Athens has no centre: The digitalisation of migration

by Pavlos Hatzopoulos and Nelli Kambouri

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

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 cameras.

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 Athens.

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 practices.

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.

  1. I find this comment rather curious: «Ad hoc networking exploits the weaknesses of the regular network in order to create discontinuities, breaks, cracks within it.»

    Ad hoc networking is simply a method of self organization of connectivity between digital devices. It can work parallel to a regular ‘backbone’ style network as well as on its own. the largest ad hoc network in athens at the moment is awmn . As far as I know an ad hoc network that connects to the internet is still under the scrutiny of public and private agencies since it needs to somehow access the national network infrastructure through a public ISP or through GRNet ( In any case I believe that the above statement is wrong both actually as well as metaphorically.


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