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    Between reception and exception. Engaging with refugees dwelling practices and the politics of care in the Italian urban context

    By Camillo Boano, on 10 March 2017

    By Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo

    Statistics confirm that more than 60% of refugees worldwide live in urban areas and in the future, this figure is likely to gradually increase. Such a global phenomenon is forcing us to think not only about how integration and systems of care and assistance have to be shaped, but also about the very nature of the city and their forms.

     

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    Cities are places where both migrants and non-migrants interact, be it through working, studying, living, raising their families or simply walking in the street. While cities offer great opportunities for migrants and refugees, at the same time they are also faced with challenges in creating opportunities for care, integration and inclusion. More than ever refugees and migrants become a concern of urban design. In the Italian urban context, the presence of migrants at different stages of their migration experience has triggered a complex system of reception and housing options. It is within this context of inherent contradictions and opportunities brought along by the practice of reception, assistance and integration itself that the BUDD Camp 2017 (integral part of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development Practice Module) embarked on exploring migrant’s dwelling practices.

     

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    Thanks to a long-term partnership with Associazione per l’Ambasciata della Democrazia Locale a Zavidovici Onlus (ADL), BUDD students visited Brescia (Italy) last February, to explore a variety of housing/hosting/reception typologies including centers, dormitories, and shared houses that house/host refugees, asylum seekers, and no fixed abode migrants.

     

    In line with the practice of our partner, BUDD students would experience the different tensions that arise from local inclusive and integrated practices that are inherent in the multi-level governance of the so-called refugee crisis: between reception and exception; dwelling and transition; visibility and invisibility; proximity and distance; present and future; inside and outside; faith and despair.

     

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    Refugees’ lives are exceptional, suspended in a sine tempore condition, trapped in a country where they might not want to be, or they might not be welcomed, and forced to perform a role. Refugees are individuals who are in need for protection and shelter but because of this need are denied the possibility to live a full life, and forced into a condition of temporariness which compromises the very meaning of home in itself.

     

    The meaning of home becomes political. Boundaries of homes have been experienced in the multiple forms of socialisation, appropriation, and narratives inside and outside the physical spaces of hospitality. However, that of reception is indeed a mechanism that often becomes a dispositive of control as it ensures protection only at the expense of individual freedom. Houses and homes where refugees are hosted have strict rules and limited freedom that govern the space and its routine and nevertheless refugees are asked to keep them with the same care they would have if those where their houses.

     

    Social workers and volunteers engage with passionate political sensitivity with the refugees and struggle to deal with such limitations to reconcile the legal meaning of protection with the universal right to freedom and the political imperative to host and help. But nevertheless reception and care remains an opportunity. Especially in the meaning given by ADL, where reception is not about giving a roof, but building recognition and reciprocity, through social networks, job opportunities, interactions in the urban space.

     

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    ADL currently coordinate the SPRAR project (Sistema di Protezione Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati) that focuses on improving the integration of forced migrants in the city of Brescia and its surrounded municipalities. The SPRAR project aims to oppose the humanitarian approach where the refugee is seen as a ‘beneficiary’ and the person that needs help, an action which often leads to segregation from the wider urban community. ADL is currently questioning how to transform the top down governance system into something that addresses the needs of individuals, that is tailored on individuals. The project rather aims to stimulate self-awareness, autonomy and inclusion of refugees through individualised and targeted programmes.

     

    ADL further recognise that integration and hospitality need to be systemic and relational; need to support each other and need to be well coordinated. Their work endeavors to emancipate the current policy that addresses refugees as alien to the society into a welfare that embrace refugees and residents as equals. Of course, there is no immediate solution but rather an incremental effort to push the boundaries of existing frameworks and transforming the systems of expulsion into an inclusive one.

     

    Within levels of complexity, in a commendable effort to grasp most of what is possible in a short engagement timeframe, BUDD students have investigated individual experiences, spatial phenomena and potential alternative interventions. Strategies and interventions developed in Brescia seek to reinforce socio-spatial relations and the creation of new ones, to foster recognition and advancement on citizenship.

     

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    Through life story interviews, ethnographic observation, key informant interviews and participatory maps, the short workshop aimed to reflect on the efficacy and limits of housing and immigration policies and further expands from hospitality to integration issues, looking beyond dwelling towards inhabiting the urban space, intended as lieu of encounter and conflict.

     

    Witnessing, learning and discussing LDA practices, ethics and operations have given a fantastic opportunity to learn about the complexity, the tensions and the opportunity of the urban design of refugee crisis, however in a small, short and incomplete manner. ADL works at the edge of the politics of care, between the ethical and the licit dealing with vulnerability, normative frameworks, and political struggles.

     

    Their work made is made more challenging by the Italian context of austerity and cuts to welfare and social services, increasing unemployment and homelessness and proportional surge of nationalism and xenophobic sentiments. The unwillingness to receive strangers, migrants, ‘the other’ in general is on the surge, and unfortunately not only in Italy.

     

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    Reception has always been and remains a hot debate in the peninsula, and it reflects a wider trend in the EU context as well. The refugee identity and experience is questioning our own identity and our assumptions about space, places and design agency and it open an active interrogation of practices of recognition, emancipation and activations in any act of city making.


    Camillo Boano is a senior lecturer at the DPU, and is co-director of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.

    Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the DPU, and works closely and contributes to the teaching of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.