s Noa Ha and Giovanni Picker (2022) have well argued, ‘modernity’ tends to reproduce a hierarchical understanding of the urban. The allegedly disordered and ‘underdeveloped’ is commonly attributed to the Global South by presenting urban informality and the lack of urban infrastructures. The Global North in contrast represents the allegedly ordered and ‘developed’, the ‘modern’ (Ha and Picker 2022: 3). In this short essay we aim to challenge this dominant perspective and focus on urban infrastructures for refugees in Berlin. The term “arrival infrastructures” has been increasingly used since 2015 to grasp migration-related urban infrastructures as “parts of the urban fabric within which newcomers become entangled on arrival, and where their future […] social mobilities are produced […]” (Meeus, van Heur and Arnaut 2019: 11). However, we argue that the notion of arrival infrastructures naturalizes the separation of infrastructures for refugees, therefore leading to a form of Othering.

The access and provision of urban infrastructures can be made tangible through the German concept of Daseinsvorsorge (services of general interest), which describes the state's task of providing the goods and services necessary for a meaningful human existence (Bundestag 2006: 2). This encompasses the provision of services and classical infrastructures in municipalities such as the provision of water supply, waste disposal, the operation of local public transport, health services, educational, cultural and sports facilities, and public safety. Since it is directed at all people regardless of their ability to afford these services (Ringwald 2008: 136), it also includes refugees. However, what counts as services of general interest is the subject of social and political debate; and interests of the municipality and claims of citizens can diverge significantly (Heinrich Böll Stiftung 2018). Thus, the focus on urban infrastructures can reveal uneven provision, unequal access, and discriminatory mechanisms, as well as the systematic weakening of the agency of particular individuals and groups. It constructs “the city as a space in which whiteness is naturalized and other populations are cast as new arrivals, outsiders, interlopers or curiosities” (Mosselson 2022: 128).  

We strive to add a notion of care to urban infrastructures to highlight these manifold complexities and ambivalences. Feminist scholars ground an ethic of care in reciprocal relationships and the need for responsiveness in relationships. In other words, care is “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (Tronto 1993: 103). Consequently, we understand material infrastructure no longer as a rational or neutral entity confined to engineering and management, but as dynamic occurrences intertwined with historical contexts and social and political structures that are constitutive for many elements of “the social” (Burchardt and Höhne 2015: 3).  

We draw on empirical data collected in 2021 and 2022 in Berlin with institutions and stakeholders from the municipal administration as well as refugees. We point to infrastructuring as ongoing and continual processes of creating and enacting (Karasti and Blomberg 2018) the othered urban experience for refugees.

Infrastructuring of Promise

In the tapestry of global environmental challenges, ‘Western modernity’ looms as both a catalyst for displacement and an aspirational beacon. The intricate interplay between these two facets underscores the complex relationship between the ‘modern Western world’ and the burgeoning global phenomenon of forced migration due to climate destruction, the externalization of environmental damage, and rampant overexploitation (Brand and Wissen 2017). ‘Western modernity’ rests on the narrative of progress, affluence, and opportunity that has been meticulously crafted over centuries. The Western world, particularly Europe, is projected as a sanctuary of prosperity, stability, and liberal values. It promises a life free from the afflictions that bedevil the regions left behind. In this sense, European cities can be discussed as clusters of promises (Berlant 2011) that entail promises in the city such as the access to infrastructures and promises of the city as a place of equal opportunities and rights (Färber 2019: 266). For refugees, European cities, including Berlin, are imagined as “promising” destinations, offering a degree of infrastructure for establishing a foundation. With the everyday experience of refugees in Berlin being characterized by the not yet - the times waiting, promise organizes temporal differences (Färber 2020: 266). The space between present and future can be grasped as a space of suspension, a space of its own (Kemmer 2019). Consequently urban infrastructures – particularly those relevant for arrival – can be discussed as promises of modernity, development and progress (Appel et al. 2018). In Berlin, this is illustrated by the promise of equal chances for education for refugees that keep being postponed to the future. Despite compulsory education, the school infrastructure has been underinvested, leading to a general shortage of educational facilities with the effect that some children do not attend school or capacities are not available in proximity to where children reside. In such conditions of austerity, it is refugees, who encounter impediments in accessing education, which keeps them in a position of waiting.  "Welcome classes", implemented in the 1980s for children with limited or no German language proficiency, are separated classes with specific curricula focusing on language instruction, in which many refugee children spend approximately a year, waiting for the promise for a “real” school enrollment.  In this sense, promises forge and solidify relationships as organizing acts, yet frequently exist as hollow vessels of anticipation.

Infrastructuring Uncare

For displaced individuals the unfeeling and, at times, hostile asylum system encapsulates a profound tension with the mentioned potential possibilities. This “social manifestation of the tension field between uncare and care” results from historical processes tied to welfare state reconfiguration and the reduction of state support (Gabauer et al. 2021: 5). However, according to critical migration scholars, uncare is not only related to neoliberal restructuring, but is a consequence of hostile policies, such as bordering practices, that come into effect at borders, and in cities themselves. Many refugee accommodations in Berlin are affected by decay and often unsuitable for habitation. The negligence of their maintenance can be understood as an infrastructural practice and as a “key vehicle through which racial orders are materialized” (Mosselson 2022: 130). Furthermore, the condition of the Berlin housing market hits refugees and newly arriving without reliable social networks in the city the hardest. Throughout our research the discrimination and racism against refugees at the housing market was a persistent marker of racialized Othering. Refugees face restricted availability of social housing, and numerous apartments are inadequate in size for families with children.

The neglected investment into the shelter infrastructures became especially obvious when the pandemic hit the local refugee accommodation crisis in Berlin. As interlocutors from the authority told us, prior to the pandemic, accommodations in Berlin had Internet access solely in communal and not in private spaces. Especially children who passed through home-schooling faced massive obstacles and discrimination due to the lack of digitalization of the shelters. Though the situation has changed, and Wi-Fi is available in most accommodations and private rooms, the problem of lacking data volume remained. Both examples show that these infrastructures are designed with the intention of instilling a deterrent effect, and ultimately, they aim to hinder or even obstruct individuals' access to society.

Infrastructuring of Proof

Rumford (2009) has pointed to the selective logic of the nation-state border that acts as a membrane and creates a situation that allows the movement of certain goods and people while protecting against the unwanted entry of others. People are thus not only divided into different categories, but also hierarchized as desired, worthy, illegal, criminal, etc. They are in a constant mode of proving their eligibility to be accounted as ‘worthy’. For example, during the final stage of the application process, each refugee must attend a hearing where they narrate their vulnerability through language. This narrative is presented to a European state representative, usually a single, often overburdened official who, with the help of an interpreter, assesses whether the individual has experienced enough hardship to qualify for state protection (Ty 2019: 871).

In Germany, only a fraction of asylum seekers manages to attain asylum status, whereas the vast majority is categorized into different status groups, leading to a gradual hierarchical curtailment of opportunities and rights. Thus, there is hardly any possibility for refugees to achieve the privileges that come with citizenship. Moreover, along with the hierarchized status groups come different levels of state willingness to protect and care for refugees. Once achieved, the status needs to be renewed every one or three years. The bureaucratic apparatus is particularly opaque for those not speaking the German language, as one district official told us:

“New arrivals are a very heterogeneous group [...]. But what they all have in common is that they really need initial orientation after the arrival, when distributed to the initial reception center. People need contact persons in the social team and support with all the complicated official things, application for subsistence benefits, language classes, etc.”

This indicates that such bureaucratic procedures keep a substantial number of individuals in a permanent condition of proof while at the same time, considerable amounts of care in the form of counseling by civil society organizations is provided to compensate for this uncaring environment. It further shows that the infrastructures of proof compel individuals into situations where they require care rather than being granted agency for their own choices. Even though this multilingual guidance plays a pivotal role during the initial phase of arrival, filling out forms and providing proofs does not guarantee access to resources or services, but undergoes an evaluation, a process that holds considerable sway over the final verdict. The evaluator’s room to maneuver in the decision process is significant, influenced by their mood, attitude, or values, whereas waiting times for appointments are considerably long, as one official shared with us.


This brief essay demonstrates that infrastructuring practices of arrival sustain a sense of Othering. With our focus on (un)care, we aim to confront refugees' relations to urban infrastructures with their position in society. We demonstrate that urban infrastructures represent a pattern of neglect that perpetuates unequal living conditions, highlighting how they serve as the tangible and physical underpinnings through which racism is both manifested and experienced (Mosselson 2022: 131). The perspective of promise highlights the possibilities that are constantly postponed to the future and to somewhere else while creating the illusion that equal access to urban infrastructures will eventually be granted. The perspective of uncare shows that investments in public infrastructures are highly debated - and the focus on Berlin highlights that the long-lasting disinvestment in education, school buildings and social housing hits all precarious groups, but refugees the hardest. This stands in stark contrast to the allegedly ‘ordered’ and ‘modern’ infrastructures of the Global North. With the focus on proof, we demonstrate that refugees not only encounter complex application processes commonly found in Germany but frequently need to navigate additional hurdles and, most importantly, demonstrate their eligibility, even when they haven't yet acquired proficiency in the German language. They constantly need to prove their worth, while still being subject to discretion. Care is conditional upon providing evidence, though the level of care may always differ from ‘worthy’ citizens. Infrastructuring processes of (un)care reveal the actions and logics inscribed into systems of oppression and exclusion. These do not only effect groups like refugees nor is the ‘disordered’ particular for regions like the Global South. Instead, it's a widespread issue that determines who is and who is not eligible to take advantages of the promises provided by urban infrastructures in ‘modern’ cities.


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Sylvana Jahre is a PhD Candidate and lecturer in Human Geography at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In her PhD project she is interested in how migration is negotiated in and through urban policy. She is an associated member at the graduate centre of the CRC1265 “Re-Figuration of Spaces” at the Technical University Berlin. With her work she builds on scholars of critical urban studies, reflexive migration studies, feminist geographies and Science & Technology Studies.

Dr. Antonie Schmiz is Professor of Human Geography at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests are migration in urban contexts, migrant labour markets and feminist geographies.