Can asylum be defined as an act of caring? Asylum refers to both a formal status of protection and to a space of refuge. Practicing asylum thus marks that the one in control is willing to grant access to a space and at the same time give the formal permission to stay there. The ongoing willingness to grant asylum is one of the pillars of the international community’s modern understanding, which emerged after the Second World War and was enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. The shared commitment of hundreds of states to protect persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution is certainly one of the most powerful symbols of nations’ willingness to care for those seeking refuge. Nevertheless, asylum in this sense remains a political institution: there are no binding universal laws on how it should be practised, and the room for interpretation remains wide, even among groups of states that share further collective rules and guidelines, as the member states of the European Union do (Misselwitz et al. 2010). The possible distance or proximity between asylum as a formal symbolic act and a practice of care thus seems to lie more in the cultural understanding of single states.
Many scholars believe that the original concept of asylum in Europe stems from the ancient Greek practice of Hiketeía, the protection of foreign people from persecution and their integration into the spaces and services of a society. Hiketeía is derived from ἵκω which means “to arrive”– the person asking for help is first and foremost someone who arrives (Gödde 2006). Back in ancient Athenian times, ásylon was understood as the arrival and entry to a sacred institution. As such, it fuses the two elements of asylum, formal and spatial protection, into one single act . In the form of the sacral asylum – practiced for centuries and across various European states, more commonly known as church asylum or temple asylum – spiritual places uphold the tradition of caring for persecuted people both in social and physical terms (Misselwitz et al. 2010). It is only at the beginning of the early modern times that the care for asylum seekers is under the formal state apparatus. This can be understood as a shift towards an act of power rather than care, as it becomes an element of domination and control for sovereigns over their territory and population. It is also a reaction to the increasingly prevalent idea that populations and societies are static within a defined territory, which in turn means that when they have to forcibly move, people tend to move as larger groups (Foucault 2006). The formation of the modern sovereign European states is to some extent in contrast to cultural diversity and the centuries-old European tradition of continuous migration, which is itself a distinct human feature and a phenomenon as old as the history of humankind (Harari 2015).
Asylum is and has been subject to change in terms of its cultural, political, and economical understanding as much as in the declination of a society’s collective and individual practice. With the shift from sacral to statal asylum for instance, the spatial condition and its political meaning has changed: No longer fused into a combined act of care, asylum leans more towards a state of reception, a limbo in which the asylum seeker awaits the outcome of an open-ended asylum procedure. The physical element of asylum (as place of refuge) has transformed into a place of waiting and uncertainty, a condition that is considered temporary but in many cases has long since become permanent (Albadra et al. 2008). Today’s understanding of asylum has also become a means to counter the intrusiveness of states and is negotiated along their border situations inviting states to develop quite diverse positions on asylum depending on their geographic locations and agenda domestic political agenda. Here, the EU member states experience asylum flows into the European Union quite heterogeneously, depending on their specific location, which can be either a frontline arrival point or a second-line destination country surrounded by safe third countries (Misselwitz et al. 2006).
Both the will and the willingness of member states to grant asylum are increasingly being tested, as more migrants are arriving in the European Union than ever before in light of recent events and conflicts (Eurostat 2023). European countries’ sentiment towards migration seems to shift accordingly: In 2022 – seven years after the mass movement of Syrian refugees had triggered heated debates on borders, reception, accommodation and integration of asylum seekers – “migration crisis” only just appears in the ranking of the biggest threats in European countries (ECFR 2023). Typically, moments like these lead to tightened laws on asylum (Kreichauf 2019), as was the case in the wake of the much cited European “refugee crisis” of 2015, to which the European Parliament and Council responded through updated regulations of the European Asylum System (CEAS) in 2017. These changes fit into the attempt to even out the unequal reality for member states, to enable more efficient asylum (and return) procedures, to distribute member states’ responsibilities “in solidarity” and “in a fair way”, and to strengthen partnerships with third countries (EU Commission 2023). Caring for asylum seekers in the EU seems to be reflected in a formalization of asylum practices.
Beyond the laws, regulations and bureaucratic aspects, there is perhaps no more tangible and visible indicator of the state of care for refugees than the spaces in which they arrive: “arrival architectures”, structures designed to receive and house asylum seekers. The mass migration of 2015 has shown that EU member states are not prepared to provide arriving refugees with the kind of spatial protection they need. While the formal apparatus of states tried to find quick fixes to cope with the masses through large tents and the occupation of structures such as gymnasiums and convention halls, much of the actual provision shifted to the informal level as individuals offered asylum seekers their private homes. Spatial accommodation, as offered by the state, took many refugees at a later stage. Temporal urgency coupled with the aspect of the formal versus the informal seems to play a central role in the debate on refugee accommodation. The way structures are set up and located reflects the indecisiveness with which the European Union views asylum seekers, somewhere between vulnerable people in need of humanitarian aid and potentially illegal migrants whose arrival shall be discouraged (Misselwitz et al. 2010). The spatial condition of reception centers is characterized by a state of emergency (in which people are deprived of their rights until a decision is made on their actual status), and its character is reflected in the way the spaces are designed (on an external line) and the way they are organized internally (Ebeling 2020). What has the “Europeanisation” of asylum brought about and what has been established to be “decent” in the accommodation of refugees?
The reality shows different categories of arrival architectures and is divided into places of “first accommodation” where the asylum procedure is initiated and refugees are registered and usually stay only for brief periods of time before being transferred to second-line reception structures, offering accommodation during while the asylum procedure is ongoing (Kreichauf 2019). The EU’s regulatory framework defines the state of these two physical spaces through the Reception Conditions Directive, which supposedly guarantees ‘decent’ living and housing conditions and increase the ‘possibility for asylum seekers to be self-reliant’ (EU Commission 2023). The “standard of living” in legal terms addresses the aspects of housing, food, employment, and care. To provide guidance on the concrete design of refugee accommodation, the European Agency for Refugees (EUAA, formerly the European Asylum Support Office EASO) has published guidelines and design manuals for member states (EASO 2016, 2019 and EUAA 2021, 2022).
These guidelines refer to five categories: Location, Allocation, Infrastructure, Security and Design of Common Spaces. In addition to (rather general) introductory statements for each of the five categories, the guidelines also list several standards (in wording). For each standard there is a list of indicators (against which the standard is to be reviewed and assessed). In the case of location, for example, the introductory section highlights access to necessary services and states that “it is generally understood that housing facilities should be located in areas designated for residential use”. In the section on standards, the introductory themes are further elaborated: “ensure effective geographic access to relevant services, such as public services, schools, health care, social and legal assistance, shop for daily needs, laundry and leisure activities” while the indicators for this are the functions either mentioned, which are either on the site of the accommodation, within reasonable (walking) distance or accessible by public transport (EASO 2016).
The guide does not contain standards for the actual construction and maintenance standards, but only references to the national and local construction standards, which depend on the respective geographical conditions. It does, however, provide a kind of checklist for general safety and quality parameters such as evacuation plans, natural ventilation and lighting, temperature and noise protection. In the chapter on infrastructure, which also contains the standards for housing, the guidelines are less vague: the information includes the spatial organization of the accommodation facility as well as the specific sanitary and catering conditions. For instance, asylum seekers’ sleeping quarters are to be separate rooms defined by four walls, a lockable door, an openable window and a ceiling, and can accommodate a maximum of six residents, each of whom must have at least four square meters of space. The parameters also include more precise measurements such as the minimum height (2.10 meters) and a minimum furniture requirement, namely one bed (the minimum distance between beds should be 90 centimeters), one lockable cupboard per resident and, in the case of self-catering, kitchen equipment. The accommodation must provide separate bedrooms for men and women, as well as access to a washbasin, toilet and shower, the number (depending on the number of residents) and access times being regulated differently. The common areas must provide “sufficient space” for dining, leisure, group and children’s activities.
In addition to the more general guidance on reception design, there are specific design manuals, described by the EUAA as ‘key in hand’ solutions and ‘practical tool on the design and management of modular reception centers’, entitled ‘Modular Design to Reception: Container Site Design’ (EUAA 2022). Not only does the manual list the functions that should be integrated into the design of EU-standardized reception points, but also highlights dos and don’ts by juxtaposing practices and providing visualizations and renderings of desired design compositions. The list of reception center functions includes humanitarian devices such as registration points, medical check and screening facilities as well as medical support points for ongoing health care, administration and office spaces, and security facilities. They also extend to the accommodation sphere: housing, services, outdoor and recreational areas.
As for the actual design of the center, the manual is divided into nine principles. The first promotes the zoning of the various functions along an “organic” system that avoids a grid structure and is organized around a central circle called the ‘nerve center’, from which roads lean to the accommodation zones and administrative areas as well as centralized and decentralized service points. Regarding the arrangement of the different functions, the second principle distinguishes between size and typology of the reception center and indicates parameters as safety and efficiency for the actual design decisions on the actual location of the functions. The parts of the design decisions that relate to the future user are listed in the third principle and encourage structuring the process within the site according to target groups and the standardized procedure flows developed specifically for them. The manual devotes a lot of space to the seventh principle, security, and refers to the need for staff presence (in and near accommodation areas) and the creation of open environments for an unobstructed view of all components of the site. Only in the case of a need for protection for certain groups of residents is fencing recommended, otherwise movement between the different parts of the center should be free. The overall layout of the center should follow an ‘uniform layout’ by using a standardized ISO 30 model of containers  stacked on a maximum of two floors for residential purposes and one sanitary container per floor.
The fact that official EU design manuals promote the use of standardized containers as one (if not the main) solution for the construction of reception points can be seen as confirmation of a ‘campization trend’ that can be observed across Europe. The tightened regulations and directives of asylum law have not only led to a deterioration in the quality of reception of asylum seekers, but also to an increase in the number of mass accommodation facilities in EU Member States (Kreichauf 2019). ‘Campization’ manifests itself on three levels: First, at an architectural level in a remote space separated from urban settlements and built in a parcel-like configuration of structures that are not suitable for housing (such as containers, tents or converted facilities). Secondly, on a functional level, as the different functions like reception, accommodation, and detention, happen at the same location and such lead to a blurring of the different aspects of asylum practice. Thirdly, on a socio-spatial level, when the reception camps have control mechanisms in terms of accessibility and thus social and cultural segregation becomes visible (idem). The nature of these camps becomes an indecisive transitional state of anonymity, seemingly innocuous topographies define spaces where law and order are dissolved and whose inhabitants depend not on the legal procedures if atrocities happen or conditions are miserable, but on the civic sense of the protagonists who control those spaces (Ebeling 2020).
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that the UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, chose the foreword of the UNHCR Annual Report 2021 on the Global Situation of Refugees – in the wake of the refugee crisis in Ukraine, which coincided with the report’s publication date – to remind the international community of the vulnerability of refugees. This vulnerability lies not only in the myriad traumatic experiences of violent displacement themselves, but also in the refugees’ dependence on the “generosity” of others (UNHCR 2022). What, then, might be considered generous, if understood as a parameter for measuring care in terms of arrival architectures, and how might norms and standardization address a fragile group of users and their specific needs?
The creation (and production) of refugee accommodations and receptions structures follows building norms and indicators like any other building typology. In this way, they cement a discourse on norms and can be seen as schemes for development, shelter, habitation, and domesticity. As such, they inevitable and notably influence the field of design by forming the basis for the dimensioning and spatial organization of the built environment. To work along building norms is part of the architect’s daily job description (training in the use of manuals has played a major role in architectural education for decades), and the architectural practice is a political actor in that it transmits standards and ideas to the masses (Shedde 2023). In a way, design manuals seem a pragmatic solution to complex design challenges because they assume a “model user” on which the calculation of dimensions, needs, and materiality is based. The assumption of a model user is a historically widespread (and celebrated) idea that was taken up by influential scientists and creatives such as the Leonardo Da Vinci (Vitruvian Man as of 1490), Neufert (Architect’s Data as of 1936), or Le Corbusier (Modulor as of 1946) – all of whom calculated the proportionality of spatial needs based on a human model figure and provided tools for designing habitat by the mean of dimension guidelines. The comparison of these three calculation models alone underpins a general critique of design norms and the anthropometric approach, and extends the argument to the production of arrival architecture, so that it feels safe to say: There is neither a “model human” nor a “model refugee”.
As the European interpretation of arrival architectures more and more leans towards the implication of building norms and standards, can these spaces even be considered an architectural typology? While there are arguments supporting standardization in the production of space (mainly concerning money and time issues), the living conditions created through the introduction of structures not fit for housing purposes in many cases are far from temporary and given a migration flow that is not likely to cease, the question remains, why they are not more considered as building tasks that are meant to last. Arrival architectures are yet another example of an increasingly critical conjunction of architecture and law, where human rights and the sense of wellbeing inside spaces of habitat seem to make way for a political agenda and. This seems particularly alarming in a context that is considered humanitarian aid.
While the European Union is missing to reform its CEA-System for the third year in a row, the condition for asylum reportedly continues to worsen (ECRE 2023). Ongoing discussion among the member states signals a trend to a further formalizing the asylum procedure directly upon migrant arrival, promoting the idea of reception points along external borders with immediate decisions on asylum (or detention) within a timeframe of twelve weeks (Deutsche Welle 2023). In a sense, this would mark a trend towards a reunification of the asylum practice into single space, something that is happening already in so-called EU Hotspots of first line arrival countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, where camp-like facilities have been designed to accommodate all functions of the asylum process (Ayata et al. 2018). However, it is their remote location in an undefined border area that underlines the aforementioned heterotopic character of these non-places, significantly distinguishing them from what was once understood through Hiketeía, the arrival to an actual space inside a functioning society. As the formalization trend progresses and asylum practice takes place along external borders, the care of asylum seekers becomes alienated from the individual level of care as individual members of society are discouraged from demonstrating their willingness to care and from hosting asylum seekers in their private homes (as has happened on countless occasions during the Syrian and Ukrainian refugee crises). “Functioning” architectures of arrival in this sense, whether individual or collective, must therefore be located in places inhabited by a functioning society in order to be places of care. These are places in our society where the boundaries between the formal services and infrastructures installed by the state apparatus and our diffuse informal human system are organically blurred. So, the question of how to care for those who will come, then, will be more a question of whether to allow them to actually arrive to these places.
 The temple asylum as practiced in Ancient Athens and which the word asylum is supposedly derived from: “(ἱερὸν ἄσυλον; hieròn ásylon). An inviolate sacred area (ἀ and συλᾶν, ‘remove’, ‘practise self-help’), from which it was not permitted to forcibly remove either objects or people seeking asylum.“ Chaniotis, A. (2006). „Asylon“ in Der Neue Pauly, editors: Online Publication [accessed 29/01/2023].
 ISO is the International Standardization Organization based in Geneva generating worldwide technical standards including those governing the construction of shipping containers; On their website, they advocate for standardization as a tool to achieve betterments across all kind of sectors and increasingly point out their role in the realization of and implementation of (design) policies.
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Yona Catrina Schreyer is a PhD candidate at the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies of the Polytechnic University in Milan. She studied architecture in Munich, Milan, and Ahmedabad and has been teaching and performing research at various international institutions, such as the University of Applied Arts Vienna, the Norman Foster Foundation, and the United Nations Human Settlement Programme in New York. Through her current research, she engages with the relation between political programmes and the design of the built environment, focussing on design policies and their implications for the role of architects in addressing spatial typologies affected by trends such as digitalization and mass movement.