigration (Reid, 2015; Schech, 2012). Key to the success of rural cosmopolitanism, then, is a history of, and presence of, ethnic minorities in a particular locality (Schech, 2012). Writing in this vein, scholars have also drawn attention to the way in which migrant and sanctuary struggles are connected to Indigenous struggles for self-determination (Hjalmarson et al., 2015). In this paper, we contribute towards this important focus on the cosmopolitanism of rural places by drawing attention to the complex contours of rural activism.

Staging ‪The Radical Rural‪ Event

16In July 2017, we hosted The Radical Rural event at an independent local arts centre in Exeter, UK. Our intention to host this event was in the first instance to provide a platform for speakers to make visible the different possibilities offered up by activism in a rural context. We chose to hold the event away from the University campus, to make it accessible to community members and lessen the “academic feel”, paying close attention to the role that emotions play in shaping actions, relationships and spaces (Ahmed, 2004; Bondi, 2005; Sharp, 2009). Participants travelled from all over Devon, a county where agriculture, fishing and mining have historically been the most important industries. Some participants were based in the small city of Exeter, but many others came from surrounding towns and villages. We also had participants from neighbouring counties Somerset, Dorset and Cornwall (similarly known for their agricultural heritage) and we invited guest speakers from Hay, Brecon and Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees, a rural sanctuary movement based in Wales.

17The thirty-one participants included academics, community activists and artists. A small number of participants had refugee or migrant backgrounds themselves, whilst others were involved in community projects that work with migrants and other politically marginalised groups. Including the four organisers, ten of the participants who attended represented academic institutions, including the University of Bath, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter, which are all located in the southwest of England. Other participants represented local not-for-profit groups, including a local community foundation, local refugee projects and support organisations, and arts hubs. The ages of participants ranged from PhD students in their twenties and thirties, to retirees, and were predominantly women (who made up over two thirds of participants). Participants spoke about a range of connections to rural activism: some spoke about how they had re-located to the countryside from urban areas, but others spoke about longer personal histories of being connected with rural spaces. Their names have been ascribed pseudonyms to protect their identity.

18In the morning, there were presentations from community activists and academics based in these various settings, and working in areas of migration and refugee support. We had contributions from the areas of health, community development and the arts. Group discussions took place in the afternoon session, which enabled participants to share and explore their ideas in response to the themes of the morning. To foster an atmosphere of creativity as well as providing a central focus for discussion, we invited an artist to take “visual minutes” (cf. Figure 1). The visual minutes offered a “creative intervention” (Hawkins, 2015), helping to shape the atmosphere of the day and the conversations that took place, and also constructing an “inventive representation” of the event (Last, 2012). Mapping our discussions through images and metaphors, the visual representation offered an alternative way for participants to process the often dense information being shared in the session. The event itself was a response to the political context of migration activism in the area where we live, as well as an opportunity to spark fresh conversations and invoke new possibilities.

Figure 1: An artist creates visual minutes of the discussion

Figure 0

Figure 1: An artist creates visual minutes of the discussion

Credit: A. Schmid-Scott, The Radical Rural event, 2017.

19The event generated a rich array of qualitative data, including over four hours of audio material, which was transcribed following the event and then coded between us; unrecorded interviews and conversations that continued long after the event itself; booklets in which participants wrote down their thoughts and responses during the afternoon (collected from everyone who consented to share these with us); and notes of our own observations during the event and reflections from our own conversations before and after the event, particularly during the four days we allocated for our follow-up work. The audio material included presentations by speakers who contributed, as well as the subsequent open floor discussions. Following the event we produced booklets for participants with a summary of the day’s discussions and a large printed copy of the visual minutes, both of which became available on the national charity City of Sanctuary website. Our approach to organising, running and reflecting upon the event together follows our commitment to collaboration and participation as a process of doing engaged, critical academic work (Pratt, 2010).

20Although the event was conducted with activists who mainly operated in localised, largely rural contexts, the connections that they made between their work and global issues were instructive. Many participants were particularly critical of how the proliferation of a refugee crisis was imagined to be “elsewhere” through discussions of Calais and other places perceived to be “far away” or “distant” from the UK. Some sought to make visible the explicit role that the UK has had in creating humanitarian crises overseas, reasserting the UK’s historical role as a dominant driver of colonisation that continues to shape global patterns of oppression, exclusion, violence and structural inequality. Many of the people in the event were adamant that the challenges facing refugees, at sea in the Mediterranean, in Greece, or living in the camps of Calais, could not be referred to as “elsewhere”, as “over there”, or as something that “they” need help with. Conversations were established around the British arms trade with overseas governments, and the role that inter-governmental arms deals play in the continuing states of violence, war and humanitarian crises abroad, notably in Syria and the Middle East.

21In what follows we first outline the challenges faced by our participants undertaking sanctuary pracices in rural areas, before going on to outline three distinctive characteristics of migrant activism in rural areas that were facilitated (rather than obsructed) by their rural location.

The Practical and Unique Challenges of Refugee Activism in Rural Settings

22All activist work faces challenges unique to the context in which it operates. During the event, several participants expressed how the environments in which they politicise migration brings distinct challenges, including the lack of ethnic diversity in rural areas (both perceived and actual), and the physical remoteness from urban infrastructure.

23After Nick introduced the event foregrounding the themes of the workshop, Jane and Paul, representing Hay, Brecon and Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees, were next to present on: “Conquering the challenge of creating a welcome/ croeso in the countryside”. As a network spread across several towns and villages in rural Wales, and consisting of around 400 members, they offer support to twelve refugee families and asylum seekers based mainly in Wales’ major cities, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. Their activities included organising volunteers, visiting and befriending refugees in Swansea (over fifty miles from their village), and providing respite breaks in a countryside location to both refugees and refugee support workers in Swansea. As in many contexts of contact between ethnically and socially differentiated groups, there was an awkwardness, messiness and unfamiliarity with difference that pervaded their activities (Valentine, 2008; Askins and Pain, 2011). When a busload of fifty Syrian refugees arrived in the village (which has a population of 300) for one such respite break, “mouths dropped open, people kind of stared” Jane told us, and it took some time, and a game of football, before the locals came around to the idea that, in fact, “they’re just like us”. When a drystone wall building competition was staged in the local area, the degree of surprise that “the refugees knew more about building a stone wall than us local people” betrayed a pre-formulated view of their guests. And although walking — a hugely popular rural pastime in the UK — was sometimes vigorously promoted to the Syrian refugees by the rural volunteers as a way to “recuperate and enjoy nature”, this overlooked the fact that many of the refugees had walked for hundreds of miles across Europe and were therefore less than keen to undertake additional and unnecessary perambulation.

24Class differences inflected encounters between volunteers and refugees in other ways too. At times the solid rural values of independence and hard-work were promoted to refugees in ways that came uncomfortably close to the elucidation of the “silent bargain” that Torres et al. (2006) identify. There was a feeling that the job of volunteers was “to empower [the refugees] to become independent” and that refugees would do better to “not focus on what is wrong with them” and “not have things done for them” but to “just get on with it”. When refugees did not conform to the norms of hard work — including those of punctuality and reliability — these instances were challenged. Paul incredulously described how one of the volunteers “gives time freely” to teach English and “travels down fifty miles, to find that the students aren’t there”, for instance. In such instances it was clear that Paul was trying to find a rational explanation for the time that was wasted — perhaps the student “had to go to their solicitor” or perhaps they were just “so depressed” that they could not attend — in order to avoid the uncomfortable conclusion that a gift had simply been refused, in contravention of the social norms of gift-giving (Mauss, 1990; Derrida, 1992).

25That refugees were grateful was apparently important to some of the activists. The role of the good refugee included knowing how to receive generosity and help appropriately, hinting at the politics of receptivity to generosity that structured the encounters (Barnett and Land, 2007), as well as constructed (and problematic) notions of the “ideal refugee” (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2010). A lot of the clothes donated by locals in support of the refugees, for example, were unsuitable because they were, as one group organiser noted, typically the clothes of “short fat farmers” rather than young and slender refugee men. The refugees were nevertheless often expected to repurpose, alter or make do with the clothes they had received.

26Second, challenges around “connection” and “connectivity” also arose frequently, centered on the physical aspects of distance and remoteness. Numerous discussions arose about the difficulties of distance and disconnectedness in rural activism, or the “tyranny of distance” (Owen and Carrington, 2015) often associated with rural dwelling. One of the more lighthearted examples of struggle, due to the remoteness of some of the represented communities, again came from Jane and Paul, who described the difficulties in trying to organise some respite breaks for a group of refugees in the Welsh countryside. Several participants referred to the fact they had wanted to “do something” but there are “no refugees” in their respective towns and villages, mainly sent to the major dispersal areas in the southwest such as Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol. The idea of the respite breaks was to give refugees a day out in the countryside, but the volunteer’s exuberance in trying to do so sometimes backfired. The coach carrying Syrians was observed by local villagers with watchful reverence as it sought to navigate its way through Wales’ rural backroads, more suitable for a flock of sheep than a ten-tonne coach. These issues around connectivity and distance also become apparent in other ways. Paul informed us days before the event that his broadband connection in rural Wales was “too slow” to email his PowerPoint presentation to us in advance.

27As well as the geographical distances, challenges around disconnection from the urban emerged in disturbing ways, particularly around the lack of ethnic diversity in the rural. The lack of diversity in some rural areas means that raising racial awareness has to be a central activist objective. Farid shared that, despite the “many supportive groups [in the countryside] there were a few individuals who really struggled with embracing the concept of welcoming refugees, to the point that whenever [we] put posters on the walls, someone comes and rips them off”. Recognising the geographical distance from urban centres of many of the groups that attended, these challenges draw attention to the “architecture of rural life” (Owen and Carrington, 2015; Little, 2017) and the racism of some rural enclaves (Hubbard, 2005).

28The rural activists also faced some prejudice from other activists working in urban locations, an example of which occurred during the event itself when Saida, in her twenties and a PhD student at the University of Exeter, proudly recounted organizing — along with several others — a demonstration in Exeter in response to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban in only a matter of hours, using a variety of social media platforms. She explained that, like many of the Muslim ban protests that occurred in cities and towns across the UK in the hours after the Muslim ban had been announced, social media was vital for enabling this type of spontaneous, on-the-ground response; the demonstration in fact became the largest in Exeter in twenty years, amassing around 2,000 people. Saida, who originates from Palestine and has her own history as both a refugee and an activist, was confident of the powerful tools available through social media that enabled such a spontaneous large-scale presence in a relatively small city, and the discussion quickly moved towards the significance of social media in raising awareness, enabling broader connectivity and creating momentum to respond to political issues outside the formal institutions of policy and the academy (Gladwell and Shirky, 2011). It was then suggested by another young participant, that perhaps some activists might be “missing out” on these opportunities due to their unfamiliarity with, or absence from, these types of Internet-based platforms. The discussion quickly became more spirited when Cathy, a long-term committed activist based in a small town in Devon, expressed firmly that she and the activists she knew were being falsely regarded as “out of touch”. Appearing troubled by such presumptions around digital exclusion and the subsequent “missed opportunities” associated with being disconnected from social media platforms and activist networks, Cathy exclaimed that: “We’re not out of touch, all my friends use Facebook!” Rachel however, a city-based PhD student in her thirties retorted, “Facebook’s over!” — implying other social media platforms were now more commonly used. This exchange captured the way that rural populations are perceived, even by other (urban) activists, as well as how this perception demoralises activists in rural locations (see Gladwell and Shirky, 2011).

Learning from the Rural

29Despite the various challenges and limitations faced by rural sanctuary activists, we identify three distinctive characteristics of rural migrant activism that reflect its importance to the spatial context of pro-migrant mobilisation more broadly. Taken together they demonstrate both the distinctive character of rural migrant activism and the different, complementary strengths that rural migrant activism exhibits. They build on the observation by Woods (2018a) that rural communities can make cosmopolitanism easier under certain conditions: the small size of communities mitigates against the risk of enclaves and the anonymity of migrants for example, promoting interaction with the incumbent population instead.

De-Compartmentalised Activism

30Building on discussions in rural geography, which contend that governance can be understood as action in which boundaries between organisations have become permeable (Stoker, 1998), participants described a distinctively diverse form of activism, [4] wherein resources and knowledge were shared across different groups in a particularly horizontal, rather than, top-down way. Conversations that took place through the day were instructive about how migrant activism in rural locations takes place and differs from that in urban sites, demonstrating how the population density of cities, which can support specialisation, gives way to a more scattered, less specialised but consequently more inclusive geography of activism in rural settings. One participant, Louise, works for a local community foundation. She explained:


[P]eople have mentioned… rural areas have more scattered populations and that those communities have interests which might be very immediate and very closely connected within a city, tend to be more dispersed, more scattered across a geographical region… I’m suggesting really that the communities of interest that we build on, that we operate in tend to be broader ones, [and] less specific. I live in Crediton and there for example, if you have an interest in refugees you’re very likely to be connected to the Sustainable Crediton Environmental Network, you might have links to a variety of other international organisations in the area and that’s certainly where the Welcoming Refugees in Crediton organisation came from, it doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes embedded within a network of social action.

32Through her presentation, Louise captured how, while some sections of society that are most marginalised in cities can benefit from being densely connected through proximity, there can be a compartmentalisation of both welfare provision and issue-specific political engagement in urban areas. At its worst, this compartmentalism can channel support towards particular “types” of deserving migrants like asylum seekers whose claims have not been refused, performing statist distinctions that play a decisive role in excluding other “categories.” By contrast, Louise attended to the ways in which rural populations are scattered, making activism at times less conditional, prejudicial, and structured around specific issues. The nature of the rural means that activism requires a different, more intersectional and open approach to the politics of social support. A very specific charity or activist group would not be viable in the countryside, and so barriers have to be overcome and connections made with loosely related groups. This relates to what Woods (2018a) calls the “necessity of sharing space” (ibid.: 171) in rural settings which renders “everyday encounters… interaction and engagement” (ibid.: 171) more or less unavoidable for migrants in rural areas owing to the limited number of schools, shops, sports clubs and social groups. Here we observe that not only migrants, but also activists, are subject to this sort of mandatory sharing. This can be an advantage when different groups are brought together and different activist competencies and capacities are pooled giving rise to a broadly interlinked movement for progressive change, where resources and tactics are frequently exchanged. This necessary generality of activism in rural settings can have a galvanising, unifying effect. The need to network with those with similar political views was hailed as an important opportunity for those who were seeking to build capacity within their communities in response to the so-called “refugee crisis”.

33Moreover, the rural infrastructure (often framed as limited compared to that of the urban) in this context lends itself to a certain serendipity. Distinct from larger cities which may have different centres allocated to serve different communities (i.e. support drop-ins designated for refugees, or food shelters designed for homeless populations) rural communities are often restricted to using a single building for multiple purposes. This sharing of space can create the conditions of possibility for productive political mixing: resources are shared that might not otherwise be, movements that might otherwise remain siloed and even pitted against one another (i.e. housing crisis vs. refugee crisis) build solidarity. Within the context of the event, Farid, himself a refugee and Will who works for Dartington Hall, a country estate with a progressive educational and artistic history, shared that having the entire grounds of the large rural estate in Devon at their disposal enabled the opportunity for responding to the refugee crisis in the form of creating a cross-cultural training retreat for asylum seekers and refugees. The estate has served multiple charitable purposes since it was renovated in the mid-1920s, including running rural regeneration and social justice programmes.

34As a consequence of the de-compartmentalism and intersectionality of activism in rural spaces, we came to understand the response of rural communities to be a “bricolage” effect, where existing networks, resources, skills and capital are put to different uses to adapt to shifting activist priorities, often re-purposing forms of support that are already available. Because rural service provision is generally limited, we noted that rural providers tended to be less selective about who their clients were or could be. Another participant, Helen, is involved in a local charity which organises sessions for people to make their own lunch from produce grown and picked on an organic farm. Research into the conditions of successful rural cosmopolitanism has previously stressed the importance of “transverse enablers” — individuals with the capacity to bridge difference between ethnic groups (Wise, 2009; Radford, 2016). Wise (2009) defines “transversal enablers” as individuals who go out of their way to create connections between culturally different residents in a local area, workplace, or other such micro-public, by employing and facilitating “transversal practices” which are, in essence, forms of exchange and gift relations that foster everyday relationships across cultural difference in multicultural settings. Helen represented an example of this sort of individual: “Anyone can come along” she explained, noting that people with mental health difficulties, people with physical disabilities, those in poverty or otherwise marginalised, as well as asylum seekers or refugees, could attend. By taking a more flexible, improvised and less conditional approach, the rural service providers were able to temporarily erase, rather than re-inscribe, the lines of difference and forms of categorisation that are so often bound up in the experience of being a “refugee” (Malkki, 1996; Crawley and Skleparis, 2017). The tactic performs an innovative version of intersectional political intervention.

Slow Activism

35Here we explore the significance of time within and through rural spaces. We ask what an attentiveness to time might unveil about how migrant politics emerge in rural settings, in relation to both the temporal and spatial positionality of rural settings. Whilst we are not suggesting that slowness is an exclusively “non-urban” feature, we explore how there is a “space for action” (Little, 2017) claimed by activists, which relates to the rural’s spatiotemporal rhythms.

36During Jane and Paul’s presentation, they acknowledged their more senior years, referring to themselves as “the grey-haired set” and going on to reflect on some of the challenges of their own work, including the lack of “younger” volunteers. Whilst they framed this as a “problem”, which they sought to overcome by “bringing in” young people from Swansea to help out, they also explained how, as retirees, they and many others in their group have considerable time to give. “Jane has retired from teaching so she can now devote most of her time gathering and sorting out the clothing and food donations...”, Paul remarked. They also spoke about the number of willing volunteers that had offering their time for free, some travelling “all the way from Swansea!” to offer English language tuition.

37During the event the notion of time was often depicted through terms of excess and abundance, enabling a more spontaneous and reactive response to needs as they arise. “Having lots of time”, “spending time” and “giving time for free” were phrases regularly used by participants in describing the activist work they and their communities are involved with. One participant had begun to learn Arabic in order to be able to communicate with a Syrian family recently resettled in her village; another mentioned the large volume of people giving time for free to sort out an abundance of clothing donations for newly arrived refugees. Here it is important to note that the experiences of volunteers who had an abundance of “free time”, which could easily be shared for activist ends, was often attached to a particular type of privilege. The excess of time that could be put to good use by more affluent and/or retired volunteers in the UK, brought to our attention the distinction between these experiences and the experiences of many others who do not necessarily have the resources to cut down their working hours, or to give up paid employment entirely.

38Nevertheless, distinct from some of the ways in which urban-based activism can function and what is often framed as “authentic, real, or deep democracy” with its “particular spectacle of mass mobilization” (Wood, 2017: 21) the ways in which a perceptibly different rhythm was claimed as an important resource for activism illustrates how rural settings can enable a radical political encounter through careful, reactive, yet unhurried responses to needs at a deeply localised level. These claims also emphasise how such settings can challenge normative beliefs around the political energy of these locales. Instead of settling into the inferred “escapist” or “detached” existence typically associated with the countryside, disconnected from both the urban and the global political landscape, the enthusiastic engagement of these communities responding to current global crises demonstrates the political vitality of such places. It emphasises how forms of rural activism provide unique opportunities for authentic engagement and a ‘getting your hands dirty’ approach, enabled, at least in part, by a reconfiguration of or an abundance of time.

39Moreover, these components of rural politics are not simply confined to people’s availability, but become visible in ways relating to the landscape in which they are situated. Helen discussed how her work on the organic farm with vulnerable adults and young people, provides a space for healing and respite by means of horticultural education and growing vegetables: “They see a lovely cycle from sowing a seed all the way through to growing vegetables, cooking, and eating them”, she reflected. As well as demonstrating the significance of offering individuals an opportunity to withdraw, heal and recuperate, these informal and gentle reminders of time, subsisting in the slow cycle of nature, attend to a politics which draws attention to the temporal qualities of settings outside of urban centres as an enclave from which a different kind of radical political encounter might occur.

A Different Type of Connectivity

40Another aspect of the connectedness that was expressed hinged on the phrase that “everyone knows everyone”, and that “things happen because people know people from other contexts in a particular way in a rural area”. While cities can support social networks that are relatively homogenous, social networks in the countryside are often more diverse by necessity, and less characterised by homophily. [5] This role of familiarity with others different from oneself in stimulating an effective activism is echoed in Pratt and Johnston’s (2009) work with Filipino and Tlingit artists in Whitehorse, Canada. Pratt reflects that while the remoteness of Whitehorse posed challenges to herself and Johnston as researchers (challenges in getting to/from urban centers like Vancouver), this geography also made it easier to organise community. As communities possess a deep familiarity with one another, it makes it easier to identify skill sets, interests, existing resources, and overall makes it “easier to get things done”.

41In one of their first meetings as a group, to articulate a welcome Paul explained that people just began springing up saying: “I’ve got some food, someone has a spare bedroom, someone has a car, or someone has a farm to house people”. Jane chimes in suggesting that a key feature which typifies rural activism in Hay, Brecon and Talgarth is that it is constituted by a “snowballing” effect: a movement that easily picks up people and, with it, momentum. This resonates with Louise’s point that rural organising is characterised by things just “moving along” because there is always someone who knows someone else. Though rural geographies are often framed as quiet, slow-moving places to which one retreats and finds respite (and indeed this was at times referred to as one of the virtues of the rural during the event) here, given the density of social relations, a Do-It-Yourself sanctuary movement was able to emerge quickly, raising significant donations and providing a range of services within a relatively short amount of time. Rather than being planned strategically in advance or from above by a county council or a distant Home Office, what we see emerging here is a kind of tactical and — even what we might refer to as “improvisational ruralism” — popping up and responding to a shifting political landscape and needs as they arise. A feature of this type of politics, Louise suggests, is that it is “spontaneous and serendipitous” — so much depends upon the informal networking that emerges in collective social spaces such as the community hall.

42Throughout the day, various participants, though reticent to frame their environments as “outside” or disconnected from urban life, expressed their modes of connectivity in ways distinct from urban-based activism. Jane and Paul shared of their reliance on the (physical) community notice board for instance, informing the village of the need for clothes and other donations for the newly arrived Syrian and Libyan refugees. The subsequent response from surrounding villages was that donations kept “just pouring in… We’d come home and people just left donations outside our door”. As Louise reflects in her presentation:


We live here and we base our life and our community and our connections in a rural area… these are our centres, these are vibrant centres in their own right… and we live within natural communities which are… built on networks and links and relationships not beholden to administrative boundaries.

44Rural settings, it was suggested, embody a certain density in fostering a deep connectedness, which can be contrasted with the frenzied pulse of modern urban centres, often linked with “indifference” and moral distancing (Gill, 2016; Simmel, 1903). Simultaneously they provide insight into a certain disconnectedness from the urban, where “action” is often articulated around a reliance on physical (as opposed to digital) connections between individuals and local communities. Rather than rural activism subsisting through an “urban-lite” type existence — referencing the urban geography’s association with re/producing our expectations of mass mobilization — the rural can connect individuals and communities to each other through often small-scale, organic networks, unearthing profound — and even radical — political encounters for those who dwell there.


45It is not our intention to present places on the periphery to major cities as somehow dislocated from or unaffected by the promise of the urban, or the biases, prejudices and injustices that are often encountered in urban spaces. Rather, our concern in this paper has been to re-explore the fact of migrant politics, and struggle, in settings that do not fit neatly within the urban frame, with all the discontents and discomforts that this implies. By analysis of the written, audio and visual empirical material generated via a day-long workshop with migrants and rural activists, we have explored their relationships to broader networks of migrant activism in order to unpick the geographic imaginaries that accompany the countryside. Our aim has been to document, as well as to gain and share inspiration from, the migrant activisms that are often less visible in scholarly migration discourses. We have sought to emphasise the significance of contemporary understandings of the rural for migrant activism, while also recognising the ways in which the mobilisation of refugee support can be distinctive in settings beyond the city.

46The city is routinely taken to be the spatial lens through which both migration and the activism that surrounds it are interpreted. The city is commonly understood as the container of social processes while the imagination of the periphery, subordinated to an equally mythical “centre”, is at least partially culpable for these habits of thought. Our intention has been to explore what settings outside of the city might teach us today about migrant activism, expanding the conversation and pointing to the opportunities that exist for political momentum beyond the urban-centric lens. In a context where migration has become increasingly politicised, our event brought together activists to address both the challenges and opportunities for action, a conversational space which itself became a site of politics (Pratt, 2018).

47The impetus for our intervention is grounded not only in the immediate circumstances of the refugee “crisis” of 2015 and onwards but also the demographic shift away from rural areas of Europe. Britain is a prominent example of this sort of urbanization, and the findings we have presented here might be the harbinger of what can be expected in other European rural areas. The affective geography of images, such as those of drowned toddlers attempting to escape persecution, is not bounded by an urban-rural division. The globality of urban and rural areas, alongside the demographic challenges that the latter are currently facing, may indeed serve to challenge their traditional insularity.

48And yet at the same time there is something distinctive about the reception of such images and, more broadly, migrant activism itself, in places and settings that do not fit within the urban frame. Insights from our workshop suggested that rural activism embodies de-compartmentalisation and intersectionality, productive slowness and depth, and a diversity of social relationships that emerge from the distinct spatiality of rural settings. In this paper, whilst calling out the tendency to ascribe political activity related to human mobility to urban areas generally, we have also emphasised the specificity of the city in relation to migrant politics. Whilst it is important to avoid sweeping claims about “the countryside” or “the rural” — themselves generalisations — we have been concerned to explore the influence that the rural can have over the typical political dynamics and, crucially, problematics of the encounters between self and other, same and different, as urban areas.

49Looking to the future, the distinctive migrant politics and activism of the rural may become increasingly important to pro-migrant organising. By the beginning of 2020, the enthusiastic welcome shown to refugees at the height of the refugee “crisis” in various countries across Europe, for example, has waned considerably. The media and politicians have moved onto other issues. As migrant welcome exits the political stage, the slow, deep engagement of rural communities with migrant support and solidarity may help to ensure some continuity: at least until the next “migration crisis” hits.



The steep rise in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe in 2015 prompted widespread pro-migrant political mobilisation in the UK, including in rural areas. This article argues that more account should be taken of rural sanctuary movements in academic and popular understandings of pro-migrant activism, which remain largely urban-centric. It examines why the growth of rural sanctuary movements is significant, identifies how the distinctive qualities of rural communities shape the configuration of social relationships and networks within them, and contributes to scholarship on the nexus between rurality, migration and activism. In so doing, the article demonstrates the unique opportunities that rural communities offer to address social issues such as migrant exclusion and disadvantage.

  • sanctuary
  • refugee activism
  • rural cosmopolitanism

Geografías rurales del activismo de los refugiados: los espacios de santuario en expansión en el Reino Unido

El fuerte aumento del número de personas migrantes y refugiadas que llegaron a Europa en 2015 provocó una amplia movilización política a favor de las personas migrantes en el Reino Unido, incluyendo en las zonas rurales. Este artículo argumenta que los conocimientos académicos y populares del activismo pro-migrante, que actualmente son mayoritariamente urbano-céntricos, deben tener más en cuenta los movimientos santuario rurales. El artículo examina los motivos por los que el crecimiento de movimientos santuario rurales es significativo, identifica cómo las características distintivas de las comunidades rurales configuran las relaciones y redes sociales que las forman, y contribuye al estudio sobre el nexo entre ruralidad, migración y activismo. De este modo, el artículo muestra las oportunidades únicas que ofrecen las comunidades rurales para abordar cuestiones sociales tales como la exclusión y desventajas de personas migrantes.

  • santuario
  • activismo de los refugiados
  • cosmopolitismo rural
  • réfugiés
  • territoires sanctuaires
  • militantisme
  • cosmopolitisme rural

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    • OnlineWoods Michael (2017) Contesting rurality: politics in the British countryside, Oxon, Routledge.
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    • Zetter Roger (1991) Labelling refugees: Forming and transforming a bureaucratic identity, Journal of Refugee Studies, 4 (1), pp. 39-62.
Amanda Schmid-Scott
PhD Candidate in Human Geography, Room 360, Amory Building, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ, UK;
Emma Marshall
PhD Candidate in Human Geography, Room 360, Amory Building, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive Exeter, EX4 4RJ, UK;
Nick Gill
Professor in Human Geography, Amory C421, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ,
Jen Bagelman
Lecturer in Human Geography, 3.27 Henry Daysh Building, Newcastle University, Newcastle, NE1 7RU, UK;
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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