Urban Refuge: Transgressive State and Non-State Responses to Refugee Migration in Urban Contexts

Nihad El-Kayed and Tim Müller

We are currently witnessing one of the greatest migratory movements in current history: approximately 60 million people worldwide are currently on the move, seeking refuge (UNHCR 2014). With this, new challenges arise, particularly for the local contexts that serve as centres of reception. European and North American responses have been mixed: On the one hand there is a discourse that strongly emphasizes measures to prevent refugee migration and highlights the exclusionary potential of insider- and outsider configurations. On the other hand the new migration movement is seen as an opportunity to recruit a potential new labour force for societies that currently experience a demographic decline. Between these two polarized views, all societies are facing pragmatic questions related to the organizational challenges in providing housing, education, welfare and labour market opportunities to newly arriving refugee populations. As state actors are often overwhelmed with responding quickly to immediate and urgent demands, non-state actors such as NGOs, but also individual citizens, often fill vacuums and transgress into zones that are traditionally seen as state responsibilities: counselling in the asylum seeking process, provision of housing and shelter, volunteering as language teachers, etc. While European and North American states seem to be surprised by the „new“ migratory processes many regions around the world are used to hosting much higher shares of refugee populations – and this increasingly in cities instead of refugee camps (Hoffstaedter 2015).

In this session we want to bring a wide range of approaches and perspectives into a fruitful conversation by focusing on local conditions of refuge – asking inter alia what North-American and European cities can learn from experiences of “Southern“ cities in providing resources for a growing refugee population. Thus we especially invite contributions that make comparisons across the so-called North-South divide (Robinson 2011). We want to bring perspectives on how different (non)urban contexts deal with arriving refugee populations that flee war, poverty, sexual or religious discrimination and other life-threatening situations in a conversation.

One focus of the session will lie on the everyday experience of refugee migration. Questions in relation to this include: How does the refugee migrant experience differ across urban contexts? How do local structures such as housing markets, a (non)diverse population structure or local civic societies make a difference in providing a fertile ground to build a new life in refuge or not? How are refugees shaping and building cities around the globe? How do refugees resist state and nonstate violence in the course of seeking asylum and form political alliances with other local actors?

Western policy makers are currently drawing heavily on the image of a profound crisis that challenges the former order of state tasks. This provokes questions like: In which ways is this kind of migration (un)governable and trangresses or stabilizes local state control? Which kind of state and non-state responses do the new challenges evoke that transgress earlier roles of state and nonstate actors in various dimensions?


Hoffstaedter, Gerhard (2015): Between a rock and a hard place. Urban refugees in a global context. In: Koizumi, Koichi /Hoffstaedter, Gerhard (eds): Urban Refugees. Challenges in protection, services and policy. London: Routledge, 1-10.

Robinson, Jennifer (2011): Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture. In: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(1), 1-23.

UNHCR (2014): Global Trends. Forced Displacement 2014. Geneva: UNHCR