Lab Project

Structures of Displacement

Mario Rizzi

There is substantial, widespread ignorance regarding the meaning of certain words that are continuously used – or rather abused – by the media, by art professionals, and unfortunately even by scientists, as has recently been noticed by the UNHCR.

The terms “refugee”, “asylum-seeker”, “immigrant”, and “migrant” are used to describe people who have left their countries and have crossed borders. These terms are not interchangeable as there are legal differences between them. The definition “internally displaced people” is connected with these terms, but in itself has a different connotation. 

Refugees are individuals who have fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again. They have a right to international protection. Asylum seekers are individuals who are seeking international protection, whose claims have not yet been finally decided on by the country in which they have submitted them. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every recognized refugee is initially an asylum seeker. Internally displaced people (IDPs) have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home. IDPs stay within their own country and remain under the protection of their government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement. Most Yazidis in Iraq, after the barbaric massacre by the self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorists in 2014, are today IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan, only tens of kilometres away from Shekhan, which had the second largest population of Yazidis before the persecution, and Lalish, their holiest place. Immigrants are persons who come to live permanently in a foreign country. They weren’t necessarily forced from or pushed out of their own country; it can also be their personal choice to leave.


There are many more definitions that could be reflected upon, I would suggest reflecting upon concepts such as “countries of transit” (for example, Libya) and their safety according to the international law. Likewise, feel the hypocritical incongruity of such definitions as “economic migrants” or “environmental migrants”, and consider the characteristics of all the EU joint missions in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in terms of respecting – or not respecting – international maritime law regarding the rescue of individuals at sea. What I want to stress is that there are fundamental human rights that are not being internationally respected today. One of the basic ones is the right to freedom of movement, comprising three elements according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom of movement within the territory of a country and to choose one’s residence there, the right to leave any country, and the right to return to one’s own country.

Reflecting on the abundance of artists working with these issues of migration, I would like to highlight a decalogue by Tania Cañas, a Melbourne-based art professional and researcher, a refugee herself, published in 2015 and cited in my book, Bare Lives. Ever since I read her text, it has become my own unbreakable set of rules. It’s called “10 things you need to consider if you are an artist – not of the refugee and asylum seeker community – looking to work with our community”. Her reflections should be essential questions for every art professional who approaches the migrant community – not to mention any vulnerable community – as art can become a conduit for a real change only when cognitive and ethical values go hand in hand with its aesthetic, metaphoric and poetic uniqueness.

There are some points I would like to read from Tania’s decalogue. I’ll start at the beginning: “We are not a resource to feed into your next artistic project. You may be talented at your particular craft but do not assume that this automatically translates to an ethical, responsible and self-determining process.” “[Refugees’] struggle is not an opportunity” to build a career and it is necessary to carefully interrogate intentions and motivations behind an artwork. Artists need to realise their privilege and consider that “participation is not always progressive or empowering but … can just be limiting, tokenistic and condescending”.

I have realized how precious these guidelines are on many occasions, in particular during the nine weeks I spent in the Zaatari Camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2012. A few months after Zaatari was established, I had the “privilege” to be allowed to live in that camp without any particular restrictions. I was only requested to sleep in the nearby town for understandable security issues, both for the refugees and myself. Over the last 20 years, my human and professional attention has mainly been focused on the Middle East and on the theme of migration, exploring the relationship between privacy and civil engagement and considering the notions of border and inequality, particularly concerning issues of identity and presence. The worth of the principles Cañas enumerates in her text was somehow clear to me even before knowing about her text. Before travelling to Jordan, I had carefully done “my research” on Syrian history, habits and, traditions and, aware that “art is not neutral”, on their political claims and social demands. Refugees appreciated my efforts, accepting my being an outsider, and honoured me with their sincere friendship: this has always been much more important than any work which came out of those experiences in refugee camps. I am still in touch with many of them through social media, particularly with one of the families I became closest to during those nine weeks in Zaatari, that of an English teacher now living with his family in Germany as refugees, quite close to where I am based. I did my very best to sympathize with their frustrations, to perceive their struggles and their resilience, to share their moments of despair, joy, and nostalgia. They told me their stories, we cooked and danced together, I was invited to their weddings, in a couple of cases, very troubling news was brought to my attention about situations of domestic violence. Thanks to my “privilege” as a white, Christian, European artist, I had easier access to authorities, and I became a link for international NGOs to the camp. In this specific case, this privilege was probably also an advantage for my refugee friends, as I was able to help them solve some issues. 

A 30-minute film resulted from these nine weeks: “Al Intithar” (The Waiting) is the first film of the trilogy “BAYT” (HOME). The concept of “BAYT” was inspired by Anthony Shadid’s book, House of Stone, in which he writes that “In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift … Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is finally the identity that does not fade.” “BAYT” reflects on the emergence of a new civic imagination and on issues such as female identity in the Arab world, the concept of home and uprooting, and the driving forces between innovation and conservation that have traversed and traverse the Mediterranean. The three films in the trilogy, “Al Intithar”, followed by “Kauther” in 2014, and “The Little Lantern” in 2019 – focus on three different women from Syria, Tunisia, and Lebanon as protagonists. In contrast to Western-biased narratives, women have been at the forefront of this region's uprisings and the most active organizers and leaders both on- and offline, since the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. In “Al Intithar”, home is no longer a rooted existence or a solid place for the female protagonist, Ekhlas Alhlwani, a Syrian widow who fled her country with her three children after her husband was killed by Assad’s army. The film, which presents itself as an excerpt, follows her life over seven weeks, translating the tragic macrocosm of the Syrian Civil War to the intimate microcosm of a relentless woman and her children. 

The film was selected for the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, during a period when the Syrian tragedy was starting to show up in headlines all over Europe, so suddenly I started getting invited to talks and interviews on refugees’ issues on different occasions. In the beginning, I didn’t think about Cañas’s rule: “Know the difference between presentation vs. representation”. Or should I say rather that this was very clear during the postproduction of my films, but it strangely slipped my mind in everyday life. I felt the importance of bearing witness, of raising questions to the European audience, and, since many of my best friends in Berlin are Syrians, I had long conversations with them about the questions I was asked. I only started to feel uneasy during the preparation of my exhibition “Bare Lives” in Berlin. The staff of the gallery was quite efficient and there were many interviews about the works in the show, dealing with three different camps: Zaatari, Idomeni and the Yazidi IDP Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was at that moment that I felt the need to ask the media to let me address only aspects strictly connected with my artist’s work and, on a couple of occasions, I decided to bring a Syrian intellectual with me to talk in my place.

I have already mentioned my photographic series “Idomeni”: Starting in 2014, migrants from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan and Pakistan, began flocking to Idomeni in order to cross the Greek border and continue their journey towards the wealthier European countries, namely Germany and Sweden. In 2015, the Republic of North Macedonia, under pressure by the EU countries, decided to guard its borders with military forces in order to prevent the refugees from entering the country, as Serbia had also closed its borders. Thus, the transit camp at Idomeni rapidly became a longer-term residential camp, the largest in Greece, with more than 10,000 people. An unofficial camp, there was no government assistance for services in the camp, and refugees found themselves living on rail tracks for many months with only the support of local NGOs and Médecins Sans Frontières. In spring 2016, I decided to travel to Idomeni as a volunteer to help distributing meals for a Greek NGO from Thessaloniki. I spent my free time visiting people, getting to know their stories, trying to give a smile and empathize with their despair. The photographs I took show a strange no-man’s land, a space outside of time where life had been halted and the days were filled with anxious, yet hopeful, waiting. Idomeni was in a kind of stateless, lawless, homeless form of limbo, not here, not yet there, where their existence was suspended. They had evaded registration on arrival in Greece (as the EU law requires under the Dublin Regulation), even if that required burning off their fingertips. But their dreams crumbled in the face of reality and they were forced into official camps throughout Greece. 

In September 2016 I was invited to be part of the jury of the Duhok International Film Festival in Iraqi Kurdistan. I asked the organizers to let me spend an additional period of three weeks in the region and to be put in contact with the Yazidi community in the nearby IDP Camp. 

On August 3, 2014, Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, began its genocide against the Yazidis in Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan. This date is written on numerous tents in the camps that were created to house those members of the community who had succeeded in fleeing. It is also prominent on one of the photos of my photographic series “August 3rd”. Daesh justified the occupation, kidnapping, trading, and mass rape of women and girls of the Yazidi ethnic minority on the grounds that they didn’t believe in Allah. During my stay with Yazidis, I photographed a few women in their transitory homes. Some chose to look straight into the camera, others preferred to avert their gaze, silent witnesses of a hell the world was unable – or unwilling? – to prevent.

I staged the photos with particular care, allowing the person to emerge with dignity and discretion. Their portraits capture a truth we cannot reach with words. The faces of these brutalized bodies are not merely inscrutable, they are too blunt in their tacit condemnations to tolerate. They conceal far more than they reveal. The terror these faces have witnessed has now receded deeply into the inner sanctums of their troubled memories. Not to photograph these faces would have meant to deny them. To photograph them is to document a shame that dismantles the very idea of being human.

In her essay, “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt put into words some of the experiences of being a refugee. She also reflected upon the effects that discrimination had on people and societies who were practicing it: “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted”. Today, we might say that the last remains of the European community have gone to pieces, as we are allowing people to drown in European waters and perish at our borders.

In “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern”, Giorgio Agamben analyses how the refugee camp is the space and instrument for politics, the sovereign power to define bare life, the excluded:  “the camp – as the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space (insofar as it is founded solely on the state of exception) – will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity, whose metamorphoses and disguises we will have to learn to recognize.” Agamben feared that the camps revealed the “nomos of the modern” and this signalled the rise of a totalitarism that operates not against democracy, but in fact through democracy.

Achille Mbembe has recently suggested that the government of human mobility might well be the most crucial problem to confront the world during the first half of the 21st century. In his essay, “Necropolitics”, he considers the ways in which political powers, appealing to exception, justify the distribution of human species into categorical groups to establish a profound human divide between the chosen and the others. This is what Foucault labels with the term “racism”. 

Thousands of miles of walls and fences have gone up around the world during the 21st century. At least 65 countries – more than a third of the world’s nation states – have built barriers along their borders. But Europe is certainly not alone: The United Arab Emirates has built a fence along their borders with Oman, Kuwait, as well as Iraq. Uzbekistan has closed itself off from all of its five neighbours. And I could give many more examples. These walls tell us a great deal about international politics, but the anxieties they represent transcend the nation-state boundaries on which they sit. The primary purpose of the walls appearing throughout Europe is to stop waves of migrants, but they also say a lot about wider divisions and instability within the very structure of the European Union, and within its member nations.

I would like to conclude by quoting some phrases professor Hamid Dabashi wrote on “Al Intithar”: “Mario Rizzi has captured the historic moment when the new citizens of the new Arab republics are being born. This is a moment of suspension, a momentous pause when the history of the Arabs is being re-written ... On the site of the Zaatari camp, the liberation geography of all successive generations is being mapped out … When the dust of their desperate wars settles, these Syrians will go back to reclaim their homeland and populate it with steadfast determination – and no dictator, no fanatic, no a fortiori colonial machination will be able to rule these people with despair ever again”. This is my most sincere hope, and the main reason behind my artwork.

Dr. Romola Sanyal


I will begin by talking about the idea of the “refugee”, the term “refugee”, which conjures up myriad images: long lines of people with meagre possessions on their backs, people held behind fences and barriers in detention centres, caught in the process of departing. On the flip side of these images of hypermobility are images of refugee camps, of containment, replete with their blue and white UNHCR tents in row after orderly row. These camps often appear to be located in rural, often barren, areas, uninhabited lands. Camps have become the shorthand for refuge, particularly for those thousands fleeing violence in countries in the global south. Academic and popular scholarship have also lent themselves to the production of such normalised images of refuge.

Considerable scholarship across several disciplines has engaged with the understanding and debating of the camp: its specificity, politics, the ways in which it forms subjects. Popular articles have referred to camps as exigent cities, as emergency urbanism, highlighting the vast numbers of people that come to inhabit these spaces and the length of time they spend in them. While I recognise that various kinds of refugee shelters have emerged within the global north, I have largely discussed the question of refugee camps in relation to the global south, as this is where I’ve done most of my work, and also because this is a part of the world in which the vast majority of displaced people are warehoused in different ways.

In June 2008, the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “The Exigent City” by Jim Lewis. The article swept through a number of different issues, from permanent temporariness of refugee camps and its vast numbers of inhabitants, to the politics of temporality associated with the built environment of the camp and the lack of architectural and design engagement with these spaces of refuge. Much has changed over the last 11 years since the article was published, yet much has remained the same. Refugee camps continue to proliferate across the globe, despite the fact that more and more refugees are moving into urban areas.

Camps continue to be seen as temporary spaces with temporary structures, even though we know that protracted displacement has now become a norm rather than an exception, and camps continue to dominate popular academic and artistic imaginations as designated spaces for refugees. This should be unsurprising, as camps emerged as temporary technologies of containment and discipline, and this temporal logic continues to permeate its functions. Designed largely in the aftermath of the Second World War in response to the displacement of refugees in Europe, camps were in place as standardised, generalised technologies of power at the end of the war.

Displaced persons camps – as they have been historically known – allow for the orderly repatriation of people, for their screening, quarantine, and have allowed for the creation of an entire bureaucracy of administrators, functionaries, doctors, and the like. The literature on World War II camps shows the ways in which spatial isolation and the management of refugees and displaced persons and practices related to them were adhoc-ish and in a constant state of improvisation. Liisa Malkki notes that not only were former concentration camps sometimes used as assembly centres for refugees when the war ended, but the architecture of concentration camps made them particularly suitable for the control of masses of people and for the prevention of epidemics and the administration of quarantines.

The camp model that emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War has evolved, but has also circulated throughout the world. Alongside it, UNHCR, which is responsible for refugee protection together with a range of NGOs, manages these spaces and ensures that inhabitants are cared for in line with certain basic humanitarian standards and provided with basic supplies and necessary spaces. The UN and ally organisations register refugees, conduct health screenings, provide documentation, and calculate approximate populations, in order to ensure that correct and cost-effective amounts of aid and services can be delivered.

Camps themselves continue to be laid out in a manner that enables efficient delivery of goods and services and the disciplining and control of inhabitants. In the UNHCR handbook, alongside various other works, there are examples of ideal camp layouts, as well as instructions on how to receive and register people. Popular discussions around refugees, particularly in news outlets, continue to focus on refugee camps as sites of misery and limbo, in what Lilie Chouliaraki calls the “spectatorship of suffering”.

UNHCR white and blue tents that are part of a larger humanitarian apparatus of control and care can also be seen as ushering in a new architectural aesthetic of refuge. Artistic attempts are trying to counter the essence of exiled dispossession, and the peculiarly permanent temporality of refugees continues to predominantly focus on camps. Looking at some of the exhibits, Médecins Sans Frontières famously ran a refugee camp in the heart of a city installation, in which the organisation’s aim was to try to get people to understand the main struggles of the millions of people who are displaced and to showcase the work of MSF itself. On a smaller scale, various exhibitions have also taken place probing the specificities of camps and their specialities. In addition to the one mentioned earlier, a recent one that I had already attended in London in 2017, “Spaces of Refuge”, attempted to showcase a shared spatial knowledge about refuge. These are just a few examples among undoubtedly larger numbers of exhibits that have taken place around these issues and each attempts to demonstrate specific concerns about camps to larger audiences using artistic means.

The implications of using the camp as a shorthand for refuge, particularly in the global south, are manifold. Most problematically, it overlooks the other kinds of refuge that are perhaps more commonplace in many countries and the challenges associated with these spaces that are unofficial, often seen as illegal, and are governed differently. These include self-settlements that refugees themselves have created. These, as Oliver Bakewell, amongst others, has noted, lie outside of official camps and do not benefit from their support, although sometimes, if the inhabitants are registered, can avail of services in the camps. Those who choose to self-settle may forgo the aid and safety net of the camp, but self-settlement may provide livelihood opportunities that may not be available in camp spaces.

There’s a need to recognise the flexibility between camp spaces and spaces outside as people move between the two, and to rethink spaces that emerge in between. Many such self-settlements can be seen as occupying grey spaces, as they’re neither formal nor informal and benefit neither from support from humanitarians nor from local governments. Among some settled populations, urban populations are the largest. As UNHCR itself finally noted almost a decade ago now, urban refugees constitute over half the world’s refugee population and are growing. There’s a need to address them more robustly.

Spatial and architectural analyses of refugees in cities continue to be extremely limited. In my own work, for example – and I’ve been doing work both in the Middle East and South Asia – I have looked at what it means to talk about an architecture of displacement. The work that I’ve been doing has been on refugee colonies in India that emerged in the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan and the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. One of the things that I have argued for in my work has been that we can’t in fact talk about an architecture of displacement, because identity politics shape and reconfigure refugee spaces and imbue them with a sense of identity so profoundly that we can in fact study the politics of refugees by studying the ways in which they build their spaces. We can come to see the diversity of the different kinds of spaces that they inhabit as well.

Even today, there’s very little attention that is paid to the kinds of experiments that are taking place around shelter for urban refugees. I’ll mention one example of this kind of work that is emerging. René Kreichauf, for instance, has discussed different forms of housing for refugees in Europe, ranging from container housing, to the division of hangars and larger halls into smaller segments using walls and tent structures, and the creation of tempo-homes –  effectively prefabricated modular structures – and centres, and former military bases or hospitals in countries such as Greece, Germany, and Denmark. And yet, as Irit Katz notes, this signals, more than anything else, the re-emergence of camp infrastructure in Europe.

Other kinds of interventions are also being thought of by humanitarian agencies, and there are different kinds of experiments that are taking place in different parts of the world, including renting out private accommodation in both European countries like Greece and non-European countries like Lebanon. In the latter case, NGOs have been involved in accommodation for refugees and have attempted to incentivise landlords to rent out apartments to refugees for a specified period of time, either six months or a year, either rent-free or for a limited amount of rent, and they also incentivise landlords by upgrading their houses. These are some of the examples of the shelter-upgrading projects that have been undertaken by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon.

One could argue, by looking at some of these examples, that what we are seeing here is the emergence of a new kind of humanitarian architecture in urban areas. We see the new emergence of new kinds of urban spaces. Now, as I have noted earlier, there’s a myriad of issues faced by refugees in non-camp settings and these are manifold and complex, particularly since refugees live in informal, often unsanctioned, spaces, and are often subject to various kinds of harassment and exploitation.

Tensions between refugees and non-refugees also ignite around access to services and goods that may be limited outside of camp settings. Yet, non-camp refugees continue to be largely overlooked in favour of studies and policy work in camps. I would argue that they remain hidden and their spaces remain missing in our analyses of displacement. In a recent field trip to Lebanon, I asked an UN officer why they were focusing their programs so much on the informal tented settlements when clearly the crisis was an urban one. The response I got skirted the question of urban refugees: that it’s not that the settlements don’t have problems. I agree with this position that settlements and camps do have problems and we should continue to engage meaningfully with them rather than ignore them altogether in favour of other geographies of displacement. But here I’m more interested in why camps continue to be the primary sites of intervention, analysis, and portrayal. What work does the camp do?

If I return to the discussion that I had with the UN officer, a picture emerges about the utility of the camp. As Richard Black, amongst other scholars, has noted, the camp is discussed as a convenient technology for effectively delivering aid and support to populations that need them. Such narratives hide the larger issues of controlling and sequestering populations. I would take that even further and say that it also masks questions regarding bigger points on how these camps make parts of certain populations visible, mappable, normal to different actors. It makes the spectatorship of displacement and suffering possible.

Aid agencies, humanitarian NGOs, and donors can, for example, see a distinct population of people in need of specific kinds of help and support living in the camp. Host governments and populations can also see displaced people who may cause problems and tensions safely penned into a designated space in which they are treated as humanitarian subjects. Academics, artists, reporters, and writers can enter into and view these distinct and unique spaces and discuss their specificities, their unique forms, and political practices.

Such practices are less possible in non-camp settings, particularly in urban environments, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, as refugees become dispersed into urban environments, it’s difficult to “find” them and document where they are and how they’re living. Secondly, the uniqueness of refugees in urban environments tends to melt away, particularly in informal settlements, and many people tend to use a pejorative shorthand of “slums” when talking about informal settlements where large numbers of refugees tend to find shelter. Urban scholars have already talked about how “slums” have become a shorthand for urbanisation in the global south because urbanisation in the global south is seen as dystopian, informal, unplanned, chaotic, and marked by poverty.

Slums have also become sites of the aestheticization of poverty. Refugees become entangled with the urban poor in these spaces, sharing with them the problems of poverty, lack of access to resources, and second-class citizenship. Elsewhere, I, amongst others, have critically engaged with these comparisons between refugees and the urban poor, attempting to break down these superficial barriers between them. When refugees and the urban poor share the same material spaces, it becomes difficult to create a distinct refugee population and a distinct refugee space within urban areas. It becomes hard to shape it into an image of a unique kind of suffering and trauma and it therefore becomes challenging to sell it as a specific problem that has to be resolved.


Here I’m drawing on Monika Krause’s work on the Good Project, in which she talks about how agencies, particularly aid agencies, have to sell projects to donors. This includes making projects easier – and easy enough – to do. In this way, projects and beneficiaries, in her analysis, become commodities. Helping non-camp refugees is not an easy sell. It’s often difficult to convince donors to support those in urban environments, for example, especially when that help entails helping the urban poor as well. It’s also difficult to sell a project where the uniqueness of subject populations and spaces cannot be established, so NGOs doing urban interventions often have a difficult time.

Join this together with the reluctance that most governments demonstrate towards having refugees in urban areas, many even instituting punitive measures against what they consider to be these kinds of transgressions. It is perhaps unsurprising then that non-camp refugees are largely erased from images of displacement. Camps have played an important role in defining the life and habitation of refugees, and while the focus on them is important, especially as they reintegrate into Europe, it is important to consider what we overlooked when we constructed an iconography of refuge through its camps. Perhaps it’s time that we rethink what architectures of refuge can be and how we can be part of a progressive conversation that pays attention to the wider spectrum of spaces that refugees and other displaced people come to inhabit.


Isin Onol

Refugees live in different kinds of situations, which is already an interestig way to refresh the conversations, starting with the acknowledgement that most of the refugees don’t in fact live in camps. My question would be, how can urban reality, from this pertinent point of view, be avoided? Many times I have been asked the question: What is the difference between a slum and a camp? Then people say that ultimately, Palestinians camps are slums, and they can easily be integrated into the rest of society. In this case, the political discourse in Palestine has always been about how to refuse normalisation, which for me, for example, remains a sort of central theme. I always ask myself, is it my work to move towards the normalisation of the situation, or am I somehow producing knowledge that takes back certain rights that the Palestinian community wants to deal with, for example, the right of return? In whatever we do, we are always moving towards this paradoxical situation. So, I’m not suggesting that we should not research it or that it’s not an interesting approach, because I definitely think it’s a very pertinent point. But how can one avoid the kind of happiness that will come from some people that would say, okay, that’s it? It’s true that the majority of the people that are already living in urban areas are only these kinds of troublemakers, they’re still living in the camp. It makes our life difficult, but otherwise the problem has already been solved.


Romola Sanyal

I think that the issue is exactly the opposite, that people who move into urban areas are seen as troublemakers, not the other way around, because actually, countries want to keep refugees in camps, and there’s been a larger amount of literature talking about why countries want to put refugees in camps. Some people, say, host governments, would say it’s easier to deliver aid or to help them and what have you, but actually, it is about containing refugees, because for many host governments and people who face developmental issues and questions around governance and provision of resources and services to their own citizens, actually having refugees come into areas and moving into these places is much more disruptive. People like Loren Landau have talked about some of this. Until 2009, UNHCR had a policy of not discussing the topic of urban refugees in any meaningful way because governments pressure UNHCR not to talk about urban refugees. It was a geopolitical policy issue to derecognize or not recognize refugees, because recognising that urban refugees existed meant that you would be in a terrible spotlight. This was a specific problem that then would have donors give money towards it. So, I actually think that the issue is quite the other way around, and what I would then also say is that it is very complex for a lot of organisations to work in urban areas to support humanitarian work, to support refugees, because they cannot simply target refugees. They have to target the local populations, and I didn’t really talk about this in great detail in the talk, but it’s something that donors often don’t want to do because they want their money to be earmarked specifically for refugees. But what happens when you move into an urban area that only supports refugees and doesn’t support the urban poor? You cause tensions between them, we’ve seen this in the case of Lebanon, for example. I don’t actually think that the aid organisations are doing this as a way of normalising the situation. At least the narrative here, which comes from a lot of governments as well, is that if the host communities are supporting these refugees, then humanitarian organisations should intervene in urban areas and support everybody. It’s not a normalising narrative, it’s a supporting narrative. Is it a kind of transitional language to say, how do you support people for a medium- to long-term period of time in an urban area?


Mario Rizzi  

There’s a substantial point: UNHCR has a clear definition for what a refugee is, what an asylum seeker is, what a migrant is. The question is, which rights do we give to these people? Do they want to integrate? I guess everybody that goes somewhere wants to integrate, wants to be part of it. Nobody wants to be an outsider in life. You remain an outsider in a certain sense, but nobody wants to be an outsider. There was a wonderful definition by Alessandro, that all of us have a multiplicity of belongings. So can you be inserted and integrated while keeping your multiplicity of belonging?


Romola Sanyal        

As Mario pointed out, Syrians don’t live in camps in Lebanon. There aren’t any Syrian camps because the Lebanese government did not want to repeat the Palestinian situation. They decided that there would be no official camps in Lebanon. Syrians live in two kinds of spaces: they live in either informal tented settlements or informal settlements – however you want to talk about them, because talking about tents is another can of worms with the Lebanese government – or they live in an urbanised or urbanising areas and they live sort of informally in different privately rented accommodation. So, they live in everything from apartments to converted garages. It’s a very complicated landscape of Syrians in the country and there’s a varied landscape also based on geography, depending on whether they’re in the south of the country or somewhere else. Judy Pettit wrote a really beautiful anthropological book called “Landscape of Hope and Despair” many years ago in which she talked about the ways in which the camp had evolved so much that it was not just Palestinians who lived in these camps but also migrants, and now Palestinians from Syria also live in these camps. It’s a very complicated landscape as well within these camps. But given the sort of specificity of the Syrian crisis and the fact that it’s quite new, there are many more temporary structures at the moment and/or scatterings of Syrians throughout other parts of the country. The vast majority are not actually living in informal settlements.


Mario Rizzi 

In Italy, for example, in Florence, because of the law of the previous government and you know it was a very right-wing one, I once asked how many migrant women lived in the city and they answered only 70. I said, but in your booklet last year there were 1,400. “Yes, but you know, most of them lost that status because the government cancelled the status of economic migrants in one day, migrants that were refugees, and actually not for war reasons, all of them lost that status”. And all of the sudden, they were illegal in Italy. From one day to the next. All of a sudden you have these people losing status. In Lebanon, for example in the camp, 30% of the people in the Palestinian camps today are Syrians, because they had the economic means to rent a house. This created frictions because they were not very welcomed by the Palestinians, but the real question is how funding works and what the Western world sees as a priority. Now it’s Syrians, tomorrow, we won’t think about the Syrians anymore, and so on. So all the money goes to the Syrians, and the Palestinians say, “Okay, we have even given them our houses and so on, and now we don’t get anything and we don’t even get the same status”.



Heritage, culture, displacement, what happens to the culture? How did the culture morph and what are the implications of these displacements of heritage and culture?


Alessandro Petti      

When we talk about heritage in Europe, we understand, for example, in architecture, what a monument usually is and what a material object usually is. Now, when, for example, after the Second World War, many countries started to join UNESCO and then they started to discuss different objects, they started to discuss, for example, the case of a Buddhist temple, that since it was made out of wood, they had to rebuild it every 100 years. So Europeans said, “Wait a second, this is fake. This is not a monument.” Imagine how offensive this would be? Are you saying that a Buddhist temple is not heritage? That’s just one of the several interesting discussions UNESCO itself has had. Till now in UNESCO, half of the sites are actually in Europe, and half of those are in Italy. So, for UNESCO, heritage today means Italian monuments. In fact, this is what we have in mind when we think about heritage. Imagine if people started to ask: What is this bloody fetishism that Europeans have to impose on others – who are typically men, in fact, architects – telling us to think in that kind of narrow definition of a monument? That this should be a material object and it needs to be old, made of old stuff, that is heritage? Among the images that I show of the camp, there are two images from Venice, this is also part of the exhibition. I always play this trick, when people come, they say, “Oh my God, this is a camp,” and having just seen two of these images that are actually of Venice, which for everyone is the essence of a monumental and heritage city, they don’t recognise it. Why? For several reasons. First of all, because what is called in technical terms “minor Venice” is actually self-built, it’s technically a slum. The rest of Venice, what we enjoy today when we walk around there, this was basically done by the people and would be called a slum today, self-built architecture. It is also important to remember that Venice was in fact a refugee city. These people were escaping from the so-called barbarian invasion, the first settlements that they built comprised a place called Torcello. After Torcello, they started to build all the islands. In fact, one of the big questions is: how come this sort of “best European culture” is actually based on this refugee charter? The place that UNESCO was inspired by is actually based on the aesthetics and material culture that refugees had actually built at that time.


Baerbel Mueller

If we look at these spaces as architects and urban researchers, the recent discourse about formality and informality is that it’s not a binary thing anymore. It is all strongly related, and melting into each other. And looking at camps, it’s not about isolated islands. In reference to your project, Alessandro, I think the heritage topic is really fantastic. But when I see the latest photo of this camp and if I were there and didn’t know, most probably I wouldn’t identify the borders of it or the difference to what is next. Therefore, I think it would be interesting looking at it from a spatial, phenomenological level, not one based on otherness and difference, but on what it has in common, as well as how it is embedded. Jonathan looked at the channels of distribution of food at Harsham Camp and he identified that it’s strongly related to all these wholesale markets in Erbil town. So it’s not isolated. Also this question: What is the difference between a camp and a slum? I wonder if it would help us if we went beyond these categorisations, because they don’t help us in understanding these spaces.


Mario Rizzi

It’s a question of rights. If I were a refugee, the biggest right that I would lose by becoming an asylum seeker is the right to resettlement. If you are a refugee, you have the right to resettlement wherever there is a space, which means that it would come with work, a house, and this is something that I find good – but of course, I’m not a refugee, so I’m thinking from my Western perspective. I find that difference to be remarkable.


Alessandro Petti      

Regarding the terminologies, right, that is a very relevant question. I guess it’s also specifically relevant to the fact that you are in a university, and I think instead of representing, instead of speaking in the name of others and so on, there is actually a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of definitions, in terms of experiencing things, and then in terms of giving name to things. In our experience, what I witnessed very strongly when we established Campus in Camps as a university in refugee camps, when we started to work with concepts, we realised that in order to engage with those situations we should acknowledge that our architectural vocabulary is absolutely useless. That was an incredible moment in which the people that were involved experienced the incredible possibility of becoming an agent in the situation and not just the object of study. So even when we were inviting people into this discussion, we were proposing transgressing those sorts of relations and topologies, coming and writing together with refugees, not about refugees.


When you are an architect and you enter the camp, you are in an urban environment. You tend to understand what the public and the private spaces are, and usually we have been educated, as architects, that the public is always good. If you do something for the public, you are a good person, the private is bad. Now, in a context like Palestine, first of all you discover that the public is a private state. One of the things that became very important for us was to get rid of these public/private divisions and try to nominate all the different forms of collectivity or living in common that were completely based on this basic nation-state idea of what constitutes a territory and how you build a society.


Why, for example, in that specific case, was the camp for us the space of masha, an Arabic word that was used during the Ottoman period to define the lands that were cultivated collectively? The interesting part for us was understanding that, for example, there are forms of commonality that require the active participation of the citizen. This is a concept that at the moment, in Western society, we are incapable of thinking of. We think about the public as given to us by the state, so, if you want to demonstrate in the public, you hold demonstrations. But demonstrations are now impossible to hold in the public state. Why? Because the public state doesn’t belong to the people anymore. It belongs to the state and we can only work with a fraction of that. If you look at where all the protests have been happening, they have always been located in the gap between the private and the public. I think that as activists inside a university, it is important to engage in knowledge production, in which there are so many things that call for engaging in terms of conceptualisation. That is very important work. It’s not abstract work. Let’s not fall into this stupid idea that it’s only when it becomes “activist”  that things matters. No. There is also very important work that needs to be done in terms of being precise about terminologies, concepts. Concepts are not just speculation per se, they are also related to a very important form of life and try to reopen, for example, the dichotomy between the private and the public. How many forms of life can we imagine that are not private and not public? Can we imagine a society that is able to build something like that? Historically, we have lived in a society in which people were living together but not mediated by the state. Today, everything is mediated by the state, even refugees. We’re talking about refugees because the footnote is that we have to think about hospitalities through the state. Can we imagine a form of hospitality in which we are involved personally? In Italy, if you host someone, you can be imprisoned. Can you imagine? So, this is not a problem with refugees. This is a problem of the citizen. We have not realised that the state has already taken many of our rights away, including our right to offer hospitality. Forget about refugees, you as a citizen, you have already lost your right to have someone in your house. In Italy, you are put into prison when you do that, isn’t this an invasion of what you think should be your right? This is only to state how crazy the situation we are in is and then to ask how that affects us, our supposedly normal lives.