Cities and Displacement

Caroline Knowles
6 min readJul 5, 2021


Caroline Knowles

The ancient streets of Basmane, in Izmir’s low-income and Syrian refugee inner city neighbourhood, radiate the energy of anticipation. In the square, a place to sleep, trade and plan the future, Africans mingle with Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis and Turks. Smugglers operate from here offering backdoor routes to Europe and shops selling floatation devices monetise the risks of refugee sea travel. Tiny shops sell spices, fruit and pastries, familiar in Damascus and Aleppo. Informal, rigged together housing leans against the city’s historic quarter and its anticipated visitors. Nowhere are the sliding doors between the luxuries of tourism and the struggles of displacement more visible than in Basmane’s makeshift, crumbling, architecture, and its ragged seams connecting past and present. Basmane is a crucible of 21st century life on the move.

In 2020 the UNHCR estimated there were 80 million displaced people world-wide, a number set to rise as new conflicts make more lives impossible. Exactly how cities absorb and manage the economic, social and political effects and human traumas of displacement is one of the most important challenges of our time. And this is only the beginning. Mass displacement associated with climate change and rising sea levels is yet to unfold, enhancing risk of further displacement.

New, experimental research on well-being, housing and infrastructure in Turkey[i], a partnership between the UK’s Institute of Development Studies, Izmir’s Yasar University, Sweden’s Umea University and the Izmir-based NGO, TIAFI[ii], funded by the British Academy, under the Global Challenges Research Fund is developing the building blocks of an emerging urbanisation of refuge. This refers to the ways in which cities adapt to incorporate and sustain those who are displaced. The research team, led by Dolf Te Lintelo, are documenting the conditions in which refugees live in Izmir’s low-income neighbourhoods. And they are analysing how the regulatory environment managing housing, migration and urban planning shapes housing options, informal urban life and well-being.

Turkey hosts a disproportionate share of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Among its registered 4 million displaced, are 3.6 million Syrians fleeing a decade of civil war, refugees from neighbouring Iraq and Iran and those fleeing various conflict-torn African countries. Following the (2015–2016) large-scaled movements of refugees into Europe, practical, policy and financial arrangements between the Turkish Government and the European Union have turned Turkish cities into Europe’s refugee centre. Effectively becoming a storage facility for the displaced, the Turkish government keeps refugees away from Europe’s borders. In exchange, Turkey receives funds that are wholly insufficient to cover the cost of expanding and upgrading city infrastructure to more easily accommodate arrivals. As a result, newcomers and locals compete in informal sectors for low-waged work and poor housing.

Despite decades of rapid economic growth, Turkey has experienced economic decline since 2019, exacerbated by Covid-19, with rates of poverty in urban areas rising to over 50%[iii]. 92% of refugees live outside of Turkey’s crowded refugee camps. Instead, and in line with global trends, they swell the marginalised population of cities. Joining the poorest neighbourhoods, they live with mixture of hostility and heart-warming hospitality, sometimes at breaking-point among those struggling with poverty, inadequate state resources and collapsing city infrastructure. And so it is in Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast, a gateway to nearby Greek islands, the last stop in Asia on Europe’s borders.

This British Academy funded research into housing, infrastructure and wellbeing in Izmir is generating new data and new maps detailing the conditions in which poor locals and refugees live. The data shine a light on windowless basements, attics, garages and outbuilding that are not fit or healthy for human life. Detailed audits of housing conditions provide a granular understanding of how refuge cities are organised and make it possible to suggest practical and policy solutions to improve them. Izmir city authorities have occasionally regularised self-built informal housing stock as cities grew through rural to urban migration. Refugees don’t particularly benefit from these moves and the ways in which property ownership, house-building and migration work together to shape vulnerable living conditions needs to be better understood and rectified. Upgrading living conditions so that they support healthy, viable and dignified lives for all is a distant prospect.

Collaboration between the research team and architecture students at Yasar and Umea universities extends the expertise and concerns of the next generation of Turkish and Swedish architects, as they are invited to design housing and community spaces for poor and refugee communities. The live city laboratories in which they collaborate, are generating new building solutions. Students use the research data to understand the housing and community-space needs of refugees to inform their designs. Involving design and architecture in making improvements in poor communities is an important innovation. Only the wealthy routinely use these services. One group of students designed a launderette that doubles as a kitchen and play space for women and children. Another designed a space just outside houses for women to meet for ‘doorstep talks’. An exhibition of their designs, titled ‘full of hope’, was mounted at the TIAFI community centre, to the acclaim of local media and social media platforms.

Making spaces for newcomers extends a welcome. This is an important step in rethinking cities so that they include the displaced and offer them refuge. The exhibition gave refugees and local Roma living around the TIAFI community centre a new visibility, and with it, significance as a part of the city. These inclusions might be temporary, but they offer a route towards a more enlightened and inclusive urbanism. Cities in which refugee lives and skills become positive resources in developing new opportunities and potential, rather than a drain on resources.

As a result of this research, local architecture students in Izmir extended themselves as citizens. They came face to face with refugees and poor neighbourhoods, places they do not usually visit, believing them to be dangerous. The otherwise abstract idea of ‘refugees’ and ‘poor communities’ took on faces, names, lives and needs, as the students immersed themselves in designing refugee-friendly spaces. One of the Yasar students said, ‘We never think in depth about the situation’. Now, she said ‘I think differently’, this was ‘an eye-opening course for me’.

The research has led to new partnerships and international collaborations. Yasar and Umea Universities will continue to work together designing spaces for poor refugee communities. Collaboration between the TIAFI community centre and Yasar University deepens to their mutual advantage. Yasar has donated computers, which TIAFI can use for education and training, leading towards better jobs and more comfortable lives. TIAFI provide a vital link between local authorities and poor communities. They assist with housing and benefit matters, provide hot meals to those without adequate food and offer sewing and technology and mobile phone assembling training workshops. Turkish language lessons, counselling, and therapeutic play uplift refugee children to make them part of the community too.

The laboratories for better organising displacement and 21st C city life set up by this research project provide valuable data and resources. These inform our rethinking and reorganisation of cities beyond Izmir, potentially including other arrival cities. Making cities open and accessible to refugees, making them inclusive and humane, decent, liveable and increasing their ability to absorb and benefit from the skills and capacities newcomers bring to city life, is a positive way forward.

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.

[i] Wellbeing, Housing and Infrastructure in Turkey (WHIT) is headed by Dolf Te Lintelo, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, in collaboration with Robert Mull, architect and housing activist, University of Brighton, and Umea University and partners Meltem Gurel and Ayselin Yildiz at Yasar University, Izmir. It is funded by the British Academy as part of its Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme.

[ii] Team International Assistance for Integration

[iii],reach%2058%25%20of%20the%20population. This percentage depends on how poverty is measured.