Elsewhere Starts Here

by Sophie Body-Gendrot

Peru. Photo: Elodie Gendrot

The awareness that the world is becoming more dangerous after a long period of peace and prosperity in the West gives rise to demands for security and the return of frontiers — the erection of virtual and material walls and technologies of identification, traceability, and surveillance. Decisive macro-changes impact worldviews, including vast migrations, the displacement of millions of people, while political fractures and dislocations generate fears of being “invaded” among the established. It also raises anxieties among uprooted “outsiders.” In cities, such phenomena shake traditional norms of shelter and hospitality offered to newcomers. The scale of the phenomenon is colossal.

How to relocate one billion people in less than 50 years? How can it be done?

An exhibition like Insecurities is important, reporting how architecture and design address the notion of shelter in disrupted environments. It makes viewers learn and think more deeply about such macro-mutations, about the fate of displaced populations, and perhaps it will lead them to take action. It is a welcome moment, and testimonies, debates, and proposals should pursue such an endeavor.

In the past, a shelter was never meant to be permanent. “How far are birds and sources?” Rimbaud asked, “It can only be the end of the world, moving forward.” Shelter offered temporary security in homes, and then travellers continued on their journeys. Now, places open to migrants for settlement are no longer ephemeral; they are within cities or at their periphery. Some of them are so large that they question the very concept of “city.” Their occupants have settled there for years in a condition of permanent insecurity, in part due to continuous arrivals and changes, in part to a lack of clear status. The camps are makeshift forms, a new experience of localities.[1] They are appropriated for a while by the migrants themselves, before another redefinition from humanitarian decision-makers or the police takes place, with still no security provided. Is a “sedentary” status possible? Under what conditions? The rules are opaque, information is minimal, and disorientation prevails in these twilight zones.

The Migrants’ Tragic Fate

Photo: Remy Zilliox, Médecins sans frontières

The tragic fate of the migrant is narrowly correlated to notions of space, time, and lost identity. Physically, socially, culturally, and emotionally, migrants have lost their place of origin and their bearings. We call them migrants, but this term hides a large diversity regarding departures and motivations to do so. Some have been forced to move by war, climate change, natural disaster, others hope to improve their living conditions by moving to the West. Settling in non-places, however, does not provide them much comfort. Some of them train to learn how to live in a container to get used to long-term exile with no anticipated return, as Paul Virilio has remarked.[2] When undocumented, many of them are just nobodies in non-places. Victor Hugo, after his exile in Jersey, compared his experience to “a long insomnia.”[3] Currently the exile of displaced populations takes place in waiting, triage zones functioning as filters and screens. The space between the unwanted and the frontier is most often a camp, an encampment, a retention center, a litmus. An ephemeral world gets organized, with streets and makeshift shops, sometimes schools and theaters, sometimes for several years. Ethnographer Michel Agier observes that although the migrants’ space is physically in, it is politically and legally out.[4] Such insecure status can only generate insecure feelings.

The migrants’ insecurity is increased by a perverted notion of time. What is expected to be a temporary stay becomes permanent — as is now the case for an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 people in Calais, France — for all kinds of opaque reasons. Crisis operates in narrations, while a sort of permanent emergency situation takes hold but nothing is provided “to kill time,” according to Agier.[5] Nothing much happens in these encampments except, maybe, conflicts generated by exacerbated feelings of despair.

The externalization of space as a “jungle” in Calais is the most obvious and stable illustration of the occupiers’ non-identity. The negative representation that Calais conveys all over the world comes in part from the ephemeral status of such a place, which can be dismantled at once and re-established a few miles away. It is made of self-built shelters, erected in a damp zone, near a pond close to industrial and transportation sites. It occupies a strategic position, near the entrance to the Eurotunnel. The English Channel, its dunes, its ferries, is in the background. It rains a lot in that region and too much or too little water is a problem. Water soon transforms the soil into mud. “The camp in the mud evokes a continuous exodus, an impossible and endless flight. Mud is linked to urgency.”[6] A state of exception, a notion of emergency prevails here, allowing bureaucratic decisions to weigh on humanitarian considerations.

Nevertheless, as seen in the coverage of such encampments (and as revealed by this exhibition), life remains a driving force. Numerous solidarities, inventions, and arrangements allow people to cope with daily life and a form of city to arise. Private, humanitarian, improvised organizations are in charge of the Calais camp’s social environment, counterbalancing police and security forces. A 25-year-old Kurd refugee, a musician and former social worker, explains that he just did not want to be taken care of but wanted to participate in helping people in the Calais camp.[7] But his initiative was too disturbing for the smugglers and the French police and, after lethal threats, he was ejected from the camp.

The Insecurities of the Established

Photo: Remy Zilliox, Médecins sans frontières

Obviously, the migrants’ insecurities are mirrored in the world of the “haves” who fear invasion, contamination, and waves of migration. The use of liquid metaphors to refer to this phenomenon is quite striking. Flowing, drifting, floating populations are terms frequently used in the political and media spheres. Porous, leaking, spongy borders — the marine metaphor is dominant, conveying an impression of a threatening flood, whereas in reality most migration takes place via land or air.[8] Inside protected worlds, insecurity stealthily moves in, as the long-term presence of precarious lives, of vanishing spaces at the periphery, of possible random confrontations with “others” from beyond the walls are no longer a fantasy. The insecurity felt by established dwellers comes from an awareness of their individual and collective vulnerability. Fear acts as a magnifying glass through which the world is considered. Unanswered question marks accompany both migrants’ solitude and that of city residents, confronted with macro-changes that they cannot master. States, supposedly invested with the duty of protecting all, seem unable to alleviate such insecurity, at least in Europe. It is likely that states have little control over migration and displacement processes. They hope to condense the large anxieties that such mutations generate by promising their constituents greater security. Demands for security, then, result from a “transfer of anxiety”[9] effected by governments — aware that they can do little about the larger sources of insecurity and thriving on their ability to exploit anxiety, along with private entrepreneurs in the security industry — with an utter lack of transparency.

Regarding cities’ governance, as long as the phenomenon is kept under control, mayors may make progressive decisions. In fall 2016, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, set two official camps to welcome migrants — one in a northern district of Paris, for males, and another, in the south, for women and children. The camps are made out of shipping containers and the number of beds is limited — as is duration of stay. The camps are meant to terminate a chaotic situation, with hundreds of self-made camps dispersed throughout Paris, under bridges, near railway tracks, in parks, on riverbanks. But such a decision is not as smooth as it appears. In another spot, in a lot belonging to the city of Paris and situated at the city’s periphery, a camp was set on fire before its opening. The “not in my backyard” syndrome prevailed among local attitudes. When cultural differences are acute, occupying public spaces in large numbers may be a problem, as the Cologne episode revealed in 2015. Thereafter, initial attitudes of hospitality rapidly faded, as one million migrants moving to Germany made absorption a colossal challenge.

The crisis in Calais reached its apex in September 2016, after it was revealed that about 10,000 people were currently in the “jungle.” Truck drivers complaining of being regularly ambushed on lonely highways leading to England by migrants hoping to clamber aboard, store owners denouncing the loss of tourist business, farmers decrying the theft of their products, and residents claiming the disturbance of their daily lives staged a large protest to vent their “insecurities” and ask for help. There do not seem to be easy solutions. After the northern part of the squalid camp was razed and more containers were added to house migrants, the population doubled — and conditions got worse.

The Same World

Photo: Remy Zilliox, Médecins sans frontières

Migration has been an integral part of the history of humankind. The disturbing pictures shown in this exhibition display its diverse aspects. Migrants fight to survive, make a living, and give a future to their children, just as others do. In cities, they establish friendly connections, solidarity networks. Hope travels along with despair. The established and the outsiders feel, however, the same anxieties toward a dangerous world painfully struggling to emerge in a timeless future. Disorientation prevails. Some cling to their certainties and protect their possessions in a vain quest; others try, and try again, to repel the limits that entrap them. They attempt to give some meaning to their fate. The contact points of the ones and the others are of strategic importance. Migrants’ fugitive presence can be felt on the beaches of south Europe, in Greece for instance, where affluent European families enjoy their holidays. Paradoxically, so-called nomadic migrants settle wherever they find a shelter, whereas the “sedentary” will remain nomadic as long as they can, since wherever they go, in elevators, on planes and high-speed trains, they re-create the world they are familiar with, via their computers, cell phones, and connections.[10] When the former and the latter happen to share the same spaces, anxious questions on both sides of the invisible walls are raised. As observed by Augé, we are not talking here about the anonymous dimensions of spaces that are just crossed, but rather of the disquieting confrontations between two worlds unknown to each other and finding themselves in the same spaces. This exhibit is less a look at those aspiring to find a shelter in a stable world than a look at a world torn between control and fear. Why is so much solitude experienced in a globalized world crisscrossed by lines of communication?

[1] M. Agier (ed.) Un monde de camps, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.

[2] R. Depardon & P. Virilio, Terre Natale. Ailleurs commence ici, Paris, Fondation Cartier, 2008, p. 195.

[3] V. Hugo, Pierres, Geneva : Editions du milieu du monde, 1951, p. 62.

[4] M. Agier (ed.) Un monde de camps, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.

[5] M. Agier, ‘Les camps du XXIè siècle’, in R. Depardon & P. Virilio, Terre Natale. Ailleurs commence ici, Paris, Fondation Cartier, 2008, p. 246.

[6] M. Bernardot, ‘De Lesbos à Calais: s’enfoncer dans la métaphore liquide’, in S. Lequette, D. Le Vergos (eds) Décamper, Paris, La Découverte, 2016, p. 49.

[7] C. Voltaire, ‘Des enclaves post-coloniales’ in Lequette & Le Vergos, op. cit., p. 211.

[8] Bernardot, op. cit, p. 41.

[9] Z. Bauman, Globalization. The Human Consequences, London, Polity, 1998, p. 116.

[10] P. Virilio, ‘Conversation’ in R. Depardon & P. Virilio, Terre Natale. Ailleurs commence ici, Paris, Fondation Cartier, 2008, p.12.