FlashASI - Flash Asile

The City as a Border. What Cities make to Migrants, what Migrants make to the City. From a Multi-sited Ethnography to Public Anthropology – BABELS

BABELS - The City as a Border.

What cities do to migrants, what migrants do to the city.

Crossroads-cities, border-cities and refuge-cities

In 2015, the so-called « migrants crisis » turned asylum a central question, object of debate at European scale – by the introduction of refugee allocation quotas – and national scales. Some countries, first of all Germany, engage in welcoming migrants while others choose to close their borders. In this context, cities appeared like new central actors of hospitality by their capacity to implement peculiar policies – more welcoming or hostile than the State’s ones – for migrants. Space of entanglement of various levels of migration policies, space of co-presence between old and new arrival or established migrants among which new actors of hospitality can emerge (such as neighbors with spontaneous solidarity), cities are perfect places to observe the recent recomposition of contemporary migrations. <br /><br />Between passage and forced waiting, cities are also places where the border acquire a peculiar temporality. Thus the city puts in tension welcoming and rejection by local societies, passage and anchorage by migrants, shaping in the framework of Babels’ project three forms of cities amidst the research: borders-cities, refuges-cities, and crossroads-cities.

The spaces crossed and inhabited by migrants are thus border-places which they contribute to design by their presence. These spaces, linked between them by the migratory routes, shape moving patterns evolving according to local opportunities and situations. Aiming to understand the whole regional ensemble of migrations in Europe and Mediterranean, the collective research Babels was organized around a series of multi-sited and connected ethnographies, allowing to follow migrants' routes in the city and between different cities.

Articulated around several “Public workshop of border-cities”, the Babels project was firmly anchored in a Public Anthropology process joining knowledges produced by the fieldwork researches with the knowledges of actors from associations, institutions and media concerned by asylum, migration policies and welcoming of strangers. This approach allowed us to base empirically and theoretically our intervention in the public debates on public policies (“what cities do the migrants”) as well as on the meaning and transformations induced by the presence and social practices of the migrants (“what migrants do the city”).

The Babels Project opened the way to understanding contemporary borders’ situations – geographical, social or cultural – and their evolution, allowing a change of scale in the public debates by « de-nationalizing » them, thanks to a device of investigations linking North and South. It showed the fundamental relation between cities and borders. Thanks to a partnership with the Ville de Paris administration which supported a specific investigation, it was possible to study the determinations of personal commitments of Parisian dwellers with hospitality for migrants.

Babels Projects main feature is a series of precise descriptions of borders-places becoming spaces of everyday life for people in migration. A special attention was given to the forms of sociability and solidarity in these contexts. In continuation, it would be interesting to give a specific attention to hostile reactions against migrants. The emergence of a far right populism is a topic that would allow to invert the terms of the European crisis.This would consist in passing from an analysis of the «migrants' crisis« in Europe to the understanding of «the crisis of Europe« in front of the migrants.

Besides books and articles published in the framework of the project, our willing to inscribe Babels in a Public Anthropology approach, led us to the creation of a series, “Bibliothèque des frontières” at Passager clandestine editor. Written in a collaborative way and in a language style for a wide audience, the seven books of the series allowed a thematic presentation of the scientific results of the program, in association with persons who participated at the production of knowledges – NGOs actors, associations activists, migrants, etc.

The theme “borders and cities” has imposed itself in the latest evolutions of the European « refugee crisis ». Many debates and emergency initiatives emerged in Europe after events such as the shipwrecks of three boats full of migrants that caused a thousand causalities in the Mediterranean Sea in April 2015 or the German decision in August-September 2015 to welcome refugees from Middle-East—which was followed by large European debates on how to distribute the burden of refugees and whether to open or to close the borders. The question of asylum became the main focus of public debate not only at national level but also in cities, in human rights defense organizations and even at an individual level.
In many different European countries, a public hospitality has been promoted and institutionalized, while more or less organized or individualized social forms of hospitality —conceived as charity or a sort of cosmopolitan solidarity— have been made public. At the same time, the same representatives of the State —or others— the media or even some citizens have been advocating rejecting and sidelining, or even encamping migrants and refugees.

This situation, a true political moment that has given rise place to a widespread debate in Europe on both the status of migrants in European nations and the question of external and internal borders within Europe, has revealed the ambiguities, overlaps, contradictions and conflicts between the different methods of hospitality and sidelining.

This is the context of the BABELS project, which by combining multi-sited ethnography with public anthropology, sets out a solid empirical and theoretical base to its intervention in the public debate on the place of migrants in public policies and social practices (“what cities do to migrants”) as well as on the signification and effects of the migrant presence (“what migrants do to cities”). The key concept in our thinking and fieldwork is the notion of “borders”.

This project of public anthropology, based on the production of knowledge from and for society, consists of taking up the questions raised in Europe and the Mediterranean Region about the migrants, refugees and borders to reformulate them into theoretical questions and empirical issues. The project will be based on both knowledge already acquired and theorized by one group of members of the program and on new research questions that will introduce new elements of comprehension into the public debate. The three key questions — cities as borders, refuge or crossroads — incorporate thirteen local, individual or collective research operations.

The BABELS project seeks to provide answers to a broad public as well as to institutional stakeholders, using knowledge from comparative ethnographies and working closely with concerned organizations, institutions and media. These answers revolve around the following propositions:

- Contextualize the categories (such as migrants, refugees, illegals, strangers, etc.) produced by institutions or media and explain their underlying conception and deployment.
- Describe and explain contemporary border situations (geographical, social, cultural) and their evolutions.
- Enlarge the scale of public debates by “de-nationalizing” them, thanks to a research linking North to South by working on migrants’ paths as well as on public hospitable or hostile policies.
- Demonstrate the fundamental link between cities and borders — major capitals or border towns — and help renew ways of conceiving public policies towards zones with a dense presence of migrants; with an eye to guiding political choices.

Project coordinator

Monsieur Michel AGIER (Institut Interdisciplinaire d’Anthropologie du Contemporain)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


IIAC-UMR8177 (LAUM) Institut Interdisciplinaire d’Anthropologie du Contemporain

Help of the ANR 264,600 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: April 2016 - 24 Months

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