april, 2023

27apr4:00 pm- 4:26 pmRefugee Cities: Symposium on the Urban Dimensions of Forced Displacement

Event Details

We are a group of scholars from across disciplines and institutions interested in bringing together the increasingly interrelated fields of Refugee Studies and Urban Studies. While there are few scholars or institutions that explicitly and intentionally consider these fields together, the expanding number of internationally displaced people settling in cities and interacting with and in urban spaces across the globe merits sustained engagement and analysis. In this CSSD working group, our discussions and public programming will center the social, political, and material interrelatedness of refugees and cities in varying geographical areas. The group’s core members include researchers and educators who have come together to collaborate on various projects at the intersection of urban and refugee studies, including public
symposia, and to engage in mutually enriching discussions and forge lasting intellectual and professional ties. 

Cities are generally conceptualized as permanent (made of brick, mortar, and metal), modern, and planned. They are governed by nation-states and are part of complex networks of global capital and knowledge. In contrast, the spaces where refugees settle (or are settled) are generally considered temporary. However, this does not match the actual experience of refugees, since many come from and inhabit cities. Indeed, refugee communities have become involved in urban housing movements in places like São Paulo, a city with a long history of urban occupations and informal settlements. Beginning in the aughts, “urban refugee” surfaced as a category of concern in policy (UNHCR 2009; 2012) and humanitarian discourses but remains under-explored in scholarly research, especially since the majority of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) live in cities. Conversely, refugees displaced by persecution, violence, and war(s) often spend open-ended periods in sprawling settlements that are functionally urban places and actively take part in place-making processes generally associated with permanent municipalities. Domiz camp in northern Iraq (refugee republic) is a good example. It was initially designated as a temporary space to host Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and has become an increasingly permanent and elaborate urban space (see also Burj el-Barajneh in Beirut). A central aim of this interdisciplinary working group is to reflect collectively and critically about the different analytical levels at which to examine the lives of internationally displaced people and communities, who, while often stateless, are inhabitants of “city-states,” nation-states, and other complex, overlapping jurisdictions. We address such pressing issues of humanistic (and humanitarian) concern in the status and deep history of sanctuary cities, the extent of and limitations to national sovereignty, and struggles for the right to the city. 

We are interested in examining these urban sites as spaces of reception, rejection, hypervisibility, and invisibility. The manner in which refugees manage and are managed in these sites are also often structured by social relations (community, labor, family, gender) and formal and informal economies. Moreover, a cursory look at the response in cities to provide refuge and shelter to Afghan refugees in late summer 2021 (or Syrian refugees in 2015) versus the response to Ukrainian refugees in the current crisis (and the distinction in treatment at border crossings toward white Ukrainians and African and South Asian students that had been in the country) recenters the racial hierarchies in these processes. As a group that includes scholars whose research has investigated cities both past and present, we are interested in thinking about the ways in which internationally displaced people settle in cities as part of a long history of the improvised, often dissident use of urban space, and the historical construction of social inequality across different geographic scales.

A keynote lecture will take place on the evening of Thursday, April 27, with all other presentations to be scheduled throughout the day on Friday, April 28. All events will take place in person at the Heyman Center/ SOF, Columbia University, New York. 

Please submit a brief description of your proposed presentation (maximum of 350 words) along with a short CV (maximum of 2 pages) as one, single pdf file to refugeecitiesCSSD@gmail.com. The deadline for sending your proposal is March 13, 2023. For further information about the Refugee Cities Working Group, please visit our page at https://www.socialdifference.columbia.edu/projects-/2022/4/26/refugee-cities-urban-dimensions-of-forced-displacement. For further information contact refugeecitiesCSSD@gmail.com

This symposium and the Refugee Cities Working Group have been possible with support from the Center for the Study of Social Difference, as well as the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. 


(Thursday) 4:00 pm - 4:26 pm


The Heyman Center for the Humanities (74 Morningside Drive, New York, NY 10032 United States)

The Heyman Center for the Humanities (74 Morningside Drive, New York, NY 10032 United States)