European migrant crisis: rethinking urban opportunities

As the biggest migrant crisis since WWII continues to dominate European affairs, some academics, politicians and urbanists have proposed ways of rethinking current housing structures which could offer solutions to the problem. Some of these are concerned with re-thinking the design and build of refugee camps; others tackle longer-term rehousing and propose to use towns of which the population is decreasing, for the rehousing of migrants.
Currently, there are over 20 million refugees who have crossed an international border globally[1], many of whom live in refugee camps in border regions. Although the name ‘camp’ might suggest a temporary stay, many people in fact live in these camps for years, waiting to be either allowed to continue into another country, or to be repatriated. The current design of refugee camps is still based on short-term survival: it is difficult for those living there to access basic needs, let alone to work or develop an existence. Professor of refugee and forced migration studies Alexander Betts argued in the Guardian that ‘If refugee camps could be rethought with the opportunities of, say, a university campus or a functioning city, they might offer opportunities for human flourishing, built upon representation and self-governance, even on a temporary basis.’[2] By treating the camps as cities, complete with urban planning and design, instead of campsites, they would give the people living there more opportunities to develop themselves, rather than forcing them to biding their time. This creates opportunities to re-think the status of refugees and migrants, and allows temporary lodgings to be seen as places of opportunity rather than problems.
Interestingly, the current practice of separating refugees and migrants from ‘normal’ society has been compared to how in the past lepers were housed in special leper colonies, such as Spinalonga in Greece which this blog has previously discussed. Spinalonga’s current state as a ‘ghost town’ provides a link with the second solution to the refugee crisis which has been raised: re-housing refugees in towns with shrinking populations. Oliver Junk, mayor of the German town of Goslar, has stated in the media that Goslar, in which currently 10% of housing stands empty, would profit from taking in large numbers of refugees.[3]This idea is supported by academics working in urban studies, as long as it is executed with care. Rehousing refugees and migrants in existing communities would give those communities an economic boost, as well as providing the migrants and refugees with the possibility of building up an independent existence. And the idea is not without precedent: Detroit, one of the prime examples of a Western city that has suffered population loss, is currently housing a 300,000 strong community of people from the Middle East, which has revitalised the city.4It is however important to integrate the new community with the old, to prevent segregation. This can be done by careful planning and consideration of the needs of both the existing population and the new inhabitants.
The current increase in worldwide displacement of people provides opportunities to radically rethink how we use our urban areas, and how we think about migrants. Rather than putting the focus on a return to the country of origin, and considering all international movement to be temporary, it would be more fruitful to allow migrants and refugees to integrate with existing communities and give them the opportunity to take control of their own lives. This would enable them to contribute to the economy and society of their ‘host’ country, as well as potentially solving issues of urban degeneration.

[1] See ‘UNHCR warns of dangerous new era in worldwide displacement as report shows almost 60 million people forced to flee their homes’ UNHCR report, 18 June 2015 accessed 5 September 2015
[2] Alexander Betts, ‘Is creating a new nation for the world’s refugees a good idea?’ The Guardian, 4 August 2015 accessed 5 September 2015
[3] See “Flüchtlinge sind zuerst Chance und nicht zuerst Last”’’ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 17 August 2015 accessed 5 September 2015
[4] See ‘Dearborn: Home Away from Home for Iraqi Refugees’, accessed 5 September 2015

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