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Temporary migrants or new European citizens? Geographies of integration and response between 'camps' and the city

Principal Investigator: Dr Tatiana Thieme, UCL
Co-Investigators: Dr Kavita Ramakrishnan, UEA & Eszter Krasznai Kovàcs, University of Cambridge
Project website:


This research aims to provide an alternative account of the European ‘refugee crisis’, where the arrival of over 1.5 million refugees since 2015 has stretched EU and individual state capacities; tested formal registration and arrival procedures; and (reignited) debates around continental ‘margins’ and geopolitical power differentials between east and west Europe. In this project, we provincialise and challenge narratives of ‘the crisis’ through an engagement with the evolving duties of care, needs and agencies of refugees and providers on the arrival ‘frontlines’. Our multi-sited research will engage with the myriad forms of arrival settlement, from the makeshift and temporary camps along the Hungarian-Serbian border to the sprawling tent communities in Lesbos, and the disintegration of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. By ‘thinking from the south’ and vantage of post-colonial cities, we will capture and explore the improvisation, precarity, makeshift practices and alternative scripts of citizenship that refugees and local agencies utilize alongside how state rules and norms are negotiated.

Our Project:

We are studying the transition from emergency and humanitarian aid relief provision for recent refugees to long-term transition and integration programmes for ‘new Europeans’ in four European cities: Athens, Budapest, Berlin and Paris.

Over 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Europe since 2015, stretching EU and individual state capacities, testing formal registration and arrival procedures, and reigniting debates around continental ‘margins’ and geopolitical power differentials between east and west Europe. Contested debates continue on multiple levels regarding the appropriate duties of care, needs and agencies of refugees and providers on the arrival ‘frontlines’. As geographers, we are interested in considering the temporal and spatial dynamics of refugee experiences and stakeholder responses to the diversity and volume of ‘new migrants’ across Europe. With British Academy support, we have embarked on a multi-sited and collaborative research project across these four cities that reflect the different experiences of transience, waiting, and arrival on the migrant ‘trail’, but also the diversity of European histories in relation to migration and the diversity of contemporary responses to this so-called ‘crisis’.

Our project aims to provide an alternative account of the European ‘refugee crisis’ by focusing on two key aspects:

First, we focus on key European hubs that give rise to multiple ‘urban humanitarian stages’ (rather than engage with camps), where fragmented provisions of care are performed and contested amongst a constellation of actors including state, city authorities, formal agencies, and non-traditional humanitarian associations. Our research is guided by an interest in the connections between geographies of refugee migration and processes of urbanization, wherein cities are the desired destination of most refugees and are consequently shaped by, as well as shaping, the humanitarian response to migrants.

Second, we examinethe transition between practices of emergency response and the calls for a longer-term integration strategy across institutional and social domains, recognising that refugees seeking asylum are in most cases “here to stay”. As emergency responses evolve to more holistic humanitarian care in some cases, but stricter migration policies in others, fundamental contestations emerge around the roles and responsibilities of the welfare state, the private and civil sectors and the forms of their involvement in the development and realisation of integration programmes. Furthermore, these are played out across a broad European context of deep austerity.

Key themes:

  • Cultural histories of migration and recent globalisation affect state-level response to refugees and local ethics of care/responsibility. We are interested in how state-level responses interface with local ethics and practices of care on the ground, and how these dynamics are influenced by (or even collide with) global media and solidarity movements. Our multi-sited research both within the four cities and across them seeks to document the respective vantage points of seemingly discordant actors (e.g. the city council, civic solidary associations, local city residents) to better understand the inter-city constellation of humanitarian response, everyday settlement practices amongst refugees and asylum seekers, and expressions of NIMBYism.
  • Common experiences of protracted displacement are experienced by refugees-in-waiting across sites and the emergent sites of non-traditional humanitarian work. These include activist pro-bono legal networks of help we see in Paris and Athens and Budapest as well as civic networks focused on the provisioning of food and housing, and more settled refugees offering support to newer refugees. We are interested in how migrants traverse both legal spheres and informal networks of support. As we see in Berlin, understanding how to navigate state bureaucratic processes as well as forging informal connections of support and information become vital to accessing housing and work opportunities as well as subsidies.
  • Rapidly evolving geopolitical events and decisions result in European and international NGO policy and regulatory changes that particularly affect the financialisation and consequently the mobilities of refugees and care programmes. We are interested in mapping and qualitatively understanding the entanglements between EU and national legal temporalities and migrant lives.
  • Across each site there is a kind of ‘competitive field’ emerging for the allocation of welfare funds and resources directed towards new refugees in contrast to other vulnerable groups (veteran homeless, working poor, unemployed, etc). We are interested in the intersection between refugee integration programmes and national-level austerity politics particularly in the livelihoods and training field.
  • Particular ‘hubs’ and neighborhoods often become emblematic of both progressive and more conservative policies and practices towards refugees, and are sustained by a constellation of actors. We are interested in the emergence of pop-up and temporary refugee accommodation and processing centres, and the place-based politics that emerge in their wake.

Our approach:

This project collaboratively builds on and brings together elements of each of our previous research trajectories and methodological expertise. We draw on post-colonial and post-socialist scholarship and spaces in order to document the invisible or unstated norms that govern:

  • the diverse forms of everyday precarity, waiting and makeshift practices that determine how new migrants make home, work, and place within and with the city.
  • how state rules and norms are negotiated and re-crafted by refugees and non-traditional humanitarian groups.

Our research practice includes punctuated ethnography, aiming to spend short but regular intensive intervals of time in each field site. We incorporate volunteer-based participant observation as a key point of entry in addition to semi-structured interviews with diverse concerned actors. We have spent time with and interviewed volunteer organisations (Paris and Athens); individuals working with city authorities (Athens and Paris); teachers and school administration who are dealing with rapidly changing rules around ‘welcome classes’ for new migrants (Berlin); social workers (employed by charities or self-employed) providing vital information to refugees as they navigate the state bureaucracies (Athens, Berlin and Budapest); and local networks of refugees—from those still queuing for free meals at humanitarian centres in Paris and Athens, to those now ‘integrated’ and granted refugee status (Budapest and Berlin). The researchers focus on two cities each, overlapping to complement each other, aiming to trace the continuity and rapidly changing dynamics on the ground. We have chosen to focus on particular pockets of the city taking into account where there has been one or a confluence of the following: refugee settlement, humanitarian activity, police evictions, refugee-refugee and refugee-civil society solidarities.

The Research team:

Dr. Tatiana Thieme (PI)

Department of Geography, University College London

Email:; Twitter: @tatiana_thieme

This project brings together Tatiana’s interests in precarious labour, the porosity of carceral spaces, concerns with social and economic marginality and practice of adaptation to uncertainty across the global North and South. Tatiana draws on her training in anthropology and human geography, and insights from 10 years of on-going research in Nairobi, Kenya studying urban youth culture, and the interface between local informal economies and the business and politics of urban development in low-income settlements where public services are largely absent and the role of social enterprise has become prominent. Between 2015-2017, Tatiana also pursued research on a prison wing in Brixton documenting offenders’ “last mile” in prison and first mile out. She holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge, an MSc in Law and Anthropology from LSE, and a BA in Dance and Anthropology from Cornell University.

Dr. Kavita Ramakrishnan (Co-I)

School of International Development, University of East Anglia

Email:; Twitter: @kavitaurbanist

Kavita’s research has examined the lived experiences of slum eviction and resettlement, with a specific focus on livelihoods, housing and access to infrastructure. Though this work is primarily based in Delhi, the themes of housing and informality have shaped Kavita’s interests in contexts outside of the Global South, to understand how people survive on the ‘margins’ and their aspirations for the ‘good life’ elsewhere. In relation to this project, Kavita brings her understandings of home-making and community-building in precarious situations to bear on how refugees navigate the city. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Cambridge, respectively; I received a PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge in 2015.

Dr. Eszter Kovacs (Co-I)

Research Fellow at University of Corvinus Budapest; Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge; 

Email: ; Twitter: @esztikki

Eszter’s research has investigated multi-level connectivities between international legal systems, their programmes and financing, and on-the-ground realities in the realms of state-making and environmental management (particularly of water and agriculture). Permeating these projects has been a long-abiding interest in the co-existence of legal norms and informality; the development and forms of the civil sector; and perpetual contested questions around the responsibilities and possibilities of the local and national state. Eszter’s interest and work with refugees began with the manufactured ‘crisis’ at the Keleti (eastern) train station in Budapest in August 2015. She have an undergraduate degree in ecology and Masters in Environmental Law from the University of Sydney, with a PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge.

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