Notes from IMISCOE 2020 Spring Conference
by Daniela Giudici
IMISCOE Spring Conference 2020 took place at the Geographic and Spatial Planning Institute (IGOT) in Lisbon (6-7 February). As some researchers remarked during the opening ceremony, the sun shined over the conference and a genuine “spring” temperature made Lisbon a very pleasant place where to escape from North and Central European winter. The title of the conference was: “Moving, living, investing and surviving: housing and migrations in uncertain times”. Thus, this “little IMISCOE” was dedicated to the issue of housing and its implications for migrants and refugees’ lives. Until recently, despite the relevance of dwelling experiences in shaping migrants’ pathways of social inclusion and exclusion, the topic has been quite neglected in migration studies. Yet, recent scholarship recognized the importance of housing, not only in terms of physical spaces where migrants actually live in, but also as a more complex and transversal notion, which encompasses issues of belonging, identity, well-being and home.
The conference was opened by the keynote speech of Jonathan Darling (Durham University), who sketched a bleak portrait of the asylum accommodation regime in the United Kingdom. In particular, Darling pointed at the consequences of the outsourcing of accommodation services for asylum seekers to private subcontractors. The privatization of the UK asylum system is producing, according to Darling, a growing state disengagement from its responsibilities in terms of asylum rights, as well an overwhelming instability for asylum seekers themselves, which considerably hinders the possibility of cultivating and expressing dissent. Darling’s lecture gave a poignant rendering of the ongoing transformations of asylum accommodation systems in times of austerity and welfare state dismantling, with implications that go far beyond UK borders. Furthermore, in his speech Jonathan Darling referred to a couple of concepts, which I happened to cross several times during the conference. First “slow violence”, namely the non-spectacular and relatively invisible violence wrought by environmental crisis and late capitalism, which exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced (Nixon 2011). And second “politics of exhaustion”, understood as a technique of migration management that creates multiple obstacles to migrants’ physical and existential trajectories and, thus, plays a pivotal role in the regulation of possible forms of dissent (Vries and Guild 2018). It is clear how those analytical concepts fit quite well the analysis of refugees’ experiences in Europe, which indeed was at the center of a number of presentations and, probably, of the ones that I chose to attend for my personal research interests. In fact, a different strand of presentations explored also privileged migration and its impact on processes of gentrification and speculation, which are deeply transforming European cities. This is a tremendously interesting topic, but unluckily I could not attend most of those presentations, because of the classical overlapping organization of panels.
However, a number of presentations not only centered on the refugee condition highlighted the highly precarious living conditions of different migrants living inside the European space, by pointing at the overlapping impact of discrimination, neoliberal policies and a more generalized “housing crisis”, which concerns migrant as well as native persons. Despite those multiple structural constraints, transient but alternative living spaces can indeed emerge. That’s where the issue of migrants’ attempts of re-constructing some – often fragile and uncertain – sense of home becomes particularly relevant. Indeed, several presentations focused on the (im)possibility of making oneself “at home” within unfamiliar and transient settings, as well as on different kinds of collaboration between migrants and civil society in overcoming some structural obstacles to housing rights. In some of the comments I heard, it was remarked a relative lack of attention towards the “immaterial” dimensions of housing experiences, such as the role of digital technologies in enabling affective relationships with the past, as well as imaginations and projects in the future. This is certainly a topic that deserves more analytical attention, as well as more ethnographically-informed research.