Decentering the Refugee Crisis: Racialized Displacement in Berlin and Paris- Part 2: Urban Scale

In the second part of this blog, we examine the ways through which Germany and France have adopted various strategies of refugee management and how these responses are shaped by austerity.

Germany and France are two of the most powerful actors in the Eurozone and their respective capital cities have experienced neoliberal-led austerity even prior to the 2008 crisis where rental housing is the dominant tenure. Berlin and Paris are also the top destinations for urban refugees in the EU as we explore in our article Placing Refugees in Authoritarian Neoliberalism. In Germany, 860,000 people are homeless and in France 140,000 people live on the streets and an additional 3.5 million live under precarious housing conditions. These cities have adopted variegated strategies of refugee management. Austerity, which has been present in Berlin since the early 2000s, has led to market-led solutions as the Berlin Senate had no choice but to turn to the global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, to troubleshoot their shelter strategy. In Paris, refugees are expelled from the city’s core on an ongoing basis due to a similar shortage in social housing, emergency housing, and beds. Indeed, displacement does not have an endpoint—it is an ongoing cycle from country of origin, to refugee camp, to major city, and potential deportation. Echoing our argument in part I of our blogpost (‘Global and Regional Scales’), refugees are unfairly blamed for social problems in their countries and cities of relocation thereby masking historical forms of urban austerity and welfare retrenchment.

Berlin absorbed the highest number of forcibly displaced war refugees in comparison to any other city in Western Europe. Refugees were kept in emergency shelters in the abandoned Tempelhof airport between a minimum of six weeks and a maximum of six months. These emergency dwellings have received the most public scrutiny due to overcrowding, and safety issues as these accommodations lack regulatory monitoring. Despite inadequate basic provisions, these temporary shelters allow the German government to maintain its refugee-accepting image of benevolence on the international scale.

After refugees exhaust their maximum allotted time in emergency shelters, they are required to search for more permanent housing in a high-demand, high-priced rental market, where 85 percent of Berlin’s population resides. To meet its goal of balanced budgets, the Berlin Senate engaged in the privatization of public utilities and housing—it sold off many of its municipal housing companies to the private sector. The result was increased housing prices and insecurity, evictions, and homelessness providing the context in which refugees must attempt to access housing as precarious (un)waged workers in their city of relocation. With ongoing rental housing precarity and a burgeoning homeless and refugee population, Berlin Senate hired McKinsey and Company at a cost of €238,000 to produce a Masterplan for Integration and Security. The Masterplan included the building of container homes for refugees thereby depoliticizing the tensions embedded in the refugee crisis trope and the history of urban austerity since 2008. To sum up the Berlin case, refugees struggle to survive despite having some subsidies provided by the German state. The refugee crisis trope works to distract from nearly two decades of austerity governance, high rent prices, and the market-based rationality that underpins refugee integration without much required welfare spending as further explored in a recent article by Susanne Soederberg in Development and Change.

The Paris case contrasts Berlin by focusing on ongoing displacement away from the city of Paris into rural areas of France or back to the port of entry. Indeed, there is no ‘Masterplan’ in Paris, rather the city, the national level state, and individual civil society organisations use piecemeal strategies in the face of housing shortage and unprecedented homelessness. Refugee status is continually denied—only 13,020 refugees received status out of 100,412 applications in 2017 where black African refugees received higher rates of rejection than their counterparts from the Middle East. This is clear evidence of racial indexing where black bodies are more likely considered inauthentic or irregular migrants. Paris has a long history of displacing its poor and the creation of the banlieue racialized suburbs is a stark example of displacement as a long-standing feature of capital accumulation in the city as discussed by Harvey and other urban geographers. The so-called urban refugee crisis in Paris, due in part to the constant closure of shantytowns and informal shelters in Calais, overlaps with France’s unprecedented crisis of housing insecurity and homelessness. Thus, the City of Paris has enacted disjointed strategies of refugee management.

At the onset of increased migration in 2015, the City provided refugees with tents, blankets, basic supplies and even wi-fi under the metro stations Stalingrad and Juarez. While this was less than ideal as a location, these makeshift camps were shut down by national level police and the City of Paris opened the ‘Bubble’ refugee processing centre. This marked a shift in refugee policy—if refugees wanted a more permanent home they would either accept relocation by bus to rural areas of France as processed by the Bubble or have to await a decision on social housing in the extremely backlogged waiting list in Paris. Since Paris is an economic hub where refugees can also maintain kinship ties, many refugees choose to stay on the streets of Paris or find overcrowded homes where they are exploited in terms of rent by landlords. Other refugees must compete for resources with the homeless in emergency shelters. The refugee crisis trope masks the realities of urban precarity in Paris and instead blames refugees for housing backlog, sexual violence, and slum housing on the streets of the city. Paris’s expulsion of refugees is not a sharp departure from the city’s history of displacing working class and racialized people from the city’s core as explored in a recent article by Ali Bhagat in Urban Geography.

As we have argued the refugee crisis trope works to smooth over the tensions inherent in this current moment of market-oriented governance. It works to reiterate the racial violence that refugees face on an everyday basis upon relocation. While the trope manifests itself in variegated ways, the Paris and Berlin cases illustrate the urban arena as a site of struggle particularly in terms of shelter concealed by the multi-scalar trope of the refugee crisis.