The irregular occupation of urban space | SALLY JANE HOLE


Who has the right to the city? Who may participate in the re-making and re-shaping of our urban spaces and imaginaries? Typically, the response would be: the citizen. It is the citizen who engages in civil dialogue and public debate, the citizen who inhabits the 'public sphere', who 'belongs' to the political community and the city, who is attributed a political subjectivity. In the shadows of the politically present citizen however, stands all those who do not neatly fit this narrow, statist imagining of identity. In this paper, I explore the presence and political subjectivity of irregular migrants in the city of Patras, in Greece, arguing that despite their being condemned to the shadows of political community, their presence constitutes a transformative occupation of this urban space.

Transient permanence

For the last twenty years migrants have come to the port city of Patras in the hope that they can set in motion their onward journey to Italy and western Europe. Kurdish migrants began arriving in Patras in 1997, taking shelter in abandoned train wagons and containers near the port, and by 1998 a makeshift camp had begun to grow in Agyia in northern Patras. Accommodating an estimated 2,000 migrants at one time, the makeshift camp of 200-300 huts included shops, a barbers, and a mosque. It was a space of btransient permanence,b an established and organised space, yet always temporary. As Mantanika (2009, p. 3) observes, although the constructions in the camp were provisional in character, the space viewed as a whole looked like ba kind of village,b a village that assumed the privileges of amenities, sociality, and safety.

The camp endured until July 2009, when it was finally bclearedb by the authorities; bulldozed and then set-alight, mosque and all. The destruction of the Agyia camp may be understood as a spectacle of militarised border control, an affirmation of power over the configuration of space. It constituted an emboldened challenge to migrantsb right to space, to settlement, to political agency. Irregular migrants were once more pushed further into the shadows, away from the 'public sphere,' away from any possibility of being and 'belonging', even in a ghettoized pocket of the city, and hence, in Patras, migrants have found themselves in an ever-more precarious environment.

At the time of my research,two years after the destruction of Agyia,there were approximately 1,000 migrants in Patras, the majority coming from Afghanistan, Sudan, and Algeria. A number of Sudanese and Algerian men squatted a train depot south of the city in San Andreas, and a group of young Afghans camped by another depot, San Dyonisios, close to the port, whilst most bhabitationsb were more dispersed and hidden, men squatting abandoned houses and factories throughout the city, or camping by the beaches, in car parks, or in gardens. The following diary extract describes my visit to an abandoned building squatted by an ever-changing number of Sudanese men:

"I sit in their yard with them, on some plastic chairs and a bed, shaded by hanging blankets... They have a camping gas stove for cooking, but no electricity... For water, they have to fetch from across the road, at the train depot... I sit down, and soon a man returns from the shop with Coca Cola, chocolate and water just for me. bNo no, I donbt need.b bNo, you are our guest!b They laugh because they have never had a Greek guest, a white guest, a female guest, in two years!... One guy with dreadlocks and a nasty-looking cataract is shaving another guy carefully... They explain that they are refused at barbers in Patras... Another guy is preparing shisha... [another] begins preparing dinner".

Despite their precarity, these Sudanese men had created a bhomelyb space, claiming some sense of place and belonging, be-it marginal. Other migrant groups adopted different parts of the city. Many North Africans spent time in the mainB plateausB and visited a student anarchist squay where they could charge their mobile phones and bhangout.b Some Sudanese men stayed in the south side, visiting a Sudanese-owned café,an o-frillsbigroom, with plastic chairs and tables and a TV screening Al-Jazeera. In their different ways these men insisted in participating in the social life of the city, thus shaping and re-making the spaces around them.

During my fieldwork police made a 'crackdown' on many of the migrant camps. One day the San Dyonisios camp of makeshift shacks was destroyed, over two days police made mass arrests of an estimated 100-150 men at the San Andreas camp, on a daily basis the streets near the ports were patrolled and migrants rounded-up and beaten, identity documents were demanded and abandoned houses were targeted for eviction. Through these actions, the authorities continuously attempted to delimit and claim management over migrantsb assumption of private life and settlement in Patras. Migrants however continuously pushed themselves into the public sphere and challenged this attempted denial of their rights to re-make and re-shape their own spaces in the city. The following diary extract describes the San Dyonisios camp of perhaps 40 Afghans. The police had destroyed many of the shelters two weeks previously, but life was fast re-established:

"Ad-hoc shacks spread across the deserted train depot... One shack I look at, made out of wooden railway pillars stacked, plastic sheeting and pieces of material covering the roof, held down with various rubbish, including some old stereo speakers... It sleeps six to eight men. Another man shows me the clapped-out car that he sleeps in, bmy home, my bedb he laughs ironically... Their mosque is humble. Cardboard flattened, spread on the floor, maybe six metres squared. It sits on the gravel and over some of the disused train tracks... Some men played volleyball and cricket in the camp. Many sat around in the shade in small groups, others resting in their shacks. I see meals being prepared over a fire; spaghetti with chopped tomatoes...amp;"

With resourcefulness and resilience, the men had re-built their camp in a number of weeks. They liked this position, close to the port. The authorities however contested the migrantsb presence here, and two weeks later, in what one activist termed the bfinal assault,b the police bclearedb the camp completely. When I return afterwards I find some men cooking and sitting in the shade, but they tell me that now they just sleep in the open air, while others have gone to camp in a more bhidden placeb out of the city.

Such clearances put migrants in a more vulnerable position by fragmenting their social networks and scattering them across the city, forced to hide to avoid the police. The following diary extract illustrates how these clearances render migrants less visible, while paradoxically their presence begins to occupy dispersed pockets of life throughout the city:

"I walk along the seafront northwards. On the rocks, in the small water-side parks, little shelters, bedding, small piles of few belongings... Then there is the beach and maybe 30 migrants sitting in the sun or shade, some swimming, some using the showers. To the right the road turns to the national road and clusters of men sit in the shade along the road, watching the traffic. Between the road and beach is a large area of reed-beds, a protected area of lowland... As I walk along, two men pop out of a hedge here, another two emerge from a deserted building, three walk out from amongst the trees. Pockets of life, hidden living".

Presence / assuming invisibility

Irregularised migrants are often imagined as boutsideb or bnot really there,b occupying a bspace of non-existenceb. They are not afforded the right to the city; they are not deemed present. Or as Arhad, aged 19, from Afghanistan, discerns, '[local people] want us to be invisible b they do not want to see us.b

Invisibility however is not simply imposed, but can also be a useful strategy for migrants. If police will destroy their camps then migrants will evade control and find hidden places in the city, but with resilience they will continue to exist, and continue to be present. In Patras, migrants are bnot really thereb because they do not want to be there, not just because they have not been recognised as being there. Many assume their invisibility and use space differently, and separately, walking along the train tracks instead of along the pavements in the city. Migrantsb presence is so powerful, and problematic, because it makes visible their invisibility in a society that rejects them, and that they reject.

In Patras, we thus find a tension between migrantsb settlement, and their insistence on bnotsettlingb in, or with, Greece. Perceived as their bcaptor,b many men express a deep resentment towards Greece. For example Asif, aged 25, from Afghanistan, gives a typical retort when he tells me with disgust; bI donbt want to stay here, no rights, no food, no home... I waste two years of my life here!b

Migrantsb vehement rejection of Greece is nonetheless coupled with an incorrigible occupation. Migrants are physically present and socially participative in Patras despite themselves. This is summarised by Ismael, from Sudan, who explains, bthis is my home but not by choice.b Spaces of btransient permanenceb develop organically. The bsurplus sociabilityb of human agency incorporates and absorbs spaces (Papadopoulos, Stephenson & Tsianos2008), appropriating and creating pockets of life that in their very realisation, contest abjection.

Despite hostility, despite constant police incursions and their relegation to the shadows of the public sphere, migrants persist in acting as the political subjects that they are supposed to not be able to be. Migrants' embodied presence in the city destabilizes commonly held ideas about bforeignersb and who can bownb and belong in everyday urban spaces. The non-citizen transforms the spaces of the city, and this happens somehow organically, even when he himself vehemently rejects this space.

SALLY HOLE: The author's work focuses on new political subjectivities and critical political geography, drawing on autonomy of migration literature, as well as being strongly influenced by no borders activism. She is currently working and making independent research in Sicily. She can be contacted at

*This is an adapted text based on research carried out for the thesis 'How does the movement of migration journey through the European border regime? Exploring the 'becomings' of irregularity, transit space and political subjectivity in Patras, Greece', 2011.