From spaces of containment to spaces of conversion

Berlin’s integrative approach to accommodate forced migrants

René Kreichauf is an Postdoctoral fellow at Cosmopolis Centre for Urban Research and Elizabeth Dunn is a Professor at Indiana University Bloomington.

On a side street in Buch, a peripheral district of Berlin, one of the Berlin government’s newest MUFs, or modular housing projects for asylum seekers, sits behind a chain link fence. There are three squat buildings made of pre-fabricated grey concrete panels. Two of them have apartments for families and handicapped people on the first floor, and dorm housing for single migrants on the two floors above. The third building, which also serves as the guardhouse, is meant as a hub for administration and social services. In the well-lit building, a German teacher holds class in an alcove while a social worker and a psychotherapist work in their offices. In the conference room, Dirk Palachowski, the complex’s administrator, meets with visitors and describes what they are about to see on their tour: a kindergarten preparing children for entry into the German public school system, a yoga room to help stressed people relax, a room for elementary students to get help with homework from volunteer tutors, and extensive laundry facilities where migrants can make appointments to use automatic washers and dryers. In the courtyard between the buildings, children play on a playground surrounded by young trees while their mothers chat on benches nearby. The goal of the MUF, as Palachowski puts it, is not to contain people, but to train them for integration into German society. “It’s not a camp!” says Sasha Langenbach, a representative of the Landesamt für Flüchtlinge, or the State Office for Refugees. “I’m always surprised when people call up asking to see ‘the camps’. I tell them we don’t have any. For the people who live here, this is home.”

The distinction between home and camp is of course not quite as clear as Langenbach portrays it. But it raises the two poles of what has become a common debate: to what extent do new forms of housing and governance for refugees partake in the logic of urban assimilation, and to what extent do they share in the logic of the camp? In recent years, there has been extensive literature on the question of camps of all kinds, and the ways that the logic of encampment is spreading to other sites. Indeed, as more and more refugees settle in cities where they have widely different relationships to aid providers, the question of how the boundary between camp and city has become blurred has become central to the literature on refugee studies. In this paper, however, we argue that the distinction between camp and city is no longer a distinction that is useful in understanding different modes of governance, discipline, or care. Instead, we argue that new forms of housing, governance, and sovereignty have emerged from complex negotiations between cities, nation-states, aid providers, and refugees. Here, using the example of Berlin’s MUFs, we argue that the result of these negotiations, this humanitarian diplomacy, is a new form of refugee management and discipline that we call “sheltering,” that groups refugees with the urban poor and holds them in a permanently marginal position in urban society rather than either fully excluding or integrating them.

To identify the logics, functions and consequences of Berlin’s forced migrant housing strategy as well as its entanglement with wider areas of urban policies, we applied a qualitative approach and data collection that prioritises actor- and interests-centred analyses in three ways. First, we analysed national and local legal regulations and policies for the development of asylum accommodation. This included federal asylum and building laws as well as local political concepts and ordinances to realise and develop housing for this group. Second, we conducted a planning analysis of all 82 current asylum facilities in Berlin regarding their building type, function within the accommodation system, location, their integration into BENN program and the building laws applied to each facility. We supported this approach by site visits to 10 accommodation sites to get a clearer picture of the reality and structures of these spaces. To understand political and administrative objectives and the negotiations that produced them, we, conducted 19 open and guideline-based interviews with i) political decision makers and administrative officials, ii) social workers and staff in the accommodation, iii) civil society actors, architects and immigrant organisations, as well as iv) forced migrants.

The problem of camp and city

The notion of the camp is conceptually slippery. It refers to a wide variety of institutions with different goals and practices and different forms of governance. The notion of the camp has been applied to camps that verge on being cities (Agier 2014), cities that verge on being camps (Kreichauf 2018), and entire nations or regions that are now being defined as “supercamps.” Yet, at the same time the distinction between camp and city is being blurred by theorists, there are actors and agencies, like Berlin’s LAF, that are trying to draw clear distinctions between camps and other forms of accommodation in order to reject the notion of encampment and promote the notion that their modes of urban housing are less oppressive and more liberatory. Clearly, then, defining refugee accommodation is a struggle over interpretational sovereignty, including not only the right to define various forms of accommodation but also the people who inhabit them.

Theoretical concepts of the refugee camp as a socio-spatial entity were initially developed based on camps in Africa and the Middle East (Agier 2014, Ramadan 2013, Sanyal 2014, Malkki 1995). From camps in Kenya and Tanzania to camps in Jordan and Lebanon, these studies focused originally on an archetypal spatial form: the camp as laid out and governed by either the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (Hyndman 2000), or, for the Palestinians, by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Feldman 2018). These camps often shared a similar built environment of identical temporary structures on a grid, and they often shared a similar constellation of international agencies and international NGOs, all of whom shared common principles, procedures, projects, and reporting requirements (Dunn 2017).

Early studies of the camp saw it purely as a site of discipline and Foucauldian pastoral power, a place where the bureaucratic regimes of accounting and funding led to a common set of well-intentioned projects to improve the health and wellbeing of the displaced (Dunn 2017, Hyndman 2000, Feldman 2018). These projects were driven by a mix of violence and care, and talked about independence and self-sufficiency for refugees at the same time that they also produced oppression and aid dependence (Barnett 2011). How successful they were at disciplining and transforming displaced people, however, was always in question: many of the critics of humanitarian aid in the camp argued that as a pastoral project, the camp was too disorganised and too full of different humanitarians pulling in different directions to be particularly effective as a form of governance or domination. The camp as a spatial structure was driven much more by adhocracy than bureaucracy, improvisation rather than planning, to ever be as powerful as some critics alleged (Dunn 2014, Dunn and Cons 2014).

The other vein of camp studies drew not from Foucault as much as from Agamben (1995). Here, the camp was seen as a state of exception, a zone outside the law and outside human society where human beings were treated as mere biology rather than as fully social people. The camp here is seen as a trash heap, a site in which to contain the human refuse of globalisation (Bauman 2004, Sassen 2014). The point of a camp, at least in these renderings, was not to use biopolitical power to make the displaced live, but to quarantine them in order to provide security for the citizenry and to let them die, if not to kill them outright. This was a statist vision of the camp, one which portrayed displaced people as pure victims of sovereign power who had nothing to do other than suffer, rather than seeing them as actors with their own agentive capacities, however limited those were by living in the camp.

A third theoretical framing, one that uses the city rather than the camp as a paradigm has emerged in response to the previous two paradigms. In some cases, these studies look at camps as de facto cities (Agier 2011). By seeing camps as forms of the urban, these approaches have begun to think about refugee accommodation as sites in which new identities, acts of agency, political life, and resistance are formed and practiced (Darling 2017, Ramadan 2013). Rather than relying on the view from the standpoint of the sovereign, outside the experiential world of the refugees, these works take up a perspective within the accommodation to discover how displaced people use agency and strategy to navigate among the many institutions exercising power in quasi-urban space. In doing so, they ask how refugees work to build liveable lives (Feldman 2018, Dunn and Cons 2014). Borrowing from urban geography, this approach sees refugee accommodations as evolving in unique ways through the political narratives, economic tactics, and strategies for everyday living to become widely diverse forms of residence (cf. Minca 2005). As sites for living, not just waiting, refugee accommodations appear as forms of the city: they are portrayed as lively sites of political contention, active resistance, and sub-rosa economic activity.

Other work focuses on refugees who do not live in camps at all, but instead occupy new spaces of migrant inhabitation outside the camp began to come into view–spaces that are unofficial and that exist on the periphery of urban social life even if they are in the geographical centre of the city. Danny Hoffman (2017), for example, studied a group of displaced Liberian ex-fighters who had taken up residence in the shell of a brutalist concrete government building ruined by the country’s civil war. He saw the urban spaces these men inhabited as “heterotopic,” in the Foucauldian sense: spaces in the interstices of formal, recognised places, cracks in the urban pavement in which impoverished people could somehow put down roots. Likewise, Bettina Stoetzer (2018:297) has written about “ruderal ecologies,” or “communities that emerge spontaneously in disturbed environments usually considered hostile to life: the cracks of sidewalks, the spaces along train tracks and roads, industrial sites, waste disposal areas, or rubble fields.” In these ruderal spaces, all sorts of migrants take root—exotic species of plants, Turkish labour migrants, squatters, and other displaced entities. For Hoffman and for Stoetzer, these ruderal spaces are places of liberation, spaces that the chaotic and organic nature of the city (as opposed to the state-planned environment of the camp) makes possible. As their inhabitants craftily avoid government officials and state regulations, inhabitants find in these gaps and cracks space to manage their own destinies. Thus, where the idea of “the camp” came to signal bureaucratic oppression or total disempowerment, “the city” has come to stand for at least some modicum of freedom, even as residents must to contend with state abandonment and precarity.

Clearly, the lines between camp and city, the stasis of exception and the evolution of everyday living, and the oppression of sovereign forces and the resistance of the inhabitants have called into question notions of refugee accommodation as inhabited, lived space, as well as what it can be. It is no longer just a question of what logic defines the camp but about what happens when negotiation and compromise make that logic fragmented, partial, and shot through with other modes of thinking and living. In what ways do even well-intentioned projects of refugee integration share in some of the common features of the camp, and in what ways do they pose a radical break from the logic of encampment? What other logics of governance and control over mobility do these accommodations encode or facilitate, and how might refugees develop their own ruderal logics in order to make life liveable? These are all questions posed by Berlin’s progressive new forms of accommodation and integration.

“We don’t have a refugee crisis. We have a housing crisis”

Since the influx of migrants in 2015, Germany has become the largest industrialised host country for forced migrants, and the fifth largest host country worldwide. The country’s asylum system is federally organised, yet relies on a highly decentralised system. Upon arrival, asylum seekers are allocated to the states (Länder) based on a national allocation key called Königsteiner Schlüssel (Königstein Key),[1] which distributes asylum seekers to first reception centres of the states. The Länder then allocate refugees to cities and towns, who are tasked with providing housing and other social services. So, even though asylum is nominally a national problem, with the federal agency Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF) in charge of the asylum procedure, the responsibility for organising reception and settlement of forced migrants is in fact passed down to the level of the states or Länder, who then may pass responsibility down to municipal authorities, making them responsible for housing, food and other social assistance for refugees.

As the capital city, Berlin’s problem was that the massive scale of housing and services needed in 2015 occurred on top of an acute housing shortage: Where in the 2000s, Berlin received between 900 and 3,000 newcomers a year, suddenly the city saw the number of refugees double between 2011 and 2014 with the Syrian Civil War, and then surge to 55,000 arrivals in 2015. At the same time, however, the vacancy rate plummeted. Where the housing market was fairly loose in 2003, at 5%, by 2018 the rate had dropped below 1%—when a functioning rental housing market requires at least a vacancy rate of 2-3%. As a representative of the LAF stated in an interview: “Practically speaking, there is no available housing in Berlin’s housing market – for anyone.”

The combined refugee and housing crises pushed the city into a search for more innovative measures both for housing and for social integration. In 2016, Berlin’s recently elected left-wing government[2] sought to introduce a “paradigm change” in humanitarian asylum policy.[3] The Senate developed a “Comprehensive Program for the Integration and Participation of Refugees,” which sought to build a bureaucratic infrastructure to deal with accommodation, health care, labour market integration, higher education, political participation and social-spatial integration.

The city’s first steps were administrative: the LAF, the first municipal agency dedicated entirely to refugee affairs, was created as a sub-agency of the Agency for Health and Social Issues (Landesamt für Gesunderheit und Soziales) in the beginning of 2016 and quickly grew to more than 560 employees. The concentration of asylum-related issues under one agency pushed the LAF to rapidly professionalise and to develop standard structures to regulate and manage the chaos of forced migrant arrivals (Krause 2014, Weiss 2013). As a means of working with subordinate units, the city also established the “Refugee Management Coordination Unit” to work with individual districts’ refugee coordinators. At the same time, the Senate launched negotiations with the federal government by implementing limits to deportation proceedings and introducing the “Hardship Case Commission Act,” which aimed to give residence permits on the state level to forced migrants whose asylum applications were rejected by the federal government and who were facing deportation. All of these institutional structures had one goal: to mediate bargaining between Berlin’s district administrations, the central municipal/länd government, and the federal government.

Because the accommodation of forced migrants was a flashpoint in Berlin’s reception and asylum politics, the Senate’s comprehensive program focused intensely on it. In 2015-2016, accommodation was mostly ad hoc: refugees were housed in gymnasiums, old school buildings, closed hotels, and even (famously) derelict airplane hangars in an attempt to put them somewhere with a roof over their heads (Scott-Smith 2020). These were places that often did not meet neither the federal government’s minimum standards for accommodating forced migrants nor Berlin’s. During the rapid influx of migrants, another form of accommodation arose as well: mobile structures such as “tempo homes” and “container homes,” two types of identical pop-up shelters that were more than a tent but less than a home (Dunn 2015).

The result of these two forms of mass accommodation was, for all intents and purposes, the establishment of refugee camps in the centre of an affluent European city. They shared the temporal horizon of the camp, which was nominally temporary but without a defined end (Ramsay 2019). They shared the embodied spatial experiences of the camp, which meant living in crowded quarters with little privacy. They shared the bureaucratic sterility of the camp, with identical residential spaces in row after row. Most importantly, they shared the disempowering experience of control over living with the camp. Refugees were largely unable to determine where and what they ate, where and in proximity to whom they slept, and what they did all day. They were even unable to post children’s drawings on the walls—a conflict with the authorities that became extremely heated. Worst of all, the camp-like nature of this housing wasn’t even legally necessary. By the end of 2016, more than 55% of the people in asylum housing were legally permitted to leave the reception centres, but the demand for apartments clearly exceeded the city’s supply. As Langenbach, the LAF official said, the situation was not only untenable for the refugees, but for the Berlin Senate: “We are Germans. We like things to be perfect. We were unhappy with this situation.”

So, after the initial scramble to organise reception centres in 2015, the municipal government turned its attention to developing housing that would still exist outside the market-rate housing model characteristic of the city, yet share the features of a camp to the smallest extent possible. Clearly, this required a new model of accommodation, and would require new buildings to be built. But what kind of housing, and where it could be built, were up in the air. LAF officials were clear about what they wanted: long-term housing which would provide autonomy to refugees, and yet would provide space for wrap-around social services that would teach the newcomers how to live as (or at least with) Germans. That is, LAF officials sought to incorporate the freedoms of city life into the built environment of refugee housing while, at the same time, continuing to exercise discipline and pastoral care over displaced people.

What to build where

One of the most contentious issues in building new forms of refugee accommodation was where to site them. Housing refugees in the city is explicitly meant to help socially integrate them, and the LAF touts their new model of housing, the MUF, not just as a space to warehouse refugees, but as a device to teach them German ways of living so that they can live next to Berlin’s other residents. But the debate over how to build this new form of housing quickly led into complex debates over where to build it, and that in turn complicated the notion that the MUFs could function in any way as technologies for social integration.

Building in Germany is governed by a complex national legal code that governs the way residential buildings can be constructed. It requires builders to obtain several permits for each construction site and requires that the city oversee the quality of construction. But housing over a million refugees nationwide demanded a large number of housing units in quick order. So, the German government passed a Flüchtlingsbaurecht (Refugee Building Law) meant to react to the increasing number of arrivals and the responsibility to house them. It included both permanent legal changes[4] and temporary regulations that expired on December 31, 2019. Because the revised laws defined the rapid accommodation of forced migrants as a public good, they exempted newly-built refugee accommodation from the normal building regulations. Meant to flexibilise and simplify the development of refugee shelters, the easing of building requirements and standards in all sorts of planning areas and zones, from dense urban industrial and commercial areas to residential and mixed-use areas, allowed for both the construction of new buildings and the conversion of existing non-residential buildings into refugee accommodation without government oversight.

In more rural “undesignated outlying areas,” the new laws also allowed construction or conversion projects to violate land use plans, interfere with natural landscapes and environments, and promote urban sprawl.[5] In commercial areas, the law exempted refugee shelters from normal arrangements and regulations, permitting residential uses in areas formerly designated as non-residential. Even in industrial areas, the law permitted development of “mobile” accommodation structures including containers and tents as well as the use of industrial buildings, such as warehouses, for the accommodation of forced migrants.[6] Regulations about building standards, including noise and air pollution standards, the architectural integration into the built environment, and environmental impact were all bypassed in the rush to convert existing buildings into accommodation, as well as to construct new buildings meant for mass accommodation.

One curious effect of these new building laws has been to transfer planning and building responsibilities and competences, which are usually enforced by municipalities, to the federal level (Scheidler 2016). This permitted federal authorities like the BAMF, as well as the governments of the Länder, to develop all kinds of accommodation on the territory of municipalities without their consent. Cities and towns suddenly lost control over their own built environments—which was a considerable loss of sovereignty, given how dependent cities are on local control over architecture, construction, and urban planning. The result was a potentially massive transformation of the urban landscape. Nationwide, the forms of housing varied dramatically. Some were in the centre city and others were remote. Some had just a few residents, others had several hundred. Some were dormitory-style housing, where refugees shared single rooms, while others were apartment-style housing. But regardless of their form, these facilities were not legally defined as domiciles, but rather as what German law refers to as “institutions that serve social purposes,” labelled as so-called “social housing” not because the state paid for them, but because their inhabitants did not autonomously organise their housekeeping. The high occupation rate, the temporary nature of stay, and the peculiarities of the architecture, which included shared kitchens, bathrooms, security, entrance control, and fencing all prevented these from being legally considered as places of housing, but rather placed them in the grey zone of institutions legally defined as “accommodation” (Scheidler 2016).

Since cities (or in Berlin’s case, districts) were the authorities tasked with identifying potential building or conversion sites, they had an unexpected source of power. In the site identification process, districts and cities bargained with other state authorities about where refugee accommodation would be located, what they would be like architecturally and socially, and how they would be built. In turn, cities and districts had to respond to urban residents, many of whom opposed refugee resettlement in their own neighbourhoods thus exercised what power they could vis-a-vis the city, rather than the national government. In Berlin, residents of Wannsee, an upscale neighbourhood in the Steglitz-Zehlendorf district on the leafy periphery of the city, opposed the conversion of an abandoned hospital complex, Heckeshorn, into a refugee service centre. In particular, the LAF wanted to convert an old Lung Clinic building into housing for 794 refugees. The hospital had long been abandoned—it was deemed unnecessary and inconvenient after the reunification of the city pushed its geographical centre eastwards. The neighbours, wealthy owners of stand-alone villas bordering a lake, objected to having the increased traffic that the service centre would bring, and objected to having more densely-settled accommodation nearby. But this NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”) was not presented as an objection to refugees. Rather, residents pushed the city to abandon the project in order to preserve the habitat of a rare species of bats. In the end, the city bowed to the pressure, pushed back against the federal government, and moved the refugee accommodation to another site.[7]

It was far easier to build in districts where the residents were poor, immigrants themselves, or otherwise too precarious to object to refugee accommodation being built near them. Even easier was to build refugee accommodation in industrial districts where there were no previous residents to object. So, the municipal government in Berlin, a state agency, began to develop its own ruderal ecology, looking for gaps and cracks in the urban fabric where refugee accommodations could be planted. Soon, sub-standard buildings could be constructed in sub-standard locations, creating housing for unwanted people the state could not easily get rid of in sites that were less valuable and less likely to bring refugees into contact with the economic and social elites of the city.

As the government of Berlin sought to quickly build new physical infrastructure for refugee accommodation, it also attempted to create an infrastructure for the social integration of refugees. This required substantial negotiation between the Berlin Senate and the districts, but the result was a program called Berlin entwickelt neue Nachbarschaften, “Berlin develops new neighbourhoods,” or BENN. The program targeted 20 areas in various districts of Berlin for a five-year period, aiming to strengthen neighbourhoods and civil society structures in areas in which large refugee accommodations are located. Around 43% of all accommodations were located in BENN areas, which consisted of a BENN office and a BENN team, which aimed to include forced migrants in the neighbourhood and to integrate them in the labour market and the participation of social life through the organisation of social activities, counselling, community building and networking activities with existing social institutions in those areas.

The BENN project served two purposes. First, the BENN project became a conduit for negotiations among different levels of government. Each district had a BENN coordinator who served as an interface between the central coordination at the Senate and the local BENN teams. BENN teams had to report on their work to the district and Senate coordinators in individual meetings and in quarterly meetings, where all BENN teams, district coordinators and Senate coordinators met to discuss the process of the program. More importantly, however, the BENN project was meant to carry out ongoing negotiations with residents living in the area in which the accommodations are located. As a pacifying instrument, it was meant to respond to local conflicts in areas where large accommodations were developed, and to convince local residents to accept the presence of forced migrants. As the Senate Secretary argued at a conference about BENN on October 24, 2019, BENN was “an attempt to humanise the asylum debate,” a program that “takes the German population and their concerns into account.”

Berlin’s integrated accommodation approach exemplifies two important trends in refugee accommodations and services. First, accommodation has become a multi-layered and multi-actor process that includes a number of state and non-state actors from the Senate and the Senate Department for Integration, Labour and Social Affairs as the political decision making body, to the LAF as the one that implements regulations, to the Senate for Urban Development and Housing that is in charge of the building program and BENN, to the districts that are responsible for the selection of locations and the local-level integration of refugees. Within these complex governance structures, accommodation is treated as a welfare state provision and forced migrants are positioned as recipients without being treated as actors.

Second, Berlin’s accommodation system has changed from a system designed to exclude migrants to a system that explicitly states its intention to integrate them. The current Senate acknowledged that while asylum accommodations used to be places of isolation where outsiders could be both concentrated and separated from the general population; it now seeks to do otherwise. But of Berlin’s housing shortage, the Senate cannot, in fact, place migrants in normal, market-rate housing, interspersed with other German residents. So, it builds accommodation that, at least physically and from the outside, do not look like camps, but like normal apartment complexes. The Senate also says it wants to overcome the isolation of refugees in neighbourhoods, and instead integrate migrants with other people in the surrounding areas. That is, the Senate’s stated purpose is to “integrate” refugees by replicating the infrastructures and social relations of other German residents. Yet, as we argue next, the MUFs are not normal apartment complexes: they control people’s activities and social relations in ways market-rate housing does not. The sites where the MUFs are, too, are not conducive to social integration, no matter what the BENN project is meant to do.

Sheltering and humanitarian care

If power in a prototypical camp is based on either Foucauldian discipline or Agambenian abandonment, and power in the city is based on the appearance of freedom within the strictures of precarity, the kind of power that exists in Berlin’s MUFs is something different. The MUFs themselves are more than camps but less than homes. They are meant not as temporary housing, but as transitional housing, a way station on the path to market-rate housing at an undetermined time in the future. They permit some freedom for individuals to make choices about the conduct of their everyday lives, but sharply limit the range of choice making to a narrow band of acceptable choices. They link surveillance and securitisation to strong forms of didactic practice that instruct refugees in not only how they should live but in what they should think about how they live. In this sense, they are doing something less than they claim to be doing, which is transforming refugees into proper neoliberal subjects, but something more than simply controlling them in total institutions or abandoning them in a state of exception. As we explain here, this kind of power, which we call “sheltering,” produces refugees not as full urban citizens, but as a kind of urban resident who must be protected, restrained, nurtured and controlled all at once.

Long-term refugee accommodation in Berlin is aimed not just at remaking space, but at remaking persons. It is a laboratory for urban living, a totalising institution that is meant to teach refugees how to live as Germans. In this sense, it follows the logic of assimilation, even though LAF officials strenuously argue that it does not. As one official told us, “We don’t care what people do in their private lives, in their apartments. Live as you wish! But we believe that they must know how to behave in public space in accordance with German values. This is integration, not assimilation.”

Extremely detailed rules about the conduct of everyday life in the accommodation suggest otherwise, however. In one MUF, for example, there were rules against hanging artwork on the walls and rules about home decor, rules against having overnight visitors and rules against the ways kids could play outside. For example, one flashpoint in the MUF was the issue of carpets. The MUF had been built with concrete floors that had radiant in-floor heating. Carpeting was against the fire code and could affect the heating of the building. As Palachowski, the manager of one MUF explained in a slightly baffled tone,” they are used to having a carpet, to sitting on the carpet, to sleeping on the carpet, even eating on the carpet. They just shove all the furniture to the walls and eat right on the carpet.” The rule in the MUF therefore banned all carpets. Another issue of constant debate was barbecuing. For Afghans, Syrians and other refugees, having groups of people together around a grill was quintessential sociality. For the managers of the accommodations, however, barbecuing was problematic: it made groups of refugees highly visible in public space, it posed the risk of fire, and threatened to bring in uncontrollable outsiders, and therefore had to be limited. There were dozens of similar house rules, sharply limiting not only the ways inhabitants could be in public space, but also limiting the ways they could occupy private spaces. These rules, as trivial as they might seem, profoundly disrupted refugees’ familiar ways of life, demanding that they change bodily practice, forms of sociality, and ways of inhabiting public space.

Control over daily living extended especially to the ethnic makeup of the residents. Unlike resettlement policy in the United States, Berlin’s resettlement programs mitigate against the formation of ethnic enclaves by deliberately not clustering members of a single ethnic group in a single residence. LAF officials pitched this as practice for refugees who would eventually move into market-rate apartments: “In Berlin, you can’t choose your neighbours. Why should they choose their neighbours here?” Indeed, the multi-ethnic neighbourhood became both an already-existing form in the LAF’s imaginings and an ideal that would exist as a result of integrating refugees. The neighbourhood, as a spatial entity, thus became the object of LAF’s intervention. They held many meetings to convince residents around the proposed sites of refugee accommodation to accept refugee housing as a part of the neighbourhood, and held events to introduce refugees to local inhabitants not as refugees, but as neighbours. Much of the training refugees received in the MUF was aimed at teaching them how to comport themselves explicitly as neighbours in order to make themselves accepted and normalised in urban space.

This was classic Foucauldian pastoral care, for both the locals and the migrants. But it was also an education in resistance, negotiation and workarounds for both groups. For example, Palachowski said that the operators of the MUF had had to concede defeat on the issue of carpets. “If you were going to be very strict and very German, you’d say no because it violates the fire code. You’d tell them they had to buy flame retardant curtains and carpets. But you can’t expect Afghan families to buy flame retardant carpets! They go to the market and they buy cotton or wool. You have to let people go sometimes. You can’t give people regulations from Monday to Friday. They get fed up. They’re human beings, adults, not kids! If you teach them all the time, they’ll rebel. So, we don’t really say anything about the carpets.”

The refugees similarly pushed back on the issue of grilling outdoors. Barbecuing was officially banned. But refugees were willing to go to surprising lengths to continue the practice. When grilling was banned at their accommodation, they went and grilled in the park, which was also forbidden; when challenged by the police and ordered to extinguish the grill, refugees deliberately played dumb and pretended they didn’t understand. And when they were finally expelled from the parks, they returned to their accommodation and began grilling again. Finally, the managers of the accommodation were forced to compromise, and began permitting one or two grills at a time on the grounds of the accommodation. Thus, while there was intense pressure from the managers of the accommodation on the refugees to become some version of Homo Germanicus, there were sharp limits to the person-making project.

Because of Berlin’s tight housing market, the MUFs failed to result in people who would leave the transitional housing of the MUFs to join the urban labour market and leave the accommodation for good, the time horizon of the accommodation, once envisioned as temporary, quickly slid back into the “permanent temporariness” of the camp. This was due to the partial nature of the integration that was actually achieved: while refugees often joined the labour market (either officially or unofficially) and interacted with Germans socially, they have often remained in state-run accommodation for years. This meant that while the residents have some freedoms and latitude for action, they also remain in the control and care of the state for the foreseeable future. For many people, joining the labour market was difficult, if not impossible because they could not gain the language skills to complete certifications in German. Others became dependent on the educational, psychological or social services offered by the accommodation, and began to fear moving into market-rate apartments. So, far from being a recycling centre spitting out new people into German society, refugee accommodation often only completed that job in half measures, leaving refugees in the limbo of partial integration and partial dependence.

We refer to this blend of autonomy and dependence, freedom and control as “sheltering.” Sheltering embodies a paradoxical logic: on the one hand, it seeks to integrate refugees into local communities, but on the other, it definitively segregates them from local populations by containing them in marked spaces. It claims to be transitional, but de facto becomes a way of life for the people being sheltered. Sheltering projects promote residents’ autonomy in daily living, but at the same time, declare them incompetent to make their own decisions about how to keep house and how to conduct daily affairs. As Bhagat (2020) points out, sheltering projects segregate refugees racially, slotting them into low-wage work, permanent poverty, and continual reliance on the state, all in the name of “self-sufficiency.” The MUFs, then, are neither camps nor homes. They are shelters, a form of housing that leads residents into economic poverty, long-term dependence, and temporal stagnation, all in the name of neoliberal self-reliance.

The fact that the MUFs are engaging in sheltering practices is made clear by the long-term plans for the buildings. According to the LAF’s Langenbach, the MUFs were not envisioned as permanently designated for refugees. Instead, the plan is to eventually move the refugees out, and use the MUFs as housing for other populations in need of state supervision and sheltering practices. The Berlin Senate envisions the MUFs as eventually housing homeless people, the elderly, drug addicts or students—all populations envisioned as people incapable or unworthy of the autonomy of a true home and in need of services and supervision. This shows that refugees are no longer segregated into the peculiar institution of the camp and are no longer occupying a unique place in German society. Rather, bit by bit, by virtue of their partial and bounded autonomy and integration, refugees are being classed with other dependent populations deemed in need of long-term sheltering, with the peculiar mix of control and care that entails. Rather than heading towards full integration with the German population, refugees remain marked as not fully competent, not fully adult, not fully functioning members of society.


Certainly, the German government has only offered sheltering to some refugees: while Syrians, for example, are seen as amenable to these practices (and useful in the labour market), African refugees are less frequently offered sheltering, and instead are excluded, rendered deportable, or sent back to their countries of origin. Ukrainian refugees may experience a completely different form of integration: as white, Christian Europeans, they may be deemed as people who do not need sheltering at all, and instead are pushed into complete self-reliance much more quickly, without either the benefits or burdens of sheltering.

Seeing refugees as subject to the logic of sheltering suggests the need for a more fully developed theory which looks at the ways particular groups–both refugees and other populations–are included or excluded in this logic. How are refugees made into subjects like other, non-immigrant, sheltered populations, while still facing the peculiar burdens of non-citizenship? The point here is not to dissolve the problems of migration into the sea of urban precarity (cf. Cabot and Ramsay 2022), but to understand the ways that different populations are made subject to new practices of spatial segregation, impoverishment, and compromised self-determination that intersects both with the welfare state and with the ongoing logics of neoliberalism.


[1] See (§45 AsylG). This quota is based on the tax revenue (2/3) and the population size (1/3) and was designed to secure an even share of national obligations and is generally used in the context of federal governance in Germany.

[2] The 2016 government in Berlin was made up of a ‘red-red-green’ coalition that included the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens. A left party senator became the head of the Senate Department for Integration, Labor and Social Affairs, the parent organisation of the LAF, in late 2016.

[3] This information comes from an interview with an official at the Senate Department for Integration, Labor and Social Affairs in 2019.

[4] See §1, Art. 6(13), §31, 2(1) BauGB, and §246, Art. 8–17.

[5] The German Federal Building Law generally has tough restrictions on preventing the sprawl of urban settlements.  See §246, Art. 13, BauGB.

[6] § 246 Art. 12 (1-2) BauGB

[7] We thank Toby Parsloe for this story, and for taking us to Heckeshorn multiple times.


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