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City resiliency & sovereignity in

humanitarian crises

Final Seminar Paper

Omar González Guijarro

Faculty of Architecture and Planning

E259 Architectural Sciences

SE_Current issues in architectural theory Winter semester 2017

Kristian Faschingeder; Selena Savic 20thth of February 2018


I. Background to the 2015 refugee crisis

- Statistics and migrant routes

- Border control and current state of the asylum seekers

II. Economic and social crisis in Greece. How has it dealt with the migrant crisis?

- Causes and effects of the economic crisis

- Protest movements

- What have been the resources offered by the Greek State?

- What is the living situation at refugee camps?

III. Self-organisation and Right to the City in Exarchia.

- Brief history of Exarchia. Stateless neighbourhood. Mutual aid

- Occupying buildings for social welfare. Network of squats. Urban fabric

- How do these squats dignify refugees?

IV. Conclusion: Learning from the Exarchia case

- Is this the prime example of what Henri Lefebvre regarded as the Right to the City?


This study is an attempt to signify the efforts put by common ground citizens to aid
the refugee crisis at stake since 2015. Although forced migration from armed
conflicts and natural catastrophes have been a recurring phenomenon throughout
the last century, the current exodus from Middle-East countries like Syria and
Afghanistan is beyond known comparison. The number of displaced citizens
escaping from battlegrounds, trying to find a safe passage to Europe is counted by
millions. After the inability shown by many European governments to offer safe
asylum to migrants, many have been trapped between borders in south-eastern
Europe. The major hotspot is still located in Greece, where many refugees managed
to reach islands in the Egean Sea avoiding the otherwise forced passage through
Turkey. The Greek government, facing many difficulties since the start of the
economic crisis in 2009, has been unable to provide decent living conditions to the
asylum seekers trapped today in the country. This empty space has been filled by
self-organised organisations and communities, being the most prominent example
the Exarchia neighbourhood in Athens. Hosting refugees in “squats”, occupied
buildings, the local community has shown an admirable ability to give back the
dignity lost in their tough journey from home. In this paper I will concentrate in
describing the resiliency of Exarchia providing basic needs in this crisis, comparing
it to the inefficient efforts by the Greek State. Squatting movements provide the
opportunity to produce public and domestic space in a different way, and could set
path to other initiatives around the globe. Towards the end of the paper, I will abide
for bottom up decision-making in communities as the prime revolutionary method
to design urban life.

Key words:
refugee crisis – citizenship – self-organisation – urban development – economic
crisis - squatting

I. Background to the 2015 refugee crisis

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, which is still on-going, the Syrian
population has tried to flee to avoid the great risks of remaining in the country.
During the first years, Syrians found the neighbouring countries as temporal asylum.
However, as the conflict grew in complexity and with an ending far to come, the civil
population went on to seek safer environments. And so, came the year of 2015, which
saw mass migration towards EU member states, overwhelming Europe’s
management and hosting capacity. Coordinated responses saw no effective
solutions to alleviate the volume of migrants arriving to the EU countries.

The main migrant routes can be disseminated in 5 itineraries. These include the
Western African route, Central Mediterranean route, Apulia and Calabria route,
Circular route from Albania to Greece, Western Balkan route, Eastern Mediterranean
route and the Eastern Borders route, (Frontex, 2018). Although each route could be
significant of a thorough study, this text will concentrate its efforts in the Eastern
Mediterranean route, which in the past three years has been the main trail for
migrants derived from the Syrian tragedy. According to data collected by the
European Border and Control Agency, Frontex, between 2015 and 2016 more than a
million migrants reached European territory via the mentioned route. The countries
of origin from the asylum seekers were varied. Apart from Syrians, refugee numbers
included vast amounts of Afghans, escaping the ongoing insecurity in their country,
and Iraqis and Kurds fleeing the endless instability in their homelands, (Eurostat,

However, in March 2016 the agreement between Turkey and the EU played a
dramatic change in the hopes of the Middle East migrants. The flow cut off which
Turkey has complied since meant strong border controls of refugees trying to get to
the Greek islands situated kilometres away from the Turkish west coast. It put back
many migrants from trying to embark in the highly-dangerous sea route. At the time
and until today, conditions in Turkey are not favourable either, were refugees fear
great repression and harsh border controls with Syria are made due to the conflict in
the Kurdish-Syrian region of Afrin.

Attention was systematically drawn off the hardships the refugees had encountered
in various borders in the so called “Balkan Route”. With Germany upfront of the
asylum acceptance lists, many of the asylum seekers made their way there.
However, with the frontier closure of the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Sebastian
Kurz, and current Prime Minister of Austria in February 2015, others, such as
Hungary, Serbia and ultimately FYR Macedonia followed. This left many refugees
trapped in temporarily set up camps, run by each country’s government, which didn’t
comply with basic hygiene standards. Families continued to faced hardships and
mafia’s set foot with illegal border passages which ended up being the lone hope of
the thousands of displaced people.

Since then, asylum demands have flown unsteadily, triggered by the non-compliance
EU countries to accept the numbers, - only 7% on average-, which agreed on 2015,
(Arbide Aza, 2017). The country hosting the largest number of impotent refugees
waiting for relocation is Greece. Numbers as of December 2017 are currently around
50,000-60,000, with approximately 15,000 in overcrowded the Greek Islands of
Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Leros, (Smith, 2017-II). Most of them have been living off
appalling conditions for almost 3 years now, in government camps which were
initially meant to be active for just a few months. Some have even perished in the
freezing winters which the Mediterranean country has suffered in the last few years.
According to Molly Crabapple, a journalist of the renowned British newspaper The
Guardian, “refugees slept on concrete, sheltered only by cheap nylon tents. They
queued for hours for food that might be infested with maggots, and had little access
to education, work, or respite from the endless, pointless wait to continue their lives”,
(Crabapple, 2017).

Statistics prove that the EU has not put an effective solution to the migration crisis,
with little hope for the future as racist and supremacist governments and
organisations are rising up all throughout the continent. Many of the hardships that
the refugees throughout Europe are facing can be scaled down to mainland Greece.
Despite the pessimistic situation of many of the asylum seekers, a brink of hope has
emerged in Athens and Thessaloniki, where mutual aid to refugees has filled the void
left by the Greek government.

II. Economic and social crisis in Greece. How has it dealt with the
migrant crisis?

The inability shown by the Greek government to deal with the tragedy of refugees
which continue to arrive to the country responds to a variety of agents. Following the
world economic crisis that broke in 2009, Greece has gone through a severe period
of impoverishment of the middle and working classes. Its several governments, no
matter their ideology, have put through austerity measures which have led to high
levels of poverty. Vast amounts of debt were accumulated to the pre-crisis years,
leading Greece to a huge dependence on the bailouts granted by the EU, (Kitsantonis,

The effects on the Hellenic society have been severe. In 2014, an estimated 44% of
the Greeks lived under the line of poverty. Currently, the unemployment rate sits
around 21%, (Eurostat, 2017). Homelessness has grown largely, with the State being
unable to respond adequately due to cuts in social help, hence homeless shelters.

Cuts have also followed other social departments, such as education. These have
led to many student-led protests, but also backed by traditional antiauthoritarian
movements and the once comfortable middle classes, which have been severely da-
maged. Since 2009, per capita spending on public health has been cut by nearly a
third. By 2014, public expenditure had fallen to 4.7% of GDP, from a pre-crisis high
of 9.9%, (Smith, 2017).

In summer 2015, after several years of imposition of austerity measures, the newly
elected Syriza government decided to consult the Greek population with a
referendum, whether to revoke or accept the next package of austerity impositions
by the EU. A majority of the Greeks voted OXI, -Yes-, but the European Union rejected
any negotiation and kept forcing the population to keep buttoning-up until the
bailouts were fully payed back.

It is understandable that with the outbreak of the refugee mass arrival in 2014
through the Eastern Mediterranean route, Greece’s internal problems have
diminished its power of effectively aiding such a situation. Although reported high
numbers of investment were transferred to Greece and other directly receiving

refugees, out of the scheduled 803 million euros, more than 70% of the spending on
each refugee has not been made effective. No one knows where this money has been
deflected to, affecting the confidence of the international donators and putting the
Greek government in direct blame, (Howden & Fotiadis, 2017). Instead, self-
organised local organisations and communities have shown great ability in scarce
resource management aiding refugees. Traditional anarchist and communal
experiences have found practical solutions to not only house refugees throughout
the country, but helped them integrate in their daily functioning.

The core topic of my seminar paper investigates the mechanisms shown by these
informal, non-official organisms in the neighbourhood of Exarchia in Athens. These
initiatives not only look on to serve migrants for a longer time span than the
government-run inhumane camps, but are inducting urban practices which surely
will be study cases in the future years. Urban resilience in Exarchia is proving to host
displaced, law-less citizens from their homelands; integrative schemes are being
able to produce collective and adequate living conditions which the camps do not
offer and more importantly, a community belonging has begun to bring back dignity
to the migrants.

III. Self-organisation and Right to the City in Exarchia

A traditionally activist neighbourhood located in the centre of Athens, Exarchia

became a protest stronghold back in the times of the dictatorship, in the seventies.
It played a big role in bringing back democracy to Greece with continuous riots,
where several protesters were assassinated by the regime. Its closeness to the
Polytechnic University and other faculties induced the start of student uprisings. In
addition, a reputation for strong ideological activity attracted intellectuals
throughout the decades, retrofitting on the thinking and daily practices of its

More recently in 2008, the fierce riots against the first austerity measures passed on
by the Greek government. They have been constant from time to time, with the recent
protests against the government’s cuts passed on by the Troika, seeing Exarchia as
one of the major protest strongholds. This desire for self-organisation and bottom

up decisions, together with the forced closure of many shops, businesses and public
facilities, has led in recent years to the reoccupation of spaces to aid the many basic
need problems the country and the city itself are facing.

Before 2015, activists in Exarchia had already set up assemblies working with public
space interventions and establishing literary cooperatives, (Baboulias, 2014). One of
the most notable acts was the 2008 occupation and conversion of an abandoned
parking lot into a public park, responding to the lack of green spaces in the city.
Through participatory design and assemblies, decisions were made in order to
establish the general appearance of the park and maintenance schedules. The Park
has grown in popularity, even with weekly visits by the school nearby.

The scarcity of housing and public space has always been an issue in the front line
for residents in Exarchia. Privatisation of the land has translated into little access
opportunities to decent housing. So, when the news about the dreadful conditions of
the refugees stranded in the port of the Piraeus and the camps set in the outskirts of
Athens arrived to the neighbourhood, opportunities for strengthening local
empowerment were envisioned. There, locals thought that public buildings which
had been abandoned due to cutbacks inserted by the Greek government started
setting the conditions to house appropriately the forgotten migrants. A process of
evaluating the existing resources started, and the first buildings began being

Residents in Exarchia had long requested autonomy in decision-making at all scales,

from the minimal domestic spaces until the extent of the whole neighbourhood. This
demand for producing urbanity has been deeply theorised, where French philosopher
Henri Lefebvre set the concept of “Right to the City”, (Lefebvre, 1968). Refugees had
lost their power to infer in any decisions in their environment, as they were just driven
from one camp to another, leaving no space for consulting the migrants of how they
would like to live. The definition of the Right to the City, “a transformed and renewed
right to urban life, where the city would satisfy the needs of the society as a whole”,
was far from being accomplished by isolating war escapees in confined camps miles
away from urban life. There was no “Plan B” by the government to host refugees
whose asylum applications had not been accepted, but to leave them helpless in the

Regardless of having read the French philosopher or not, locals in Exarchia started
establishing his theories. As Lefebvre described in many of his works, cities should,
once again, be the ‘oeuvre’ or work of people, the outcome of a complex thought
of those living in the city and not just a product”, (Lefebvre, 1974). The first
‘ouevre’ integrating refugees was the Notara 26 building in September 2015, in
the street with the same name, right in the heart of Exarchia. With a capacity of
250 refugees, their foundation slogan reads, “this project doesn’t stand for
philanthropy, by the state nor private, but rather for a self-organized solidarity
project, wherein locals and refugees-immigrants decide together”, (Squat.net, 2016),
as a cornerstone of the other refugee squats which were to be opened.

Currently, a network of 12 refugee squats is operating in the neighbourhood, housing

approximately 2500 inhabitants, (Aguaza, 2018). They work based on the principle
of antihierarchal solidarity, supported by individual donations and volunteer help,
without government aid or NGOs, as they believe these speculate with the money
and hinder migrants’ mindsets. “Some serve the need of accommodation as housing
squats, others function as social centres, with its activities ranging from the free
(re)distribution of goods such as clothing and food items and housing self-
organised kitchens-crews to the creation of spaces for political organizing and
(legal) info-points”, (Squat.net, 2016). What has really been achieved is the recovery
of dignity by the migrants. While their asylum applications are resolved, the have the
opportunity to feel community membership once again, where they are no longer
“pawns” which governments play with.

Everything in the squats is decided with horizontal, democratic processes, based on

assemblies. horizontal decision-making is crucial to the functioning of these squats.
Turns are taken for the cleaning, cooking, and managing storage, among others. Not
all of the squats, however, are solely dedicated to housing. Although each squat has
its own peculiar characteristics, in the next paragraphs I will introduce two examples
of different attributes, which have been founded since 2015. The precedent of multi-
service squatted building is Steki Metanaston. It opened back in the early 2000s, and
has continuously provided integrative schemes like language workshops, and has
hosted a bar where donations are raised through live music and speeches.

Following Steki’s trail, Khora Community, an eight-storey social centre, which
opened in October 2016. With an unusual scale, it houses a variety of services offered
to those in need, (Paleologos & Strickland, 2017). The idea is to offer services which
bring normality to the lives of the migrants, which hadn’t been possible in the camps
or elsewhere. In the basement of the building, stands a locker room containing
second-hand clothes, where people can choose whatever outfits they like and take
them for free, avoiding the camp procedures, where each refugee is assigned a piece.
The ground floor contains the welcome area and a children’s space. Newcomers are
given legal advice and how to access the facilities provided in a variety of languages.
The kids’ area gives continuity to the learning process which had been interrupted in
the children’s homelands. A “social kitchen” is located at the first floor, where
everyone has the chance to cook typical dishes for free, so that the “stigma” of the
refugees being sole receptors of aid keeps being demolished. There, people get
together, relax and socialise, and the idea of the collective, horizontal empowerment
keeps growing, (Escribano, 2017).

Education plays a big role in the Khora community too, where three classrooms host
language lessons. Artistic classes play their part too, where youngsters can develop
their creativity. In exchange, many migrants teach Arab and Farsi to volunteers, so
mutual comprehension is continuously fuelled. Other events such as collective film
screening, open-mic nights and personal defence lessons are held. The upper-two
floors contain a safe space for women, where they can gather to talk and share their
daily experiences. A dentistry room is also located there, where the local
organisation Dentists in Athens provides weekly services to anyone in need of them,
(Escribano, 2017).

On the housing basis, City Plaza is the current example setting a paradigm for its
scale and previous use of the building. Taken over in April 2016, City Plaza was an
abandoned hotel in Exarchia, but the neighbours decided that the refugee crisis
deserved the closure chains to be broken. Currently, it hosts 400 previously stranded
people, and alike Khora community and the whole network of squats, it works based
on horizontal decision-making and “abides for a behaviour code that has zero
tolerance for sexism, racism and abuse”, (Crabapple, 2017).

With a waiting list of 4,000 applicants, City Plaza has grown in popularity for the
smart reconversion made of the original hotel use which had gone bankrupt in the
2008 crisis, (Ragucci, 2017). Taking advantage of the original privacy of the rooms
of the hotel, residents are able to recover intimacy between families while they wait
for solutions to their asylum appeals. A cooperative kitchen is also run by volunteers
of local assemblies like Nosotros and El CHEf, which operate in other squats’
kitchens. In addition, regular visits by volunteer doctors aid in medical problems too,
where a genecology and psychology clinic has been set. Patients with more serious
conditions are then derived to public hospitals, after the legal advice provided by
cooperants, (Ragucci, 2017).

Together with the daily effort of resource management and the psychological
strength of all the implicated in these squatting projects, migrants and volunteers
are facing difficulties from other agents. Police raids conducted by the government
happen monthly, with forced eviction and no solutions for the residents. However,
the greatest threat comes from the racist attacks from neo-nazi groups, which have
mushroomed at the same rate as the refugee squats have been appeared throughout
Greece. Aside from the internationally known Golden Dawn, which has gained
massive support in in the country, other street-operating groups shame daily
migrants with verbal and physical attacks. Last summer, the long-running Notara 22
squat was attacked with fire-objects by some far-right vandals, (Squat.net, 2017).
Luckily, no one was harmed, but the squat emphasised the community on keeping
close and strong against these attacks. It’s the stark network-based initiative of the
squats that keeps them running, as no trail of other refugee squat had been set
anywhere. Through the daily atmosphere that the Exarchia neighbourhood provides,
residents in squats feel like a broader family rather than isolated houses.

Could the production and continuity of the activity of these squats be a prime
example of what Lefebvre regarded as “The Right to the City”? Let’s examine a few
of his assumptions by broadening the scope of his definition.

According to Lefebvre, the Right to the City was based on the “cry and demand”,
(Lefebvre, 1996). A “continuously transformed and renewed right to urban life, where
the city would satisfy the needs of the society as a whole and especially of all its

As shown in the first paragraphs of this text, these “needs” are not being satisfied by
the responsible provider, the Greek government. On one side, the economic collapse
has left the State impotent, at the mercy of the Troika’s impositions. Greek locals are
unable to fulfil lives to basic standards and the associated individual consciousness
natural to the capitalist system leaves the poor helpless. On the other, mass refugee
arrivals, seeking to recover civilian dignity and rights in a new continent, are drawn
out of any chances of integration within the society. It is in the association of their
needs that locals and refugees have found in traditional anarchist, self-managed
initiatives a solution to recover their condition of citizens.

The retrieved urban status is continuously fuelled by the active participation in the
creation of their urban environment. In today’s Exarchia, Lefebvre’s “Right to the City”
is extended to the collective. In order to call it a mutual right, as stated by David
Harvey, “the kind of city that we want cannot be separated from what kind of people
we want to be, what social relations we seek, which relations with nature we cherish,
what style of life we want, and what aesthetic values we want”, (Harvey, 2012).
Horizontal, assembly – based decisions are the prime example of the implication of
the community in their direct environment. The success of following such a roadmap
is solely based on the constant production of results which benefit directly all of its

Therefore, shaping the urban habitat transforms into a peak political act, where
social, creative and collective needs are continuously being discussed and modified.
This perpetual process of autocritique can only be carried out by people which
understand that they are empowered to make the appropriate decisions to improve
their community. It is this “organic” condition which best defines horizontal design,
where the built environment is a resilient body which can change constantly. There
stands the main difference with urban policies, which most of the time don’t evaluate
properly the needs of the community, as they are implemented from external
technicians which haven’t experienced the neighbourhoods from the inside. These
follow a process of looking on to urban demands from long-distant scales that don’t
act effectively on the particularities of each community.

The refugee squats in Exarchia have brought back migrants what Lefebvre cited
as “urban life”. For him, “a human being has the need to see, hear, touch, and
taste”. Next to these needs, there are other needs, such as “creative activity and

the need to ‘oeuvre’, which is the need to live in a space that is the product of
your own work”, (Lefebvre, 1996). He describes the city as a work produced by
the daily labour and actions of all those that inhabit the city. The Right to the City,
signifies then “the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life on new
terms and the right of the inhabitants to remain unalienated from urban life”,
(Attoh, 2011). Assemblies held in these squats are the practical proof that
integrating all the members of a community in a non-hierarchal system can fulfil
many of the personal needs of the implicated. In addition, constant consultation
of the shared concerns results in political compromise while making individuals
realise that they don’t have to wait for decisions to be made by higher agents,
but by themselves.

In a time where urban policies and urban design are materialized with undemocratic
systems, an urgent call for participatory design is to be made. Most of the time,
government-enforced housing policies exclude the vulnerable classes and access
for everyone to decent housing is increasingly complex. These biased policies
favouring the rich and the corporate market don’t cherish the needs of the civilians
so much as the citizens themselves do. The recently found phenomenon of
Gentrification proves this right, currently happening all around the globe, and
especially in the southern countries, where the economic collapse struck the
hardest. Locals are forced out of the neighbourhood by private investors, which buy
whole complete properties forcing the whole community out of the neighbourhood.
This is done by scaling the rent prices, leaving the local residents to be unable to
afford them. An obsolete dependence on tourism keeps pushing governments to
implement laws which favour private investment rather non-speculative housing

Squatters in Exarchia, - meaning refugees, locals and volunteers-, are proving that
static, immobile attitudes don’t solve problems. With a deserved general political
distrust, and using the process of constant “cry and demand”, as stated by
Lefevbre, a new reality is constantly being created. Displaced citizens from their
country of origin are finding dignity and recovering a sense of community-
belonging which they had lost for years.

Locals in Athens have found a solution to solve their deeply-rooted anxieties
pushed on by the Troika, the Greek government and the real estate market with a
demonstration of active resistance by consistently perfecting a bottom-up decision

While asylum applications are accepted, refugees will keep flowing in Europe,
escaping from a homeland which they wish they had never abandoned. However,
while they do so, they deserve to fulfil the needs every human being needs to
accomplish, which are firstly sensorial, as stated by Lefebvre. In the same direction,
other squatting projects around the globe are transforming in order to channel the
new threats to urban life, like gentrification and climatic refugees, which will grow
exponentially in the decades to come, (Geisler, 2017). Residents in Exarchia will
surely remain restless in their efforts, by fighting for, “ the right to remake ourselves
by creating a qualitative different kind of urban society as one of the most precious
of all human rights”, (Harvey, 2003).


· (Arbide Aza, 2017)

Hibai Arbide Aza, “La lucha contra el olvido de los refugiados en Grecia”, El Salto
Diario, Spanish digital newspaper, (2017).

· (Attoh, 2011)

Attoh, Kafui A. "What kind of right is the right to the city?" Progress in Human
Geography 35, no. 5 (2011)

· (Baboulias, 2014)

Yiannis Baboulias, “Exarchia: A space for urban resistance”, Al Jazeera, (2014).


· (Crabapple, 2017)

Molly Crabapple, “Greece Is Cracking Down on the Anarchist Squats Giving Shelter
to Refugees”, Vice Magazine, (2017).

Molly Crabapple, “This refugee squat represents the best and worst of humanity”,
The Guardian, (2017)


· (Escribano, 2017)

Esperanza Escribano, “Exarchia, el barrio anarquista de Atenas que da ejemplo

sobre cómo acoger refugiados”, 20 minutos.es, Spanish newspaper.

· (Eurostat, 2017)

Eurostat, Statistics Explained “Unemployment statistics”, (2017)


· (Frontex, 2018)

“Eastern Mediterranean Route”, European Border and Coast Guard Agency, 2018.

· (Geisler, 2017)

Alexander C. Kaufman quoting Charles Geisler, “Climate change could threaten up

to 2 billion refugees by 2100”, The Huffington Post, (2017).

· Harvey, (2003),(2012)

David Harvey, "The right to the city." International journal of urban and regional
research 27, no. 4 (2003).

David Harvey, “Rebel cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution.”,

· (Howden & Fotiadis, 2017)

Daniel Howden and Apostolis Fotiadis, “The long read. Where did the money go?
How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis”, The Guardian, (2017).

· Lefebvre, (1968), (1974), (1996)

Henri Lefebvre, “Le Droit à la ville”, (1968)

Henri Lefebvre, “La production de l'espace”, (1974)

Henri Lefevbre, “Writings on cities”, (1996)

· (Kitsantonis, 2017)

Niki Kitsantonis, “Greece agrees to tighten belt again in return for futher bailout
funds”, The New York Times, (2017).


· (Paleologos & Strickland, 2017), “Khora community centre for Greece's refugees”,
Al Jazeera, (2017).


· (Ragucci, 2017)

Flor Ragucci, “Acoger refugiados en casas ocupadas”, Diario Público, Spanish

newspaper, (2017).


· (Smith, 2017)

Helena Smith, “’Patients who should live are dying’: Greece’s public health
meltdown”, The Guardian, (2017).


Helena Smith, “Surge in migration to Greece fuels misery in refugee camps”, The
Guardian, (2017).


· (Squat.net, 2016)

Anonymous, “Greece: Refugee-Squats in Athens”, (2016).



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