Arriving through Infrastructures: Berlin's institutional shelters for refugees 2015-2019

Parsloe, Toby 

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During the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 German chancellor Angela Merkel made the historic decision to welcome over one million refugees into the country. Throughout Germany municipal governments created a diverse range of temporary accommodations to house the arrivals, most notably in cities due to a lack of affordable housing. At the end of 2019 in Berlin, over 20,000 refugees were still living in institutional refugee shelter. These structures have come to be key mediators of the ways in which these newcomers have arrived in the city.

Refugee shelters have primarily been understood in the context of the rich literature that has developed in recent decades around the ‘camp’ as a complex socio-spatial and political phenomenon. Yet the proliferation of different forms of refugee shelters especially in urban areas requires new theoretical lenses to shed new light on these structures. This thesis focuses on an alternative body of literature that considers the way urban infrastructures shape migration. It considers Berlin’s institutional shelters as part of infrastructural complexes to reveal how infrastructures shape the nature of refugee arrival in the city. It engages with emerging theoretical work on infrastructure and migration as well as presents empirical data obtained through eight months of on-site research that focuses on the quotidian experiences of refugees from their perspectives. It consists of three parts which examine the directional, contradictory, and entangled nature of infrastructure through its construction, calibration, operation, and location in relation to refugee arrival. The first part deepens understandings on the diverse ways that infrastructures sort and channel arrival trajectories to undermine the autonomy of refugee newcomers. The second part analyses the internal spatial dynamics of the shelters to explore the ways their contradictory functions as infrastructure blur the conceptual boundaries between camps, shelter, and housing and limit possibilities to inhabit domestic spaces. The third part explores the ways the urban locations of infrastructure shape everyday encounters and the development of relationships between newcomers and the city. While infrastructures can provide the potential to find stability within the city for refugees to move on from becoming forcibly displaced, the thesis argues that Berlin’s institutional shelters operate as infrastructures which undermine this process and exacerbate the uncanny and unsettling nature of arrival. Instead, refugees find the greatest scope for autonomy in their arrival through existing infrastructures of the city, especially the more informal ‘bottom up’ forms created and operated by existing migrant communities.

Sternberg, Maximilian
Refugee, Berlin, Refugee camp, Refugee shelter, Refugee housing, Arrival, Infrastructure, Refugee crisis, Forced migration, Arrival infrastructures
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (1964469)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (1964469)
Arts and Humanities Research Council