Formal and informal shelter provision on the ‘Balkan Route’
camps in field, outskirts of Greece

By Amanda Russell Beattie, Gemma Bird, Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik and Patrycja Rozbicka


We, the IR_Aesthetics collective (@IR_Aesthetics), have been involved in research investigating the spaces and places of migration along the so-called ‘Balkan Route’ since 2017.  Our experience includes multiple visits to Belgrade, Thessaloniki, Athens and the towns and camps on the Aegean Islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos.  We have, in these places, spoken to grassroots activists, NGO volunteers, as well as EU and State Officials in order to intervene, and challenge, the underlying assumptions that guide the formation of formal refugee camps and Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) that materialised due to EU policy.

Our findings are quite clear.  EU policy provision for refugee housing, is laced with racial and imperial legacies that fail to provide the most basic forms of accommodation and in fact policy decisions can negatively define the spaces in which people find themselves.  With this awareness we question the prevailing assumption that refugee camps remain the ‘best’ place for migrants.  Our research pushes to challenge the violent eviction of informal refugee squats, as evidenced in the ‘cleaning up of Exarchia’, a neighbourhood in Athens, which among a number of similar policy decisions of the Greek Government drove the refugee population to homelessness in Syntagma Square.  It is an act which rendered the population reliant on the good will of NGOs to offer the most basic of human provisions, food and shelter (if possible).  As such, our evidence suggests that policies directly influence the spaces and places in which people find themselves and that this is not necessarily positive.

Theories and findings

Our arguments and findings are informed by the writings of Dikeç (2007), and his notion of the ‘Badlands’ which emerges from his interrogation of the French Banliueu’s.  A focus on the badlands allows us to quickly hone in on the ways in which spaces inform policy, but also how policy can change spaces.  By combining this with the work of scholars such as Shabazz (2015) and Neely and Samura (2011), we focus attention on the racialised framing of refugee spaces.  We highlight the explicit decision to situate formal camps outside of urban spaces, away from modes of public transport, ensuring that any journey between the urban and rural, to depart from the camp, was rendered as difficult as possible and how this is mirrored in policies of segregation in cities like Chicago.  With the exception of the RIC on the island of Samos, this urban displacement was similarly evident across the Aegean islands. Plans to further segregate camps from urban spaces are in place on Samos and Lesvos with intended remote, closed detention spaces supposed to open in 2021.  Formal refugee spaces were situated outside of recognised and accessible transport systems thereby reducing the ease of transport between the urban/rural divide, regardless of the fact that this stands in contradiction to EU suggestions.

Informal squats offer a counterpoint to the narrative of space and place. Our findings reveal that they remain situated in urban spaces, allowing the refugee population to access, education, shops and support, although not without complications.  Furthermore, they also offer an unfolding daily experience that caters to individual agency, autonomy and community.  Our interviews revealed that living in a formal camp meant abiding by its rules.  Therefore, the ability to choose when, and what to eat, was not possible.  Moreover, when to sleep, and when to wake, was guided by the rules of the camp, or by the conditions you were forced to exist within.

Our research revealed that informal squats were communally organised with individuals within them taking responsibility for education, daily maintenance, security and food preparation.  This stands at odds with findings in formal housing that rely on a daily schedule of meal provision. Daily rations are provided by the army, with queuing times for a single meal up to five hours with the potential for violent outbreaks during this time period. Individual, personal security is not a guarantee in RICs, women, in particular, avoid trips to the toilet after dark, for fear of being assaulted if they leave their tents.  Water bottles were reused as toilets to be disposed of in the morning.

Policy implications

It is, with this awareness, that we wonder at the promotion of camps, to the detriment of housing options that are self-governed and challenge the inherent racial and imperial nature of EU policy provisions. With this in mind, we propose four specific ideas that draw on our findings in the hopes of augmenting refugee provision in the spaces and places of migration. We detail them below:

  • Overcrowding is one of the main factors affecting the quality of life in all types of refugee housing. Mainland camps and informal housing provision, such as squats, are often able to manage the numbers of residents, unlike island reception and identification centres (RICs). Regulating numbers on the islands through the use of transfers and a quicker more efficient asylum process which recognises individuals’ rights to seek refuge and to cross borders is a key priority. This does not, however, mean evicting people on mainland Greece who have been given asylum to make space for transfers. This approach to ‘making space’ in 2020/ 2021 has led to increases in homelessness during a global pandemic as well as unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
  • Refugees are driven towards informal housing such as squats and makeshift settlements for two main reasons: poor camp conditions or overcrowding, and uncertainty over the asylum process, including long waits for asylum interviews in Greece. We recommend improved conditions in formal housing provision, as well as a change in policy that avoids vilifying alternative forms of accommodation. We recognise, however, that this stands at odds with the current policy choices of the New Democracy Government.
  • There is a lack of formal support for people living in informal accommodation, particularly healthcare, food and sanitation – this needs to be overcome and the focus on having a fixed official address for access to non-emergency healthcare needs to be altered.
  • EU funding should not only be focused at the state level. Doing so creates the dichotomy of ‘good’ formal housing and ‘bad’ informal housing and leads to implications for healthcare, access to amenities, and ‘othering’ of communities. This is particularly important during a pandemic when formal housing has shown itself once again to be insufficient.

To conclude then, we argue that EU policy decisions require better grounding in the evidence. That the current situation facing refugees is one of inadequate shelter, a slow asylum process, over-crowding, and lengthy queues and that this reality is partially a result of policy decision making that sees formal and informal housing provision on an unsubstantiated binary of good and bad.


About the authors

Dr Gemma Bird is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and IR at the University of Liverpool. Her research sits at the intersection between political theory and IR, focusing recently on migration and citizenship. Recently published in Palgrave’s International Political Theory Series and the journals Global Policy, Cooperation and Conflict and Citizenship Studies. She can be followed on Twitter at @gemmakristina and her publications found here.

Dr Patrycja Rozbicka is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, UK, studying various stakeholders’ participation in policy-making and implementation. Her most recent book explores none-state actors’ engagement in the national policies development in the Central and Eastern European Countries. Find out more about Patrycja here, and follow her on Twitter [@patibeast].

Dr Amanda Russell Beattie is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, UK, where she researches on International Ethics, paying particular attention to the discourses of International Migration.  She is currently writing an autoethnographic work investigating UK experiences of deportation.  Find out more about Amanda here, and follow her on Twitter @AmandaRBeattie.

Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. Jelena’s recent publications have appeared in Antipode, Cooperation and Conflict, Global Policy and Political Geography.