The social, cultural, and political impact of the interaction between asylum seekers, humanitarian governance actors, and local society (in Lesvos and Athens)

Project description

Human(c)ity approaches humanitarian governance from an on-the-ground perspective, as a field of socio-cultural interaction and political negotiation between asylum seekers, humanitarian actors, and local societies. It does so through a comparative focus on the settlement of asylum seekers in various forms of accommodation (camps, ‘structures’, apartments, squats). The project is inspired by the long-term ethnographic research of its principal investigator, Evthymios Papataxiarchis, in the frontline of the ‘European refugee crisis ’.


Human(c)ity studies the osmoses between the workings of humanitarian governance and local societies at three levels of socio-spatial integration: in the frontline village community of Skala Sykamnias (Lesvos), in the border town of Mytilene (Lesvos), and in Athens, the capital of Greece. These three spatial formations -village, town, city- historically refer to three different phases of the migratory journey in Greece and have assumed a varying significance in the management of asylum and migration in the last decade.


Finally, Human(c)ity examines the interactions among different parties involved in the humanitarian scene, and their social and political impact, especially as regards : (a) different forms of mediation by official (municipal, UNHCR, NGOs) and unofficial (migrant collectivities, actors, (b) formal and informal forms of sociality (“hospitality”, “solidarity”, “aid”), and (c) different ethnocultural perceptions of all involved actors.


The small fishing village of Skala Sykamnias was the main entry point to EU territory for hundreds of thousands of displaced travellers in 2015-6. In Skala, Human(c)ity studies the establishment of the humanitarian regime in the early phase of the ‘refugee crisis’ and its legacy at the local, regional and national level. It particularly examines the humanitarianization of the locality and its transformation into a ‘humanitarian village’, as well as the role of different categories of actors in the emergence of the humanitarian scene.


Mytilene, up until recently the capital of the humanitarian regime in Greece, was the town where the first “hot spot” in Europe was established and became for some years the largest site of concentration of asylum seekers and humanitarians. Human(c)ity attempts an extensive mapping of the humanitarian regime in the city in the recent period using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The results are recorded in a dynamic interactive atlas of the humanitarian landscape of the island.


In Athens, the project compares two different forms of mediation and corresponding accommodation arrangements, in order to explore the dynamics of socio-cultural interaction and political negotiation between asylum seekers, humanitarian actors, and urban neighbourhoods.


Focusing on the one hand on official forms of mediation by municipalities, the UNHCR, major NGOs and other official humanitarian actors,the project examines two important models of accommodation for asylum seekers: a) the municipal camp of Eleonas, and b) city apartments for supervised living, in the context of the EU funded ESTIA project, and implemented under the auspices of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum in cooperation with different partners (e.g., the Municipality of Athens and several NGOs).


On the other hand, focusing on unofficial forms of mediation by collective initiatives, migrant communities, or private actors, the project examines alternative forms of accommodation, such as independent apartments, squats, and other ad hoc arrangements. In this context, the project develops an ethnographic study of forms of sociality of Afghan and Pakistani asylum seekers, in relation to existing migrant networks, collectivities and places of religious activity.


The project has a duration of 34 months (17/12/2019-17/10/2022). It is carried out under the scientific responsibility of Professor Evthymios Papataxiarchis and the financial support of the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI).


Human(c)ity combines anthropological fieldwork with other qualitative and quantitative methodologies. This is particularly the case in Athens and Skala Sykamnias, where the project applied the classic methodology of ethnographic field research with participant observation. However, the conjuncture of the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated important modifications in the methodology. As a result, part of the research in Athens had to be carried out online. In the town of Mytilene, on the other hand, the research was complemented by an extensive survey mapping using qualitative and quantitative methodologies.


The ethnographic material of this project, including the dynamic interactive atlas, is stored in the Archive of the Observatory for the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean. The results will be made public at an international workshop to be held in Mytilene, in June 2022.


The research project was supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (H.F.R.I.) under the  “First Call for H.F.R.I. Research Projects to support Faculty members and Researchers and the procurement of high-cost research equipment grant” (Project Number: HFRI-FM17-67)