Marginalized Urban Spaces and Heterotopias:  An Exploration of Refugee Camps

Anthony Barnum, Visiting Assistant Professor at Dickinson College


Refugees now number over 50 million displaced persons (Reuters/Associated Press 2014).  This is a strata of poverty and exclusion layered on top of the already existing poverty that is present in Turkey creating a palimpsest of marginalized spaces and populations.  This quantum leap in the quantitative numbers of displaced persons in the world overlying the already existing marginalized urban poor is dialectically related to heterotopian spaces as identified by Foucault ([1967] 1984).  As spaces of the other and othered spaces, heterotopias are home to the masses thrown out of a global capitalist system. This paper seeks to contribute to the theorization of the growth of refugee camps as heterotopian spaces (Foucault [1967] 1984); by examining the six main principles of heterotopian space as outlined by Foucault ([1967] 1984) and engaged by Agier (2014, 2012, 2002).  By incorporating the idea of the tissu urbain ‘urban fabric’ (Lefebvre 1970) the manner in which spaces of marginalized urban poverty are still connected and yet at the same time further distanced from globalized urbanization is examined.

Populations, such as the urban poor of Istanbul are socially excluded and exist throughout the developed and developing world.  Today most population growth occurs in the developing world, where a majority of the world’s people live in poverty.  About 50% of the world population is now urban (Population Reference Bureau 2012) and of the world’s urban population about 75% is found in the developing nations of the world (Perlman 2010: 45).  Turkey itself was already 68% urban as of 2006 (Library of Congress 2008: 9), which had increased to 71.5% by 2011 (CIA 2014).  It had an estimated poverty rate of 16.9% as of 2010 (CIA 2014) although this is rural and urban poverty combined.  It is important to note that as of 2012 only “50 percent of working-age adults were employed” (Dombey 2014) leaving the climb out of poverty problematic.

With the planet now being mostly urban, scholars are beginning to question what urban means in a world where urban and rural are breaking down as the rural becomes urbanized and the urban becomes ruralized (Merrifield 2011). As population growth continues in the developing world a large section of humanity finds themselves in situations of urban poverty.  More than 1 billion people in the world are considered urban slum dwellers (Davis 2006) and population growth is continuing. One seventh of the world’s population live in informal settlements.  They are poor, marginalized and excluded and with growing populations in the developing world, the number of marginalized and socially excluded people is increasing.

The social exclusion with which they are disproportionately affected stems from processes that are global in nature.  This familiar group of urban outsiders, who come to the city in a process of movement, pushed and pulled by global social forces, now finds itself being joined in the global movement of peoples by refugees of either formal or informal status.  Refugees and their associated groups such as stateless people, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers, (UNHCR 2014a) can be seen as being placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of human society.  They are completely and utterly dispossessed, thrown out by the global system to the very margins of space and power.  Due to the Syrian crisis, Turkey is now the so-called temporary location of over 1 million Syrian refugees (UNHCR 2014b), a number that has more than tripled in the last three years (UNHCR 2014c).  Refugees now number over 50 million displaced persons up from 6 million in 2013 (Reuters/Associated Press 2014).  Regarding this humanitarian crisis, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated, “we are really facing a quantum leap, an enormous increase of forced displacement in our world” (Reuters/Associated Press 2014).  Although many of these displaced persons end up in refugee camps, due to the large and sudden momentum of fleeing persons in transit, many of them “survive by begging on the street, usually with children nearby and their passports visible in an effort to evoke sympathy from passerby and to prove their origins” (Today’s Zaman with Reuters 2014). Turkey initially built 21 temporary camps to meet the needs of 200,000 refugees, leaving 500,000 to 800,000 to fend for themselves and find alternative living space (Dincer et al 2013 cited in Afacan 2014: 218).  The end result is that the marginalized spaces of urban poverty, the slums are now also places of refuge to the growing number of unregistered and unofficial persons in situations of displacement.

This is a strata of poverty and exclusion layered on top of the already existing poverty that is present in Turkey creating a palimpsest of marginalized spaces and populations.  According to an OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report, Turkey has ranked as the third worst member nation in terms of relative poverty at a rate of 19.2% of the population.  This means that for Turkish citizens 19.2% of the population earns less than the median Turkish income (Today’s Zaman 2014).  Add to this 1 million Syrian refugees with no income.

This quantum leap in the quantitative numbers of displaced persons in the world overlying the already existing marginalized urban poor is dialectically related to heterotopian spaces as identified by Foucault ([1967] 1984).  Hetertopian spaces, or those spaces of otherness, of non-space are results of contradictions in the social structure that if not tearing the social fabric, at least fail to adequately sew the spaces together.  These heterotopian spaces are pushed forth by the contradictions in the global landscape between the intersections of economy, society, and politics.  Lefebvre also referred to heterotopian spaces though in a slightly different manner.  He noted that heterotopian spaces are first of all excluded from the political city and that those who inhabit these spaces are also excluded from politics and denied voice (1970:17).  The heterotopia itself he defined as “the other space and the space of the other” (Lefebvre 1970: 172).  This paper aims to explore the ways that heterotopian space can be used to understand spaces of marginalized urban poverty especially those spaces occupied by refugees.

Foucault notes that heterotopias as spaces “are outside of all places” (Foucault [1967] 1984: 3-4).  Marginalized, peripheral (though not necessarily physically outside), urban spaces are both outside of the city, physically disconnected, or tacked on as an afterthought in regards to city services. But at the same time they are also not outside of the city, being intricately linked and hanging on to the edge of some idea of urbanism.  They are at one and the same time inside and outside, but being tainted by the touch of the outside, of the other, they lose all claims to being inside the city.  In this way, they are further marginalized, further peripheralized, and further separated from placement within the city.  They are cut off from what Lefebvre referred to as “le tissu urbain” or the urban fabric (1970: 10).  By this he sought to name the dominance of that which was urban over the entire face of the globe.  Within this context urban can be read as synonymous to but not identitical with global capitalism or globalization.  This tissu urbain, in many ways creates heterotopian spaces.  Imagine for example sitting in a rural village watching a movie filmed in New York on a television purchased with money sent from a family member who has migrated to the city.  Through this tissu urbain, the urban is present in the rural and as a heterotopian space; the individual is neither in New York nor in their rural village.

Foucault emphasized space as a factor of human relations in the current historical moment in which “the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space.  We are in the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (Foucault [1967] 1984: 1).  The tissu urbain makes this possible.  Technologically, we have the ability to be everywhere and see everything and to place everything side-by-side.  We can bend space and time, not only altering the world, but creating new worlds.  Yet as a result of this broken fluidity, everything, and everyone becomes dispersed, scattered, waiting to be pulled together only to be scattered again until the next time something brings us back together.  With the idea and infrastructure of a “network society” (Castells 2000) everything touches, connects, and yet just as easily separates, like so many grains of rice in a boiling pot of water, constantly rubbing up against each other before being quickly jettisoned into other constellations without the necessary time to stick together or merge.

Foucault identifies six principles of heterotopias, or a framework of “heterotopology” ([1967] 1984: 4).  The first principle is that in contrast to utopias that are unreal spaces, heterotopias are real.  As such all cultures all societies are a conglomeration of heterotopian spaces.  Foucault maintains that there are two types of heterotopias, “crisis heterotopias” ([1967] 1984:4) and “heterotopias of deviation” ([1967] 1984: 5).  Foucault defines crisis heterotopias as those for individuals who are experiencing a temporary crisis in regards to being in a state of transition whereby their social situation requires them to be in a space that is defined as “privileged or sacred or forbidden” (Foucault [1967] 1984: 4).  He uses the examples of “adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly” to identify this kind of heterotopia of crisis ([1967] 1984: 4).  What is important about this definition of crisis heterotopias is that they are off limits to those who are at a particular time do not have a certain privileged access.  Crisis heterotopias are the space of those who are then spaces of respect for transitioning populations within the larger society. Foucault notes that heterotopias of crisis are found in more traditional societies and as such have all but disappeared ([1967] 1984).

Foucault then identifies heterotopias of deviation as those locations of “individuals whose behavior is deviant” ([1967] 1984: 5).  To illustrate these types of heterotopias, he gives the example of “rest homes and psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons” ([1967] 1984: 5).   These heterotopias are places of confinement and lack of choice, places where the deviant individual is to be restrained until no longer deviant or until death.  If we understand the urban poor and further refugees and displaced persons as deviant (through no fault of their own) we must understand heterotopian spaces of deviance as created by the very global economic system and as a result of conflictual social relations.  Heterotopias of deviation are in effect waiting rooms, where the dominant social relations of any given historical moment exclude groups of people who are deemed surplus and superfluous.  Agier explores this in the way that the humanitarian agencies that build the refugee camp and provide the resources for its residents places them in such a manner as to keep the camps “at a distance from the ordinary social and political world” (2002: 318).  As deviant forms of social organization, the camps are spatially separated to isolate their taint on the landscape and their ability to connect to the tissu urbain. Urban poverty of which refugees and displaced persons can be seen as an extreme example and the less extreme incarnation of urban poverty seen through individuals in squatter settlements and homelessness is in effect the boundary that distinguishes those within a space of heterotopian deviance.   To the extent possible, Turkey has also built its camps as close to the border as possible, an uncommon practice due to security issues, but a decision that was made under the assumption that the refugees from Syria would be temporary in nature (Afacan 2014: 218).

Theorizing space of a liminal nature forces us to identify and bind space such as an informal settlement on the margins of a city or of a refugee camp established in a previously empty or recently emptied space.  This bounded liminal space is then positioned in relation to urban informality, or marginalized urban poverty, as a form of otherness.  These types of liminal spaces are both heterotopias of crisis and of deviation.  They are heterotopias of crisis, because for many people the refugee camp and the squatter settlement are still places of “asylum, hospitality, and confinement” as pointed out by Agier 2012: 266).  Or spaces to which we might still attach some level of the sacred and the respected.  The individuals who find themselves in these heterotopian spaces are experience the crisis of informality, of invisibility, of temporality and as such the world at large embraces the idea that the global community provides them with sacred spaces where they are safe.  Yet at the same time they are labeled deviant in their inability to exit from these marginalized spaces which are often more likely spaces of danger.

The second principle identified by Foucault is that as history progresses the very purpose or function of a particular heterotopia adapts and changes along with changing cultural values ([1967] 1984: 5).  Examples of this process can be found in the policy of slum/favela/camp upgrading.  The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has been providing services to Palestinian refugees for 66 years.  During that time they have not focused on “implementing permanent institutions” because the Palestinians themselves as part of their identity maintain the temporality of the camps and their “right of return” (Browning 2012).  However, the UNRWA is now implementing a camp improvement program to provide more permanent services.  The Palestinian refugees who have been in various camps for three generations now while maintaining the temporality of their residency have also at the same time seen the growing permanence of the physical space through the years.  The very concept of upgrading is acknowledging the permanence of something that is not permanent.  In this way the initial purpose of the heterotopian space of the Palestinian refugee camps has changed from one of temporary services to permanent institutions (Browning 2012).  Another example is provided by Brazil through their favela upgrading programs which attempt to solidify and formalize these spaces that though much more permanent than refugee camps have developed physically in the same manner through institutionalized self-improvements.  This is in contrast to other methods of slum upgrading programs that demolish the older settlements to build state sponsored housing (Uzun et al 2010), both Turkey and Brazil have taken this route at various times in the past.  This type of upgrading not only transforms the function of the heterotopia that was the older settlement, but it physically destroys one heterotopia to build a new one.  This creates a history and a space of palimpsest, one heterotopia erased and another designed on its spatial and non-spatial memory.

The third principle identified by Foucault is that the “heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several places, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” ([1967] 1984: 6).  Agier who has explored the idea of heterotopias in refugee camps and other transitory spaces identified three manners in which a single place can have multiple use values in terms of the heterotopias of today.  He distinguishes these as: “refuge, asylum, and confinement” (2012: 266).  A refugee camp as heterotopia serves as all three of these sometimes individually and sometimes simultaneously.  As the space develops and evolves, the values associated with specific locations also adapt and evolve.  Marginalized urban living spaces in the periphery often consist, at least initially of multiuse spaces, shacks, and tents.  The home, which is a place of safety, intimacy, privacy, becomes a place of danger, discord, and public.  These conglomerates of urban poverty also change hourly, being at times the locations of medical care, of food distribution, of socialization, moving from closed to open.  Agier notes that even the humanitarian workers within the camps are only there from 7:30a.m. to 6:oop.m. (2002: 324), thus dividing the camp into open and closed hours like a business or a zoo, when the NGO and UN representatives come in to provide food, medicine, and recreation, depending on resources.  Marginalized spaces are both excluded from the city and yet hang onto the edge of the city in the case of squatter settlements, or attempt to recreate norms of city life within the camps.  As sites of partial inclusion and partial exclusion, these heterotopian spaces are in constant transitions, through a dialectical process as a single real space dies and new forms emerge in a continuously evolving motion with an unknown destination.

As non-spaces occupying the margins of the dominant society, they grow and adapt, are constantly reinvented, destroyed, and grow again.  Through this process Agier sees the refugee camps developing into what he calls “hybrids” of “city-camps (camps-villes)” (2002: 322).  This process of hybridization occurs as “the camps gradually become the sites of an enduring organization of space, social life and system of power that exists nowhere else” (Agier 2002: 322).  Existing nowhere else, the hybridization of the urban and the camp, the juxtaposition of two spaces connected and created through the tissu urbain marks an incompatibility and an otherness that enhances the exclusion and marginalization of refugee camps and their dispossessed masses.  Agier illustrates this encroachment of the tissu urbain, by noting that the refugee camps are modeled on an urban idea that references the developed world (2014: 106).  The camps are constructed in such a way as to always permit the UN vehicles access to all parts (Agier 2002) creating constant incursions of the tissu urbain into the heterotopian space of the camp.

The fourth principle is the way in which “heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time” (Foucault [1967] 1984: 6).  These heterotopian spaces have starting points in time, especially with the camps that can be traced often to a specific even or point of conflict, and also to the founding of the camp.  The time aspect becomes important as a starting point can be located historically and yet there is no identifiable end point. Instead these spaces accumulate the passing of time never knowing if the time will come or when it will come that the space is destroyed, terminated, or reincarnated.  Life in a refugee camp revolves in some ways around the temporality that refugees maintain in their hope to return to the spaces from which they have come.  Yet although temporary, “once the camps have been set up, more or less quickly, a certain duration ensues” (Agier 2002: 321), resulting in the permanence of temporality.  In effect the lack of permanence is institutionalized through a creation of a purgatory or limbo that has no foreseeable end and yet does theoretically have a point of termination.  Agier writes that the “camps are ‘hors-lieux’ outside of the places and outside of the time of a common, ordinary, predictable world” (2002: 323).  In a marked off space without time and place these locations of peripheral urban poverty enter into that intersection of timelessness and placelessness: waiting.  “The lives of the refugees in the camps are lives of waiting” (Agier 2012: 274).  The aspect of waiting, waiting for a job, waiting for a meal, waiting to use the toilet, waiting for water, waiting for medical services, waiting. . . And yet even though with every passing day the camps become more permanent, so too does the hope that the camp will be disbanded and that there will be a return home.

The fifth principle highlights the manner in which “heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable” (Foucault [1967] 1984: 7).  The urban marginalized space of poverty is often circumvented, closed off, and at the same time opened up.  People pass through, while others are trapped in dead ends.  Foucault addresses the fact that there is a process or a ritual involved in gaining access to the heterotopian space because entrance is not free.  People are not free to come and go as they please but are forced to enter or must work to gain entrance.  This process of gaining entrance is contradictory because by gaining access one is excluded (Foucault [1967] 1984: 8). By gaining access to the heterotopian space one is cut off and isolated from non-heterotopian spaces.  It is doubly disconcerting because the refugee who gains entrance to a camp for security, for shelter, for respite is sentencing themselves to isolation in which it becomes more difficulty to leave the heterotopian space to gain security, shelter, and respite.

The sixth and final principle is that as excluded, cut-off, lesser-valued spaces, they serve “a function in relation to the space that remains” (Foucault [1967] 1984: 8).  The use of the other to strengthen the social, political, and economic identities of those who are not other is one of the functions of a refugee camp as a heterotopian space.  Through “reproducing a massive population of undesireables, kept in existence in spaces remote from everything” (Agier 2002: 337), refugee camps serve to distinguish between those who are surplus humanity and those who can maintain a legitimate place within the global capitalist system.  Even individuals of urban poverty, working and living in the informal sector are able to maintain ties to the global economic system.  But once entering the world of a refugee camp, the individual or family is placed in a perforated space in a borderland between being completely separated and torn off and maintaining weak ties to what remains on the other side of their exile.  The world is “messy, ill constructed, and jumbled” and yet the heterotopian space being a space of other is organized, controlled, demarcated (Foucault [1967] 1984: 8).  The space of the camp is measured and divided; spaces for unique use isolated and separated.  Time as well is divided and cordoned into specific use times: food distributions, hours of work, hours of waiting, hours of guarding, hours of receiving; creating a scheduled world of law and order from the remnants of peoples and situations and cultural values that being human are often illogical and chaotic.

By entering the heterotopian space, the refugee, or the marginalized urban poor become cut off and isolated.  They are separated from the city.  If the right to the city is understood as global citizenship in a context of planetary urbanization, then it is a demand to be human to be part of the world, to be what Perlman calls “gente” (2010).  In this regard if the “urban process is open-ended and if urbanization is global and boundless” (Merrifield 2012: 8) then those who are marginalized in the urban periphery and who are held within refugee camps are on the outside of everything.  We are denying them the right to the city in its broader understanding of right to humanity.  They are being thrown into what Merrifield refers to as the “global banlieue” (2011: 469) and in a process that Lefebvre referred to as “banlieurisation” or the fact that a majority of humanity is no longer of interest to the capitalist urban project (1970: 152).

This paper has sought to contribute to the theorization of the growth of refugee camps as heterotopian spaces (Foucault [1967] 1984); by examining the six main principles of heterotopian space as outlined by Foucault ([1967] 1984) and engaged by Agier (2014, 2012, 2002).  By incorporating the idea of the tissu urbain (Lefebvre 1970) the manner in which spaces of marginalized urban poverty are still connected and yet at the same time further distanced from globalized urbanization has been explored.



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