Refugee Spaces

A Bartlett Materialisation Grant project

The Cities of Refuge platform aims to stimulate and demystify, through substantiated assessments, the ways in which the current refugee wave has been represented in Europe, particularly by bridging insular experiences into a wider continental dialogue.



Despite numerous migrant waves through the decades, the current influx of refugees and asylum seekers into Europe has been framed by very specific narratives. From humanitarian calls for action to warnings of impending collapse, Europe thinks of itself under a crisis, at a political breaking point that justifies extreme discourses and measures.

The Refugee Spaces data project aims to stimulate and demystify the phenomena through examining the evidence rather than speculating on the so-called crisis. Through mapping and analysis of the openly available data provided by institutional and governmental sources, the platform attempts to spatialise the political and security measures designed to contain migration and the mobility of refugees.

We understand that migration and refuge are in a permanent state of flux, so this platform can only represent a snapshot of a specific period, in part constrained by reliability and availability of the data. Since we started this project, migration has played a more influential impact on political issues across Europe and the rest of the world, becoming sometimes the centrepiece of polarising campaigns and radical partisanship.

Brexit, the surprising success of populist agendas in some important national elections across Europe and elsewhere are just a few examples of how migratory issues have been used, and manipulated, for radical change. Security borders and sovereign intromission have expanded to Africa and Asia; the policing of the Mediterranean is now an established security regime; and humanitarian initiatives, to help refugees in peril, have been often criminalised.

In the following maps, the project shows a cartographical analysis of spatial responses and the administrative infrastructure brought by migration and refugees, stressing on the territorial relationships that associate mass movement with urban hotspots in four selected countries: France, Germany, Greece and Italy. Further countries can be added to the platform in the future. At the urban scale, the project identifies urban clusters/regions that are integral to current migration influxes, exploring their different strategies for reception and control.

Refugee Spaces has been funded by the 2016 Bartlett (UCL) Materialisation Grant. The project is a collaboration between the Development Planning Unit (DPU), Space Syntax Laboratory (the Bartlett School of Architecture), and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA). The information presented on this platform is not intended to be a conclusion, but a departing point to track the spatial and economic impact of migration on European territories. We hope and anticipate that the output of this project could be used as a base for further research and collaborative work on European refugee and migration phenomena in future.“ The report, available to download, contains reflections and preliminary work done in preparation of the platform.

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This project was created through a collaboration between the Development Planning Unit (DPU), Bartlett School of Architecture (BSA), and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. The project was funded through a Bartlett Materialisation Grant.

The project team included Camillo Boano, Giovanna Astolfo, Ricardo Marten, Falli Palaiologou, Keyvan Karimi, and Ed Manley, with Gala Nettelbladt, Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami and Asimina Paraskevopoulou.

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The isotropic distribution of the centres across urban and rural areas shows a clear trend towards the diffusion and dispersion of refuge – which is both policy-driven, geographically-induced (the Italian urban system is a system of small and medium cities where the distinction between urban and rural is never clear-cut), and, as some scholars would argue, bio-politically driven (Manara and Piazza, 2018). Hotspots, detention and expulsion centres are located close to (land or sea) borders. With the exception of Rome and Milan, the reception system is a ‘diffused’ one with a high number of facilities located outside large urban zones.

The 'model' of diffused hospitality is neither new nor novel, as it stems from the bottom-up initiative of Italian families hosting Bosnian refugees fleeing war in the 1990s. Based on the assumption that small groups of refugees could have a better chance of integrating in the local community and life, compared to larger groups in segregated and overcrowded centres, in the early 2000s, such a practice was ‘institutionalised’ and incorporated into the SPRAR programme which is currently present in 95 cities and towns, hosting 25-30,000 people (potentially marking a shift from containment to urban dispersal reception). It is still based on the spontaneous initiative of local municipalities, which retain considerable control over asylum housing, and are tasked to generate political and civic consensus around the implementation of the programme. However, the temporariness of the programme largely compromises the effort in establishing relations with the local community; while the very idea of employing a redistributive system – relocating refugees in small towns – bears issues, including the perpetuation of forms of control and policing that ultimately fails to achieve the integration of individuals in a given community, as well preventing them from political action atomising their presence in the urban space.

The map shows centres’ location - urban or rural - for year 2017, based on Eurostat classification of spatial units:

  • ‘cities and greater cities’
  • ‘functional urban areas’
  • and remaining centres as rural areas.

The location is approximate, showing the town where the centre is located. For the Eurostat classification of spatial units see here.

References and Sources

  • Centres’ location: Ministero dell’Interno, (2015) Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia. Aspetti, procedure, problemi. Gruppo di studio sul sistema accoglienza. E-source: [Accessed 04/06/2017].

Italy has long been one of Europe’s thresholds for people from Sub-Saharan Africa, although compared to other countries it receives a small number of asylum requests and has low immigration rates (EUROSTAT, 2016; UNCHR, 2017). This is due to a number of disparate factors, including the current politics of austerity and cuts to welfare and social services, increasing unemployment and homelessness, and a proportional surge of nationalism and xenophobic sentiments.

The Italian system of asylum is split into first and second reception line. First line reception consists of around 3000 Emergency centres (Centro Accoglienza Straordinaria - CAS) distributed across the national territory. The lack of adequate structures and services, coupled by the protraction of the refugees’ stay, as well as mismanagement, corruption and a violation of human rights characterise these centres. Furthermore, there is little clarity on the exact location, governance and management system, as there exist no obligation by law to disclose information around the CAS. Second line reception consists of a number of shared housing accommodations within the programme for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Sistema Protezione Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati - SPRAR) and it is based on the ‘diffused hospitality’ model. Individuals who have been rejected their asylum request, or have the papers but cannot afford a decent accommodation, or are not intended to remain but have not yet found resources to leave, end up living in squatted buildings and makeshifts camps which are around 18 in an equivalent number of cities and town, according to the survey conducted by MSF in 2016.

Following the European Agenda on Migration in 2015, hotspots facilities have been created close to the arrival routes with the initial purpose of identification and fingerprinting procedures, before transferring refugees and asylum seekers to first-line or second-line reception centres. They have now partly changed their function, having become “places for migrants’ redistribution on land” (Tazzioli, 2018) and oftentime protracted (illegal) detention where human rights abuse and poor living conditions are well documented (Amnesty International, 2016). Similarly, due to the extremely precarious and inhumane conditions, detention centres (Centres for Identification and expulsion – CIE, or Centres for deportation - CPR) have been slowly reduced over time (13 in the past, then 7, now 4). The actual number of deportations operated by the Italian government is rather small.

If possible, would like to add here a diagram similar to the above (but better in terms of aesthetics!), showing the asylum system in a nutshell, and the text below (it can either be inside or outside the diagram - TBC)

  • First aid and assistance facilities: CPSA and hotspots (the latter were created in 2015 following the release of the European Agenda on Migration). Located close to the sea arrival routes. Run by the Ministry of Interior and local prefectures, managed by local cooperatives with the presence of international NGOs.
  • First-line reception facilities: CARA and CPA. Run by the Ministry of Interior and local prefectures, managed by local cooperatives/charities/private sector. If no places are available in first- or second-line reception centres, asylum seekers are accommodated in temporary facilities, the CAS. The majority of refugees and asylum seekers are hosted in the CAS.
  • Second-line reception facilities: SPRAR. Run by local prefectures in collaboration with the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI), and managed by local cooperatives/charities/private sector. SPRAR is currently present in 95 cities and towns.

Description of Map

The map shows reception/detention centres mapped and their typology in English and Italian, for year 2017. The location is approximate, showing the town where the centre is located.

References and Sources

  • Ministero dell’Interno, (2015) Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia. Aspetti, procedure, problemi. Gruppo di studio sul sistema accoglienza. E-source: [Accessed 04/06/2017].

Hotspots and detention centres are run directly by the Ministry of Interior, oftentime with the presence of supra-national bodies, such as the EU Border Agency (Frontex), the EU Police Cooperation Agency (Europol), the EU Juridical Cooperation Agency (Eurojust), and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (Tazzioli, 2016). The majority of government centres as well as shared accommodations within SPRAR are run by the Local Prefecture, and managed by local NGOs, charity groups and private sector - the latter providing services such as catering, cleaning and laundry, surveillance, etc. The privatisation of refugee related services is common to several countries in Europe. Italy outsources refugee detention to multinational companies such as GESPA (Gestion Etablissements Pénitenciers Services Auxiliaires) that runs centres in Turin, Milan and Rome (Migreurop, 2017). It is not uncommon that the profitability of the hospitality business (Abrogast, 2016) results in low standards, exploitation and human right abuse; cases are documented in Italy (Amnesty International, 2016). Local ‘charities’, such as Ecofficina Educational Onlus to name but one, running at least three reception centres with an income of ten million euros/year, are currently investigated for human right abuse.

The reception system counts on multifarious solutions for the accommodation of refugees and asylum seekers, not all of which are part of the ‘official’ system. Occupied buildings – in a more or less organised way – have been mapped both in Rome and Milan. AirBnB offers shared accommodations for refugees made available by the private sector1.


The map shows centres’ governance, for the year 2017. The location of the centres is approximate, showing the town where the centre is located.

The financial crisis and politics of austerity in Italy are affecting local communities, economic migrants and refugees alike. As homelessness is on the rise, houses and benefits offered to refugees within protection programmes such as SPRAR are deeply debated. The presence of a parallel system that targets refugees and not, for instance, low income groups, creates a double standard that triggers xenophobia particularly in a time of austerity. Humanitarian organizations and private sector with budgets to running refugee centres, houses and services provide parallel systems of governance that allow refugee to survive in ways that the poor cannot although for a limited period of time. Such double standards exacerbate already tense situations where host communities are not willing to welcome refugees. What is oftentime overlooked, is the fact that hospitality programmes have a large impact on the local economy, creating employment that sustains the local community. Looking at refugees’ per capita budgets, housing, food and welfare cost around 12,000 euros per refugee per year. The budget spent by each government is somebody else's income (from language schools delivering classes to landlords renting flats) which means there is a return in terms of income. This is calculated on a ratio of 1/14.

One of the inconsistent aspects of migration which affect the cost and economy around migration and seems to differ in quantity from one European space to the other, is the privatisation of refugee related services. The profitability of the refugee business has increased competition among private sector lowering standards of hospitality. The Italian government passed contracts to provide accommodation and reception services for asylum seekers to a series of private providers. This is considered to be one of the ways in which a state can reduce its costs in providing housing, security, detention or legal aid to asylum seekers. Instead, for-profit companies are invited to bid on the jobs, providing lower cost alternatives. As Darling (2016) argues, the result is the production of an asylum market, in which neoliberal norms of market competition, economic efficiency and dispersed responsibility are central. Italy outsources refugee detention to multinational companies as the detention business is far more profitable than the reception one (i.e. Italy between 2005-11 spent 1 billion on detention. Comparing the public funds for reception and social integration with those for securitisation for the same years, the ratio was 1:2 (Lunaria, 2013).

The Italian system of asylum is a complex, multifarious and fragmented apparatus of humanitarianism, control and containment resulted from chronic policy failure. Administrative devices as well as technical and humanitarian measures aimed at accommodating, containing or detaining refugees and asylum seekers, have produced over time a constellation of more or less segregated urban and peri-urban centres, dormitories and shared accommodations, with disparate temporal and legal requirements and governance, where refugees oftentime face precarious living conditions. Set up to respond to short-term emergencies, rather than to address refugee situations that drag on for years and decades, the asylum system fails to respond to real needs. Insularity combined with the temporariness of the system and the high number of asylum rejections, ultimately results in a process of expulsion, illegality and informality. According to Medicins Sans Frontiers (2016, 2018), every 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers who are hosted in government-run structures, there are almost 10,000 who live in informal settlements close to urban areas without any access to water, sanitation and basic health care.



  • Tazzioli, M., Garelli, G. (2018) Containment beyond detention: the hotspot system and disrupted migration movements across Europe, Environment and Planning D. 1-19
  • Garelli, G. Tazzioli, M, (2016a) The EU hotspot at Lampedusa. Opendemocracy. Available at
  • Manara, M. Piazza, G. (2018) The depoliticisation of asylum seekers: Carl Schmitt and the Italian system of dispersal reception into cities. Political Geography, 64. 43-52
  • Darling, J (2016) Privatising asylum: neoliberalisation, depoliticisation and the governance of forced migration. Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, 41:3. 230-43



Data Download

All the data gathered by this project are available to download. Please select a dataset from the dropdown below to see its description.