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<nettime> Athens has no centre: The digitalisation of migration
pavlos hatzopoulos on Wed, 11 Apr 2012 15:18:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Athens has no centre: The digitalisation of migration

from http://bit.ly/HGwHsz

The discourse on migration in Athens is anchored to three propositions
that are often shared by both the pro-migration and anti-migration

1. The Centre: The first proposition is that migration is constituted
as a problem primarily in the Centre of Athens. Contrary to the
conceptualization of migration as a movement, whose form and impact
are dispersed, migration becomes condensed in a specific bounded
location, a near static phenomenon that can be easily identified and
mapped in Cartesian geographical terms. Anti-migration arguments
concentrate on a “kick the migrants out of the centre of Athens”
position, while pro-migration on a “we need to design social policies
for the improvement of the social conditions and the infrastructures
in the centre of Athens” stance. In both cases, dealing with migration
is associated with the claim that something “needs to be done” with
the Centre of Athens.

If we were to map the discourse of migration in Athens we would simply
have to fill a bright colour (a red perhaps to represent occupation or
racist conflict) a large chunk of the centre of the city, leaving the
rest of the urban space untouched.

2. The city as a cell: The second proposition (which is linked to the
first) is that migration threatens the city’s historical, cultural and
geographical core, its very essence. The city becomes, along these
lines, conceptualized as a cell. In racist rhetoric, the centre of the
cell is seen as being invaded by alien and hostile forces. The
bio-medical metaphors do not stop there, as migrants are routinely
associated with the spread of contagious diseases. At the same time,
migrants become the (conscious or unconscious) agents of a violent
invasion that threatens the historical continuity of the city – (i.e.
the centre is usually referred to as “historical”). Migrants
colonizing the centre of the Athenian cell disrupt its history by
squatting in neo-classical houses, by praying to Allah next to
Christian Churches, or simply by inhabiting public squares decorated
with nationalist statues. Simultaneously, migrants threaten the future
of Athens because they prevent its gentrification – which is
symbolically linked to a process of Europeanization. As a
characteristic example we could mention, here, the constant moaning of
the Athenian free press over the failed plans of ambitious developers,
bar and loft owners who have lived for many years abroad in London,
New York, Paris and Kabul and are prevented from modernizing the
centre of the city cell by a combination of factors including
inadequate government policies for policing and for facilitating the
gentrification of the centre, the absence of public and private
investment funds and the spontaneous and uncontrollable spatial
invasions by undocumented migrants (and drug users).

Ironically, this approach is also reproduced by many anti-racist
groups’ startegies which are organized as if control was localised and
centralised and can be combated with localised counter-measures
(actions in solidarity with the migrants in particular public squares)
reproduce this fixation on centralisation and localisation.

*Digitalization as a means of centralised control*

Digitalisation becomes in this context a strategy for centralizing the
control of the problem of migration. If migration is localizable and
static and the city is a cell, then its surveillance and policing by
the contemporary mechanisms of control is possible. The city centre
has become populated by private or state security cameras for
surveillance, all newly constructed or renovated buildings come with
smart cards for the safety of homeowners and electronic systems for
protecting their multiple gates and walls, aiming to shell off the
mobilities of the unauthorised migrant users of the space.
Digitalization embodies the desire for building an armour that will
seal and protect the Athenian cell from migration.

Again, anti-control practices become often trapped in this discourse
of the cell. Practices that include the destruction of digital
devices, such as the demolition or painting over of CCTV security

In the rest of the paper, we will try to move from the cell to the
network, arguing that the digitalization of migration is not a result,
a response, or an attack to the “sealing” of the Athenian cell but is
part of an altogether different form of configuration of the space of
the city. In order to address the current debates, we argue that the
answer to the racist conflict that has emerged in Athens can originate
from an alternative mapping of the city and its migrant mobilities – a
mapping that takes into account the fact that

a) Migration is by definition an unbounded social movement,
b) Athens is no longer a cell (if it ever was) but an interconnected
network, and
c) Migrants mobilities privilege the operation of ad hoc networks


Let’s try to unpack these three propositions and attempt to see how
they could potentially draw alternative mappings of migration in

a) Migration as an unbounded social movement.

Instead of analysing migration as a phenomenon that is localised,
condensed, or accentuated in the centre of Athens, we could
alternatively see it within a larger terrain of flows and mobilities.
The physical presence of a large number of migrants in Athens does not
imply stasis or a somehow bounded space characterised by special
social conditions. Migration in the city is not centred but involves
different types of technologies of mobility dispersed within and
outside the Athenian boundaries.

These technologies of mobility are of two types:

- Migrants in Athens, for one thing, are at the focus of network-based
technologies of surveillance and control. This surveillance is not
limited to the administration and policing of a bounded urban space
(the city centre), but it is essentially distributed.

It has to do, for example, with the digitalisation of European border
control and, as De Genova argues, with the permanent risk of “digital
deportability” that these migrants face. The biometric or digital
profiles of migrants living in Athens are circulating amongst a number
of European wide electronic databases. A casual arrest of an
undocumented migrant in Athens by the local police results to a new or
a revised online entry in the database of the Schengen Information
System (SIS), or a new or revised fingeprinting profile in the Eurodac
database – a pan European Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

It has to do also with how the Greek state is planning to manage and
control the mobilities of documented “legal” migrants. Illustrative,
here, are the plans of the current government to introduce a “migrant
identity card’ in the coming months. This card will supposedly
regulate all interactions of all registered migrants with all state
agencies and services, and will include both RFID and biometric data.

Following the work of Ayse Ceyhan and Vassilis Tsianos, we can thus
trace a direct connectivity of the bodies of the migrants inhabiting
Athens to the digital flows of information circulated amongst European
and local government agencies.

- A second technology of mobility relates to what Dana Diminescu has
termed “connected migrants”. Migrants in the centre of Athens are not
simply forced to a kind of immobility as they might be unable to move
to other European countries because of the Dublin II treaty
restrictions. Nor are they simply uprooted, from their home countries.
The everyday practices of migrants in Athens include the daily
production of cultures of bonds with their places of origin or places
where they have friends or relatives via the use of ICTs. VOIP
technologies, mobile phones, are used to construct the connected
presences of these migrants within different locales. The everyday
lives of migrants Athens belong co-instantaneously to several
geographical zones and social milieus. The socialities produced by
these connected ‘presences’ highlights even more the precarious,
temporary dimension of migrants’ mobility but also the density of
their relational networks. Look at how many migrant run internet cafes
have opened in Athens, at the informal mosques that give free wifi
access to the neighboring areas, at how migrants use their mobile
devices, at the growing pirate markets for digital gadgets run by
migrants and this picture will start to take shape.

Along these lines, the centre of Athens is nothing more than a part of
networks of (also migrant) mobilities.

b) Athens is no longer a cell (if it ever was) but an interconnected
network of mobilities.

This proposition does not need a lot of explanation. Theorising cities
as flows or urban spaces as networks is nothing new. The architecture
of the cell is no longer relevant to the every day lives of cities.

Although the centre of Athens is invested with symbolic power by the
discourse of migration, migrant mobilities defy this logic of the
centre or of centralisation. Take the example of the Athenian squares,
which are exemplary symbolic places of concentration. In Plateia Agiou
Panteleimona, Plateia Attikis, Plateia Victorias, in different periods
during the past years, these squares have been claimed and inhabited
ephemerally by groups of migrants (mainly asylum seekers from
Afghanistan and Pakistan) who were trapped in Greece. For what
purpose? Were they occupied as the movements of concerned citizens
argue? An occupation of the square would serve no purpose since the
desire of these migrants is to find ways to move on, to cross the
Greek border. The squares are used as temporary dwellings that enable
them to organize their mobility networks in order to move on.

The image of migrants sitting in the square all day is deceptive: What
appears as stasis and urban concentration is in fact a movement that
places the square within a network of mobilities through various
physical arrangements and digital inter-connections.

Similarly, we can take the example of the debate around the
construction of an Islamic Mosque in Athens. Should it be built in the
centre of the city or in a far remote place outside the centre?
Conservative commentators seem to consider its distancing from the
centre absolutely necessary, while more liberal commentators note that
it should be placed at the centre for symbolic reasons. But does it
matter? When there is an already active and digitalized network of at
least 100 informal mosques dispersed all over Athens, operating in
garages, shops or apartments? This network of mosques has already
transformed the city in a decisive way placing it within transnational
Islamic networks.

c) Tentatively, we want to propose that migration relates to the
operation of these networks of mobilities based on the notion of ad
hoc networking. Ad hoc, in this context, should not be merely equated
with “non-generalisable” or “haphazard”, but instead with
self-configured. Ad hoc networking is what forms a constant threat for
destabilising the regular network. Control and surveillance, for
instance, count and aim to expand and reproduce the regular operation
of the network: they need to make sure that first of all, authorised
users should have unhindered access to the network, that data flows
don’t fail, that unauthorised users or data (viruses or hackers) don’t
disrupt the network. Ad hoc networking exploits the weaknesses of the
regular network in order to create discontinuities, breaks, cracks
within it.

The connectivities of the migrants to the regular networks that
organise the urban space of Athens can be conceived in this manner.
Documented migrants, for example, might seem to have all the necessary
papers, a job contract, social security stamps, a permanent residence,
but the ways through which they have managed to obtain these and to
reproduce them each time they are asked to do so by a government
agency are not regular. They might have intermittently used informal
or illicit networks to provide them with counterfeit job contracts or
counterfeit proof of residence, or they might have irregularly bought
off their social security stamps. Or, they might have legally applied
for asylum to the Greek authorities, but, before their application is
processed, they are still searching for ways to move to another
European country and re-apply for asylum there.

Or, take the example of transit migrants who seem to now live in
overpopulated apartments in the centre of Athens or in ephemerally
squatted buildings or public spaces, the practices that are usually
taken as a sign of underdevelopment and misery. But these spaces are
more akin to transnational locales, self-configured by the migrants
themselves, organised to gather and exchange information amongst them
and to communicate with friends and contacts in other European
countries who will enable their planned border crossings. Do these
migrants need a “reception centre” in an area far remote from the
centre of Athens as many NGOs argue? Perhaps not – at least not a a
reception centre like the ones operating in Northern Europe, where
surveillance mechanisms are set up to prevent the formation of ad hoc
networks. What they need is ad hoc dwellings (in squares, shared
apartments and hostels) where they can reassemble, exchange
information, connect within them beyond borders and move on.

Maybe, they will manage to cross the borders, maybe they will be found
out and get deported back to Greece, but possibly not. Their
fingerprints might not feature in the digital database. Have they
managed to trick the fingerprinting identification system? Have the
authorities in Greece or in the other European country failed to use
correctly the search functions of the database or have they considered
it too much of a hassle to use it at all?

This ad hoc networking of the migrants emanates simultaneously from
the need to trick or elude the surveillance mechanisms that aim to
control their mobilities and also from their innovative everyday

We are not arguing that all these practices are purely what the
migrants desire, but that they should not be conceived in negative
terms. We have to start from how ad hoc migrant networking practices
open up new trajectories for going beyond the limits of the discourse
on migration in Athens.

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