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Urban Borders, Contested Cities: Refugee Reception Offices and Social Exclusion in South African Cities

Authors: James (Jay) Johnson*,
Topics: Migration, Urban and Regional Planning, Africa
Keywords: borders, migration, refugees, cities, South Africa
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The majority of asylum seekers and refugees currently reside in cities, particularly in the Global South. Conceptual and policy models around borders often focus on international law and national policies, while overlooking urban spaces and politics in reproducing and contesting multiple boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. When cities are addressed, there is often a focus on political movements broadly in favor of asylum seekers and refugees (e.g., sanctuary movements and cities), or against these populations (e.g., xenophobic riots and local populist politicians). In this paper, I develop an alternative model of urban politics of asylum seekers and refugees that accounts for local political and legal contestation over particular properties and spaces associated with refugees and asylum seekers. Building on fieldwork and legal research around government-run Refugee Reception Offices (RROs) in South Africa, I argue that contestation over their locations in cities is framed around local spaces and boundaries as much as challenging broader migration policies. For example, when local businesses seek legal orders to close an office due to zoning and public nuisance violations or asylum seekers demand access to a particular building, such actions closely relate to defining and contesting broader patterns of social, spatial, and racial divisions and boundaries in these particular spaces. However, local contestation over specific urban spaces also has significant consequences for national and global refugee and asylum seeker policies and politics, both for refugees and asylum seekers living in cities and officials attempting to exert control over these properties and spaces.

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