CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Since 2015, the arrival of exiles [1] has emerged as a major issue for European countries. In France, attention has been focused in particular on migrant camps in Calais and the Paris area. To address this issue, the state introduced reforms to the law on asylum and immigration (Law of 29 July 2015). [2] Among the significant aspects of this reform, there is the policy of equalisation, aimed at the distribution, or rather the dispersal of exiles, particularly those seeking asylum, across the national territory. The state justifies this dispersal by the need for all territories to show “solidarity” in reception of asylum seekers. In France, the policy of equalisation predates the 2015 reform, going back at least to the origins of the institutionalisation of asylum policy in 1973. [3] It also has a long history in other countries of the European Union (EU), such as the United Kingdom (Stewart and Shaffer, 2015; Robinson et al., 2003), the Netherlands (Arnoldus et al., 2003), Sweden (Roger and Solid, 2003) and Germany (Boswell, 2001). These migration policies have “governmental mobility” as a common feature (Gill, 2009; Michalon, 2012), i.e. they produce forced displacement. Dispersal policy is multi-scalar involving a continuum of burden-sharing rationales among EU countries, French departments and regions, and, at the local level, among municipalities. Indeed, with the establishment of scattered CADAs, [4] the networking of municipalities adopts a rationale of “solidarity” and sharing of responsibilities, or the “burden” of reception.

2The availability of housing and the relatively low cost of reception on the one hand, and the political will of local actors to receive asylum seekers on the other, have put non-metropolitan territories, including rural areas and small towns, at the heart of the national system of equalisation. The abundant literature on international migration, particularly that dealing with the reception of exiles (including those seeking asylum), shows that little scientific work has been carried out in non-metropolitan territories.

3Setting up a facility to receive asylum seekers in a territory means embedding its activity and actors in its socio-spatial dynamics and organisation. Two main questions will guide our reflection and structure our discussion: how do territorial dynamics and spatial organisation in the Ambert territory affect dynamics of reception? How do these dynamics of reception in turn contribute to the reconfiguration of the Ambert territory? This article attempts to bring together reflections on international migration and those on the future of territories. [5] In order to fully understand this issue, it is necessary to revisit a key concept in this article: that of reception.

4Reception, (accueil from the Latin colligere), means the act of “gathering, bringing together, assembling, collecting.” From its earliest uses, the concept of reception has implied inequality in terms of the positions occupied by insiders and outsiders. These positions can be manifested in social, cultural, political and spatial dimensions. As applied to the reception of asylum seekers, these positions are constantly reconfigured by changing public governance of immigration and asylum (Akoka and Spire, 2013; Wihtol de Wenden, 2018), European and national policies based on the distribution and forced displacement of asylum seekers (Boswell, 2001; Gill, 2009; Michalon, 2012) and the social ties that are formed and undone between insiders and outsiders, leading to the emergence, in some cases, of “spaces for living together” (Arfaoui, 2017).

5While many studies have shown the way in which reception is shaped by policies at different levels (European, national and local), research has rarely addressed how reception is shaped by the territory. “Territory”, a polysemous concept which has been central to geography since 1982, [6] covers multiple uses and meanings. [7] It is recognised that territory, like space, is not an abstract reality. It is above all a socio-spatial product, i.e. the interaction of the social and the spatial. Territory is “the overall expression of the spatial, the social and the lived, as a temporality of varying fragility, the intersection of the signifier and the signified, the material and the ideal” (Di Méo, 2001). The aim of this paragraph is not to restate and certainly not to propose a definition of the concept of territory. Its aim is to underline that territory is above all a (co)produced space, as defined by Lefebvre (1974), a space appropriated by its actors in a social, cultural, and historical context, which draws on a present and a past, but also on a projection of the future.

6This article is based on an analysis of local governance in relation to reception and its implications in the Ambert territory located to the east of Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne. A formerly industrialised area, the Ambert territory is facing a process of increasing fragility due to economic problems and deindustrialisation (Edouard, 2019). This trend is reflected in the reduction in population, the closure of many public services and problems in terms of spatial mobility linked to a lack of public transport services, all of which contribute to the marginalisation of asylum seekers. How does this territorial fragility affect the dynamics of reception in the Ambert territory? How do these dynamics of reception, which depend on the experiences and socio-spatial practices of solidarity actors, in turn reconfigure the Ambert territory?

7In order to address this issue, which deals with the dialectical relationship between territory and reception, field surveys were conducted in four municipalities: Ambert, Arlanc, Cunlhat and Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine. These are the sites of the scattered CADA Détours facilities (see Map 1). [8]

Map 1: Location of the CADA Détours

Figure 0

Map 1: Location of the CADA Détours

Source: R. Arfaoui, É. Langlois, DRDJSCS data, 2019.

8Reception involves interaction between three main groups of actors. An actor is “one who acts or is likely to act” (Subra, 2016: 15). Firstly, there are the institutional and associative actors who are responsible for setting up, managing, and monitoring accommodation facilities. Secondly, there are the volunteers who organise individually or as part of support groups. It should be highlighted that we have chosen to separate the group of institutional and associative actors from that of volunteers and exile support groups on the basis that the former is more institutionalised than the latter. Thirdly, there are asylum seekers, whom we consider to be actors in their own right, who participate, through their actions and demands, in shaping reception.

9This article focuses on the role played only by the first two groups of actors, as we are mainly concerned by the issue of appropriation of government reforms by political decision-makers and civil society. We conducted semi-structured interviews with twenty-three actors during our fieldwork. The interview guides were set out according to four main themes: actors’ profiles and backgrounds; material and human resources available to address reception; coordination with other types of actors at different levels; and perceptions of the role of national and local actors in reception. In addition, mental maps (Bailly, 1984) were used to analyse the lived space [9] of volunteers, who are central actors in reception. The table below lists the actors interviewed, their gender breakdown, the methodological tool used to collect their remarks and the duration of the interviews (see Table 1).

Table 1: List of actors interviewed

Figure 1

Table 1: List of actors interviewed

Source: R. Arfaoui, field surveys, 2017-2019.

10This article first analyses the material characteristics of the Ambert territory, focusing on data related to demographics, accessibility and property vacancy. This analysis enables us to go on to grasp the implications of territorial fragility and urban organisation of the territory around the small city of Ambert on the dynamics of reception. Finally, in a dialectical relationship, the typology of local actors and the application of their dynamics of reception in different temporalities provide an understanding of the effects of their actions on the Ambert territory.

Reception put to the test in the Ambert territory

11According to Lussault (2018), the reception of exiles must be analysed in the context of a highly speculative real estate market in which land profitability is an important dimension. A “welcoming territory” [10] can only exist if its actors break away from the neoliberal rule of territorial production (Hackworth, 2007; Harvey, 2010), which involves systematically valuing vacant spaces and assessing the benefits of their evolution. Designing a welcoming territory “implies maintaining the possibility of having areas of leeway, areas of emptiness, areas of respiration that can be put to temporary and reversible use… Thinking about reception therefore raises the fundamental issue of the current regime governing the land and property economy” (Lussault, 2018: 475). While we fully endorse Lussault’s analysis of the risks posed by land and property speculation in relation to the eviction of exiles, it should be emphasised that this observation applies not only to large cities, urbanised territories and dynamic areas, but also to non-metropolitan territories and fragile areas. The neoliberal regime of territorial production goes beyond the limits of metropolitan areas and also affects non-metropolitan territories where the issue of “territorial development” is key to local actors, especially elected representatives. The main difference is that, in fragile non-metropolitan territories, the profitability of land and property is essentially aimed at “enhancing” a space that is devalued and/or unoccupied as a result of territorial fragility.

A fragile territory, between isolation and decline

12Territorial fragility reflects the notion of areas which are “at the point of collapse” (Rieutort, 2006: 15). This concept is inextricably linked to the risk of decline in the demographic and/or socio-economic dynamics of a territory. In order to identify situations of fragility that characterise a territory, demographic and/or socio-economic indicators can be compared to national and regional averages and/or to an average that is specific to the spatial object being studied (Édouard, 2017). Thus, demographic data on the Ambert territory and the proportion of vacant dwellings in the four municipalities where the CADA facilities are situated were analysed by comparing them to regional and national averages (see Table 2).

Table 2: Demographic dynamics in the Ambert territory

Figure 2

Table 2: Demographic dynamics in the Ambert territory

Source: French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques – Insee) 2015.

13Demographic data show that the four municipalities where the CADA Détours is located are experiencing population decline. This is mainly due to the natural balance, which can be explained by the presence of a large number of elderly people, with the exception of Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine, which shows a negative demographic trend in terms of both natural and migratory balance.

14This demographic fragility, which characterises the four municipalities where the CADA facilities are situated, is linked to a lack of public transport. With the exception of a weak transport connection between Arlanc and Ambert, the other municipalities are not connected by any means of public transport.

15The virtual absence of public transport linking the municipalities to each other and to the regional metropolis of Clermont-Ferrand means that the Ambert territory is relatively isolated. Demographic fragility and isolation are compounded by a lack of facilities and services. The material characteristics of the Ambert territory create the conditions of a territory of removal for those seeking asylum. Indeed, with few financial resources and difficulties communicating in French, those seeking asylum can easily find themselves on the fringes of what may appear to be a “welcoming territory”.

Availability of buildings for reception

16These features of fragility (housing vacancy, population decline and the ageing process) are leveraged by the state and local actors, particularly local elected representatives, to promote the establishment of accommodation facilities for asylum seekers. [11] These facilities are perceived as being “useful” [12] for the regeneration of fragile territories. The accommodation of asylum seekers in the Ambert territory, which is the result of a national policy of dispersal of exiles, is fully in line with this utilitarian strategy. [13]

17The accommodation of asylum seekers is a fundamental temporal dimension of reception. The Ambert territory is characterised by a relatively high vacancy rate compared to the regional and national averages (more than double the regional and national averages in Arlanc and Cunlhat). This vacancy rate, particularly in the social housing stock, has favoured the reception of asylum seekers. The most emblematic case in the Ambert territory is that of a building in Cunlhat which was put back on the market after being vacant for over five years. Owned by Puy-de-Dôme Public Office for Social Housing (Office public de l’Habitat et du Logement social - Ophis), the building was renovated and rented to the CADA. The social housing provider can thereby ensure that its accommodation is rented for up to fifteen years, or even longer. At the same time, by becoming involved in the reception of asylum seekers the social housing provider acquires a new area of competence. In 2016, Puy-de-Dôme Ophis used its participation in the accommodation of asylum seekers as a separate argument to the state in support of its real estate programme development strategy. Meanwhile, to local elected representatives, the involvement of Puy-de-Dôme Ophis represents a lever for maintaining and developing new housing programmes in their territory. This is a “win-win” strategy that is an integral part of a territorial development policy.

18Territorial dynamics and the reflections of local actors on the future of their territories have an impact on the dynamics of reception. In addition to territorial fragility, we posit that the spatial organisation of the Ambert territory also affects the spatial organisation of reception. The geography of the Ambert territory points to spatial organisation around the small city of Ambert, which plays the role of a “central place” around which rural municipalities are organised in clusters (Edouard, 2001).

19The second hypothesis is that interaction, a characteristic of non-metropolitan territories (Colat-Parros, 2018), encourages the emergence of social links. These form a web of solidarity at the local level and aim to produce a welcoming territory. This is created in response to a territory of removal, which is shaped by the territorial fragility and isolation of the Ambert territory on the one hand, and the coercive policies directed at asylum seekers on the other (lack of budgets for French language courses, virtual impossibility to work, forced accommodation, etc.). The territory is thus be reconfigured by the solidarity of local inhabitants. This local solidarity contributes to the co-production of places, in space and in society, in which those received are “legitimate co-inhabitants” (Lussault, 2018).

A fragile territory facilitating reception?

20To analyse how territory affects reception, the concept of the spatial triad proposed by Lefebvre (1974), consisting of spatial practice, representations of space and representational space, seems useful for our research. It enables us to address not only the material characteristics of the territory and its organisation by planners and technocrats (conceived space), but also the representational space (lived space) and the spatial practice (perceived space) of the different actors. This approach also enables us to consider the territory in its complexity and its different temporalities.

Territorial fragility harnessed and decried: paradoxical reception

21As we have seen, the Ambert territory is characterised by factors of demographic fragility. Among other consequences, there is the presence of vacant housing, the closure (or risk of closure) of public services and the virtual absence of public transport. Territorial fragility appears both as a key factor in the establishment of the CADA, and as a constraint for the people who are accommodated there. For local elected representatives it is not only a matter of the arrival of asylum seekers with whom they express solidarity, but it is also the arrival of a new population in an area that they perceive as facing difficulties in terms of territorial attractiveness. [14]

22One of the direct consequences of this approach, which is mainly promoted by local elected representatives, is the establishment of scattered accommodation for asylum seekers, in the municipalities that host the CADA. Asylum seekers are distributed according to their profiles (families with or without children, single men or women, young or elderly people). In our case study, the establishment of scattered accommodation responds to local issues. For example, Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine mainly received families with children. While it is true that the availability of accommodation suitable for this type of household encouraged their reception, the mayor also sought to enable the reopening of a third class in the primary school, which had been closed in the spring of 2015 following a decision by the Clermont-Ferrand education authorities. Although the decision to set up accommodation facilities ultimately lies with the prefecture, through OFII (French agency in charge of immigration and integration), municipalities are not always left out of this decision-making process.

23The decision to set up scattered accommodation should be taken by the associations that manage the CADAs and not by local elected representatives. In the Ambert territory, the creation of the CADA took place in consultation with the municipal representatives, the OFII in Clermont-Ferrand and the Ambert sub-prefecture. This consultation can be explained, on the one hand, by the institutional actors’ interaction and, on the other hand, by the dual role of the President of the Détours association. He is also the mayor of Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine.


“The managing associations decide whether to set up a CADA scattered across several municipalities, we did not ask them to do so.” (Extract from an interview with Virginie Lasserre, Head of the Department for the reception of asylum seekers and refugees at the Ministry of the Interior, January 2019)

25Thus, far from being the final link in a national dispersal policy, municipalities initiate reception policies in line with local territorial dynamics and the issue of territorial development. As Fourot (2013) reminds us, municipalities, far from being mere service managers, can constitute centres of political power capable of adopting policies of their own.

26However, this territorial fragility presents a major risk of exclusion for asylum seekers. Indeed, without adequate financial resources, without means of public transport and, sometimes, with difficulties in communicating in French, the driving force for reception is also a driving force for exclusion. This paradox is expressed in the local dynamics set up by social workers, volunteers and solidarity groups. They aim to respond to the risks of exclusion of asylum seekers caused by territorial fragility. For example, there are solidarity carpooling practices to accompany individuals to administrative appointments, to the doctor’s or to buy food. This support is mainly organised by volunteers and solidarity groups, using their personal vehicles or, in some cases, vehicles lent by the CADA. Mobility constraints are also addressed through the provision of “solidarity bikes”.

27These risks experienced and caused by local dynamics are compounded by coercive and invisibilising measures taken at national level. On the one hand, there is a lack of funding for French language learning during the period of accommodation of asylum seekers, and on the other hand, there are reduced time periods for processing cases which are not backed by sufficient human resources due to the lack of budget.

28At best, social workers are stuck in a bureaucratic administrative approach without the possibility of offering socio-cultural support. At worst, they experience overwork and burnout.

29Indeed, since the beginning of 2019, several social workers at the CADA Détours have resigned or have been on sick leave for several months due to overwork. This situation is the result of the lack of consideration given to the specificities of the Ambert territory in the allocation of the CADA budget. Indeed, a scattered CADA located in an area with very little public transport, and far from the prefecture (more than an hour’s journey), implies a great deal of travel. These journeys, in addition to the accelerated administrative processing of asylum applications, mean that the quality of socio-cultural follow-up of asylum seekers has to be renounced, or at least diminished.

30Budgets are defined mainly according to the number of people accommodated without taking into account the type of area (rural, urban, etc.). Yet, transport costs and time needed to access facilities and services vary from one area to another. In addition to territorial fragility, the fact that the CADA Détours is spread over four municipalities poses challenges in terms of mobility both within the Ambert territory and outside it, particularly for travel to the regional metropolis of Clermont-Ferrand. For the state, this problem is not one of its priorities, but rather the concern of the associations managing the CADA. The state’s failure to take territorial specificity into consideration is part of the invisibilisation of reception. Dispersing exiles and moving them away from areas where there is media interest, particularly Calais and the Paris area, is one of the state’s priorities.

31While it is unquestionable that the conceived space affects the local dynamics of reception at different levels, these also depend on the spatial practice of local actors, which is notably shaped by the urban organisation of the Ambert territory.

Centrality of Ambert and heterogeneous spatial practices: unequal reception?

32The urban organisation of the Ambert territory is based around the small city of Ambert. The city offers a range of facilities and services (sub-prefecture, hospital, supermarkets, cultural and leisure areas, etc.), making it a “central place” (Merlin, 1973), meaning that it acts as a centre around which local towns are organised in clusters. Édouard (2001) describes the urban organisation in the north of the Massif Central as having three networks: the Clermont-Ferrand network, the Limoges network and the Saint-Étienne network. He presents the Clermont-Ferrand network in a detailed diagram as “a complete network, with all hierarchical levels and, for each of them, an excellent representation of the urban units” (Edouard, 2001: 408). According to this diagram, small cities are connected to the Clermont-Ferrand metropolis by a medium-sized city (e.g. Montluçon, Vichy, Moulins or Aurillac). On the other hand, some small cities have “direct links” with Clermont-Ferrand. Ambert is one of those with a direct link with the regional metropolis of Clermont-Ferrand. To what extent does this urban organisation of the territory shape the geography of reception?

33An analysis of the spatial organisation of the CADA highlights the centrality of Ambert. Indeed, although the headquarters of the CADA Détours is in Cunlhat, coordination of the accommodation structure is based in Ambert. The choice, made by the initiators of the CADA “project”, is explained by the presence of more important services and facilities in Ambert compared to the other three municipalities. The prefecture of Clermont-Ferrand centralises administrative follow-up of asylum seekers accommodated in the four departments of Puy-de-Dôme, Allier, Cantal and Haute-Loire. This means that there is a direct link between the point of coordination in Ambert and the prefecture in Clermont-Ferrand. In addition to the organisational aspect of the CADA, asylum seekers travel to Ambert, particularly for medical appointments, shopping in supermarkets, cultural and leisure activities. [15]

34The establishment of accommodation facilities spread over several municipalities is faced with the centrality of Ambert. This means that social workers, particularly those from Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine and Cunlhat, have to make trips by car at varying intervals for meetings, administrative appointments, etc. These journeys can have an impact on the administrative functioning of the CADA. This contradiction between the urban organisation of the area and the spatial organisation of the CADA led its actors (in particular social workers) to suggest grouping all accommodation together in Ambert. This proposal was not accepted by the Détours board of directors, as it would call into question the principle of “burden sharing” or the “usefulness” of reception. The centrality of Ambert implies, in practice, heterogeneous dynamics of reception between the different municipalities. Indeed, the availability of shops and services differs from one municipality to another. Among them, Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine is the least equipped.


“In Cunlhat, there are three mini-markets, a tobacconist, a doctor, a dentist, a discount store and it’s different from Saint-Amant. Here, there is a small grocery shop and it’s very expensive.” (Extract from an interview with Laure, social worker, June 2018)

36Ambert also plays a central role in the volunteers’ day-to-day urban activities. Here again, many of the activities offered to asylum seekers take place in Ambert, even if they are extended to other areas or even other departments (Allier and Haute-Loire to “discover” the territory for example). The volunteers’ spatial practices differ according to their socio-professional category, age and family composition. For example, those who are retired tend to focus on cultural and leisure activities. In the case of asylum seekers, the spaces they frequent are essentially learning spaces (French language courses), cultural spaces (libraries, cinemas) and leisure spaces (hiking, visits to tourist sites).

37The geography of reception in the Ambert territory is therefore intrinsically linked to the centrality of Ambert and local actors’ spatial practices. This heterogeneity of spatial practices and the concentration of facilities and services around Ambert imply unequal dynamics of reception and therefore unequal positions for asylum seekers. In return, these dynamics of reception have an impact on the territory, reconfiguring it.

Heterogeneous dynamics of reception reconfiguring the Ambert territory

38The reception of asylum seekers in the Ambert territory was accompanied by a very significant surge in local solidarity. [16] This manifested itself in a series of proposals made by volunteers and solidarity groups, all inhabiting the Ambert territory, to meet the needs of asylum seekers. Individuals get involved for multiple reasons, which initially depend on their life experience, their professional skills or their political leanings and religious affiliations. The inhabitants we interviewed situate their commitment in a form of predisposition (foreign friends, experiences abroad, command of foreign languages, travels, volunteering in associative movements in support of migrants, knowledge of social work, teachers of French as a foreign language, duties as a human being, political activism, etc.). This predisposition reflects the profiles of people who have had experiences of otherness in contexts that remain different (militant for the cause of undocumented migrants, emigration linked to work or family life, etc.).

39The dynamics of reception are guided by different, even diametrically opposed, lived spaces. An analysis of these lived spaces underlines the heterogeneous visions and ideals of space and society held by local solidarity actors. This heterogeneity does not preclude complementarity between local actors. The heterogeneity and complementarity of local solidarity actors and their commitment towards asylum seekers and “déboutés” (rejected asylum seekers) contribute to the co-production of territories of solidarity and others of rebellion.

From the capitalist incursion to the quality of the living environment: heterogeneous but complementary lived spaces and reception dynamics

40The strategies pursued by volunteers and solidarity groups converge in some areas and diverge in others (see Table 3). The convergence of strategies stems from the characteristics of the conceived space, at different levels (local, departmental, and national). Divergence is intrinsically linked to different, or even opposing, lived spaces.

Table 3: Strategies pursued by volunteers and solidarity groups: between convergence and divergence

Figure 3

Table 3: Strategies pursued by volunteers and solidarity groups: between convergence and divergence

Source: R. Arfaoui, analysis of field surveys, 2019.

41Non-metropolitan territories are inhabited by individuals with heterogeneous profiles, resources, and life experiences (Édouard, 2016; Tommasi, 2018). In the context of our case study, this heterogeneity manifests itself through the emergence of lived spaces conveying diametrically opposed visions, ideals and relationships to space and society. There are essentially two types of lived space: the first conveys anti-capitalist or even anarchist values, [17] and criticism of a hostile space; the second emphasises a calm and green living environment and a welcoming space. These two trends produce heterogeneous dynamics of reception. In order to make our argument, we look at two profiles of volunteers.

The anarchist activist

42Clive’s lived space (see Box 1) is divided into two parts (see Map 2). Those that are not valued, are rejected, or against which one should fight in red. These are the spaces of “capitalist domination”, what he calls “capitalist incursion”, and the spaces of state domination. They include the large-scale retail outlets (Aldi, Intermarché), the state administrative services in Ambert (CAF [Caisse d’allocations familiales – French family allowance agency], CCAS [Centre communal d’action sociale - Community Social Action Association], the hospital, etc.) and in Clermont-Ferrand (115, [18] prefecture). The alternative, solidarity and counter-culture spaces are indicated in black. There is L’Octopus in Cunlhat, Le Café quoi in Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine, La Saillante in Marsac and a planned associative bar in Arlanc. This type of space is also represented in Saint-Étienne and Grenoble, two cities occasionally visited by Clive. They include La Gueule noire in Saint-Étienne, in Bellevue, and La BAF in Grenoble, between the city centre and the Villeneuve.

Map 2: The Ambert territory between the capitalist incursion and spaces of solidarity

Figure 4

Map 2: The Ambert territory between the capitalist incursion and spaces of solidarity

Source: R. Arfaoui, mental map drawn by Clive, 2018.
Clive [19] is a forty-year-old man. He has no professional activity and works occasionally as a temporary worker. He receives the basic welfare allowance. He and his partner have no children and live in a shared flat in a hamlet near Arlanc. Before arriving in the Ambert territory, Clive lived in major cities (most recently Grenoble) in shared accommodation and squats. He describes himself as an anarchist involved in “counter-culture” projects and “alternative narratives”. A long-time anti-capitalist activist, Clive participated in many counter-summits (G20, G8, NATO, WTO, etc.) in different countries around the world and is close to the No Borders networks opposed to border construction. He has a good knowledge of issues related to migrants, especially undocumented migrants, in support of whom he has mobilised in the past. His commitment towards asylum seekers and rejected asylum seekers in Ambert is, above all, support to “neighbours” and to the struggle of the people themselves against the “capitalist system of domination”.

43Clive’s vision of the territory strongly guided his actions towards asylum seekers and rejected asylum seekers in the territory. Support is therefore essentially based on the organisation of cultural and solidarity events. While these events aim to create social links, to raise awareness on the struggle of those accommodated in the CADA or those who have left the CADA following the rejection of their asylum applications, they also serve to raise funds needed to meet the needs of rejected asylum seekers (accommodation, food, etc.). The very organisation of these events adopts an anti-capitalist rationale. For example, they use the “pay what you want” principle. [20] They reject market rationale, with solidarity the key word of the organisers.

The new country dwellers

44Marc and Elisabeth’s (see Box 2) lived space (see Map 3) presents Ambert as a large village and a space for consumption (shops, activities, shows). Clermont-Ferrand is perceived as a small city and Lyon as the large city. The discrepancy between the perception of the size of the cities of Ambert and Clermont-Ferrand and the statistical reality is linked in particular to the fact that the couple lived for a long period of time in major cities which are bigger than Clermont-Ferrand (Strasbourg, Parisian agglomeration, etc.). Their lived space shows a strong attachment to other hamlets in the territory. These are social links established with people whose profile is similar to their own. A sociability born between new country dwellers who have come to seek the peace and quiet of the countryside far from the disturbances of the city.

Map 3: The Ambert territory: a pleasant living environment far from the big city

Figure 5

Map 3: The Ambert territory: a pleasant living environment far from the big city

Source: R. Arfaoui, mental map drawn by Marc and Élisabeth, 2018.
Marc and Elisabeth are a retired couple. They are over 65 years old, married and have three children. They have been living alone in a house in a hamlet near Ambert for fourteen years. The areas where they settled during their professional life were all part of large cities. The decision to spend their retirement in this place was mainly guided by the landscape amenities and the living environment offered by the Ambert territory (landscape, peace and quiet, nature). These “new country dwellers” are former senior level employees. Marc was an engineer-urban planner and Elisabeth was a teacher of literature in the national education system. Their commitment towards asylum seekers takes the form of “sponsorship”. This means that they accompany a family (of Albanian nationality) in their “daily life”. The issue of volunteering with asylum seekers is new to them. Nevertheless, they justify their commitment, in part, by the fact that there were refugees in their families who were displaced from Alsace and taken in during the Second World War in the south-west of France.

45They therefore consider that Ambert has everything that “a family needs to live normally”. The territory is seen as welcoming and without risk for asylum seekers. The risk comes from the national level with decisions to “reject” certain asylum applications. This led Marc and Elisabeth to carry out actions (contact with the MP André Chassaigne, meetings at the prefecture, etc.) to obtain legal status for the family they are “sponsoring”. This is in addition to daily activities aimed at “teaching” the Albanian family “how to make a niche for oneself here and become ordinary people from Ambert”.

46These two lived spaces affect the dynamics of reception in different ways. Nevertheless, a strategy of complementarity exists between local solidarity actors. This strategy is deliberate and is based on one of the major characteristics of this territory: interaction. Clive divides the solidarity actors in the Ambert territory into anarchists, “global citizens”, “humanists” and “Catholic grandpas and grandmas” (volunteers whose commitment is in line with their faith in God, the duty to help their neighbour and Christian teachings). Interaction, the weak presence of anarchist networks on the territory and vastness of the space (travelling from one municipality to another can take forty-five minutes by car) required complementarity between the different actors.


“In contrast to what we could do in the city, the way we work is different. We are forced to talk to Melenchonists and Catholic grandpas and grandmas, humanists and progressives. It’s cool, we’re less likely to be in our own bubble. In Grenoble (there were quite a few of us), we didn’t do it because there were quite a few of us. There are about ten of us [here] and our intentions outstrip our physical capacities and time available.” (Extract from an interview with Clive, February 2018)

48Reception is therefore co-produced by local actors with heterogeneous visions of space and society. Volunteers organise into groups or individually in each municipality. But links exist between volunteers from these municipalities. The various municipalities in the area are thus connected to the outside world through social ties among volunteers on the one hand, and with asylum seekers on the other. These links constitute forms of co-presence in the Ambert territory. These form what Cattan (2012) defines as transterritory, a “space that combines the characteristics of the place itself with the specificities of the links connecting it with the outside world, at all levels” (Cattan, 2012: 69).

49This openness to the outside world demonstrates that the relationship with the foreigner, conceived through the advent of modernity, itself conceived through the metropolis, can be conceived through the non-metropolitan territory. This makes it possible to qualify the observation that “public sociability [...] reflects an urbanity that is well adapted to a contrasting social and cultural fabric, typical of a large city” (Germain, 1997: 254), urbanity being “the art of communicating across distance” (ibid.: 243).

50Commitment towards asylum seekers has implied a reinforcement of the associative fabric in the Ambert territory in a spirit of complementarity. The impulse to show solidarity, and its adjustment to both the needs of asylum seekers and the particularities of the territory (isolation, interaction), testifies to the capacity for social innovation in non-metropolitan territories. It also bears witness to another form of urbanity, that of smaller cities where social ties and interaction are stronger.

From the duty of reception to the right to reception: from a territory of solidarity to a territory of rebellion

51The creation of social ties has been accompanied by cultural effervescence (see below). These social behaviours are often part of a claim to a duty of reception. This implies that insiders feel a duty to help outsiders perceived to be in need of guidance. The duty of reception creates what we refer to as a territory of solidarity. This means that the activities created and/or reinforced, as well as their spaces, are designed for people who are outsiders to the territory, who are considered to be in need, and whom we would like to help.

52Although the territory of solidarity is undeniably important for asylum seekers and enables them to have a place in space and society, it is not without its limitations. Indeed, the territory of solidarity can reproduce the dichotomy between “real” and “fake” refugees, “good” and “bad” migrants. Elected representatives and volunteers can therefore “understand” certain administrative decisions to reject asylum seekers as they are not entitled to international or subsidiary protection. To be clear, this does not mean that the territory of solidarity is a territory of rejection, quite the contrary. Nevertheless, it may harbour a rationale of suspicion. In any case, individuals on behalf of whom local actors show commitment are perceived not only in relation to their qualities as temporary inhabitants, but also in relation to their administrative status.

53This surge of solidarity, which began when the CADA opened, is not linear; it has evolved with the arrival of asylum seekers and the departure of refugees and rejected asylum seekers. This evolution has been marked by the creation of groups of volunteers whose commitment is specifically dedicated to those seeking asylum and other groups whose actions are exclusively aimed at those whose asylum applications have been rejected.

54L’Élégante Collective is an emblematic example. It is a collective that supports exiles, mainly rejected asylum seekers. This collective was created after the first rejected asylum seekers were removed. L’Élégante Collective organises several cultural and solidarity events in the Ambert territory. These cultural events are set up in support of rejected asylum seekers to raise the funds needed to meet their needs (housing, food, transport, etc.). Events are organised, in most cases, in the form of cultural evenings with live bands (see Photograph 1).

Photograph 1: Cultural and artistic solidarity activities at L’Élégante

Figure 6

Photograph 1: Cultural and artistic solidarity activities at L’Élégante

Credit: R. Arfaoui, drawing sold by L’Élégante on a pay what you want basis, 2018.

55We find the pay what you want consumption rationale advocated by Clive (see Box 1) and anarchist activists. During our field surveys, we observed that these evenings were well attended by inhabitants of the Ambert territory. They were mainly young people, but also elderly people, volunteers and inhabitants of the area who came to attend a cultural experience and to support the cause of rejected asylum seekers. Exiles, whether asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers or refugees, were also present. Some of them were part of the team hosting the events. Elected representatives such as the mayor of Arlanc and his wife, a volunteer at the CADA Détours, and the Communist MP André Chassaigne also attended. Social workers from the CADA come to these events as inhabitants of the area and in solidarity with the cause of rejected asylum seekers. The attendance shows the explicit or implicit support of all solidarity actors with rejected asylum seekers. Moreover, it is worth noting that volunteers who are far from being anarchists, such as the wife of the mayor of Arlanc, are involved in activities to support rejected asylum seekers. In addition, L’Élégante Collective established the L’Élégante residence (see Photograph 2). This building in the centre of Ambert houses two families with children who had their asylum applications rejected. [21] Without any administrative recognition, rejected asylum seekers have neither the right to housing, nor the right to work, nor the right to live in France. This residence is their refuge. During our fieldwork, the people we spoke to at L’Élégante residence preferred that no photographs of the interior of the building be taken and published. This request is an integral part of a strategy aimed at protecting inhabitants of L’Élégante. An evacuation plan was even drawn up in case of police intervention to evict the inhabitants. This rationale of civil resistance to an external threat makes L’Élégante a space that is both open to the solidarity that is emerging at the local level and closed to migration policies at the national level, of which eviction procedures are a central dimension.

Photograph 2: The residence L’Élégante in the city centre of Ambert

Figure 7

Photograph 2: The residence L’Élégante in the city centre of Ambert

Credit: R. Arfaoui, February 2019, Ambert.

56The accommodation is funded through cultural evenings, but also thanks to solidarity canteens organised at least once a week. Meals are offered on a pay what you want basis to support rejected asylum seekers in the Ambert territory. Rejected asylum seekers can express their political claims there. They inhabit the space, in the sense that they make it their own.


“Next time I would like to talk about the political situation in my country. People don’t know about these things, and I would like to tell them about it.” (Extract from an interview with a father, rejected asylum seeker, staying at the residence L’Élégante, February 2019)

58As well as serving a solidarity purpose, the residence is a space for political expression. Issues such as feminism, wind turbines and many other political topics are discussed (see Photograph 3). The common denominator shared by the various struggles that produce L’Élégante and give it its identity is undoubtedly the collective awareness of the inhabitants of the territory of the injustices that affect them (climate change, injustice on the basis of gender) and the people with whom they come into contact (absence of a right to live in France and threats of deportation for rejected asylum seekers).

Photograph 3: Political, cultural and solidarity events at the residence L’Élégante

Figure 8

Photograph 3: Political, cultural and solidarity events at the residence L’Élégante

Credit: R. Arfaoui, February 2019, Ambert.

59Taken together these commitments go beyond the “duty of reception” claimed by institutionalised actors, particularly local elected representatives, and introduce the “right to reception” invoked by non-institutionalised actors, particularly volunteers and informal groups supporting exiles. According to Agier (2018: 142), “shifting from the duty of some to the right of others would mean transposing the ideal of universal hospitality, in the name of which a growing number of citizens are mobilising, into a rule of law stating that every foreigner has the right not to be treated as an enemy, in the words of Kant.” This right to reception implies the acceptance that those received, regardless of their administrative status, are “legitimate co-inhabitants” (Lussault, 2018: 487). The right to reception advocated at the local level runs counter to the rationale of the state at the national level. Indeed, at the local level, the right to reception anticipates and opposes the expulsion, and therefore the exclusion, of people because they consider them to be full-fledged inhabitants of the territory.

60The right to reception is constitutive of the territory of rebellion. It should be recalled that rebellion is not only born in the “oppressed”, but also in the “spectacle of oppression” (Camus, 1985: 31). From this collective commitment against oppression, we can observe the structuring of a territory of rebellion. This is reflected in the (co)production of spaces such as the residence L’Élégante, in the rejection of the financial valuation of vacant spaces, and in the solidarity that forms places where administrative boundaries are erased. The territory of rebellion is neither the opposite of the territory of solidarity, nor its competitor. They are complementary and are part of the re-composition of the Ambert territory by mitigating its fragility and fighting against the exclusion effected by actors deemed hostile, such as the state. The co-production of these two territories is achieved at a local level by local actors and by rejecting the national level.

61In this co-production of reception and territory, the notion of time is central. Asylum seekers experience a “waiting time” in the accommodation facilities, “interstitial waiting”, between what precedes the submission of their asylum application and their uncertain future, conditioned by responses of the authorities in charge of examining their cases (Tisato, 2017). This context implies a power game between the actors who impose the temporality of reception, i.e. the state, and the actors who endure and, in some cases, fight against this temporality. This struggle involves the development and implementation of counter-power strategies to reappropriate this “imposed temporality”, “reappropriation that remains partial” (ibid.: 135). Our article highlights the role of institutional and associative actors and that of civil society in this struggle against the state’s “imposed temporality”. [22] As Kobelinsky (2010: 243) points out, “time, it is agreed, is not an objective fact that is external to people. On the contrary, social practice makes time truly social. Social agents are temporalised in and through practice. Time must therefore be conceived both as the product of a practice situation and as the effect of the practices that can be generated by that situation.”

62The territory of solidarity was created with the first arrivals of asylum seekers, whereas the territory of rebellion was created with the first departures of rejected asylum seekers. This difference results from and reveals different temporalities of reception.

63On the one hand, there is a temporality that we will call legitimist in which solidarity actions focus on people perceived as “legitimate” because their administrative status (refugees, asylum seekers) complies with legal rules. This is the temporality of the state, which limits the time of reception to what it considers legitimate. This temporality, which is based on the “duty of reception”, is specific to the territory of solidarity. Its scale is essentially local, but it is combined with other departmental and national scales.

64On the other hand, we observe a temporality that we will describe as being “in protest”. In contrast to the first temporality, actions of solidarity are intended for “co-inhabitants”. Legitimacy is derived from the observation of a form of oppression, that of exclusion, the impossibility of living because of the unavailability of an administrative status. This temporality is that of the actors who defend rejected asylum seekers, considered as oppressed, a “right to reception”, i.e. the right to have a place in space and in society. The temporality of protest challenges the state order and is based exclusively on local actors.

65The intertwining of these two temporalities of reception raises the question of its future and sustainability. Our research shows that reception becomes more fragile over time. In terms of volunteers, numbers have considerably fallen since the opening of the CADA.


“Volunteers are involved at the beginning. Then they realise that it is a significant commitment. Little by little, people take a step back. They become less involved. For those to come, they won’t do what they did for the first arrivals. Not physically, but psychologically, I think it really is tough. I especially mean in relation to those who have had their asylum applications rejected but even those who get their papers.” (Extract from an interview with Geneviève, volunteer in Arlanc, February 2018)

67This decline in volunteering, at least in quantitative terms, is due in part to the rejection of asylum applications. The volunteers we interviewed felt that their efforts were useless when the state decides to refuse people’s applications for asylum.

68This process of increasing fragility is experienced by volunteers and activists in informal solidarity groups as a “Greek tragedy”. [23] We know what the outcome will be, “negative”, but we must take the path of struggle. This reasoning testifies to a weakening of reception by the asylum system itself based on a policy of suspicion of “false” refugees (Akoka, 2018).


69An analysis of the actions carried out by local actors in the Ambert territory shows that reception responds to multiple rationales. Some are aimed at creating solidarity with outsiders perceived to be legitimate because of their administrative status (asylum seekers, refugees) in line with a “duty of reception”. Others are aimed at co-producing places in space and society for “legitimate co-inhabitants” (Lussault, 2018) at a time when bureaucratic procedures aim to de-legitimise them (by denying them the right to asylum).

70These dynamics of reception are not opposed to each other, they are complementary and testify to the capacities of social innovation in non-metropolitan territories. They are strongly influenced by the territory in all its spatial and social components (demographic fragility, interaction, centralisation around Ambert, different territorial representations between new country dwellers and anarchist activists, etc.). Territories of solidarity and others of rebellion therefore emerged at different moments of reception. While for the state, the temporality of reception is part of a legitimist approach that emanates from the power that it alone holds, local actors are part of or, on the contrary, fight against this temporality. While “the state flattens time” (Lefebvre, 1974: 31), forces oppose it by reconfiguring the territory, giving it a new meaning, far from legitimist approaches and material rationalities. The differences in the temporalities of reception, between a legitimist temporality and a temporality of protest, pertain to this territorial re-composition. The intertwining of these two temporalities raises a fundamental question, that of the durability of reception.

71In this co-production of the territory and reception, the local level plays a central role. Municipalities, social workers at the CADA, volunteers and solidarity groups are far from being mere managers and supporters in reception. They are full-fledged actors who participate in asylum policy. However, neither local actors nor territorial specificities are fully integrated upstream in the construction of asylum policies in France. Ultimately, these findings show the capacity of both urban and rural territories, including non-metropolitan areas, to respond to political and social problems for which the state lacks the capacity, and above all the will, to take responsibility.


  • [1]
    The term “exile” covers a range of administrative situations (asylum seekers, refugees, rejected asylum seekers, see the editorial in this thematic dossier). Our research focuses mainly on asylum seekers. However, our survey led us to reflect on the commitment of local actors towards rejected asylum seekers. We will come back to this aspect later in this article.
  • [2]
    A new reform was initiated on 10 September 2018. It is the twenty-eighth reform on asylum and immigration in France since 1980. This new reform adopts a security-oriented rationale and reinforces the dispersal of asylum seekers through forced accommodation.
  • [3]
    Dispersal dates back to the establishment of the national reception scheme (dispositif national d’accueil - DNA) in 1973. It was financed by the Directorate on Population and Migration (Direction de la population et des migrations - DPM) as social assistance. The DPM was created in 1966.
  • [4]
    These are reception centres for asylum seekers (centres d’accueil de demandeurs d’asile) which have scattered accommodation facilities. Scattering takes place at two main levels: firstly, through accommodation in different municipalities; secondly, through accommodation in dispersed flats that are not grouped together in a single building.
  • [5]
    Other recent research explores the relationship between the dynamics of migration and the future of territories, for example, the CAMIGRI research project, which has been conducted by a team of researchers in geography since 2016.
  • [6]
    On the use of the notion of territory: “In French-language production, we can trace its “official” entry back to the 1982 edition of the Géopoint discussions, ‘les territoires de la vie quotidienne’ [the territories of everyday life]” (Lévy and Lussault, 2013: 995).
  • [7]
    See the nine definitions given by Lévy and Lussault (2013).
  • [8]
    The interviews were conducted as part of the author’s doctoral thesis.
  • [9]
    Lived space is the set of localised frequentations in physical space, the representations that are made of it, through the images and symbols that come with it, as well as the psychological values and imagination that are attached to it, which attempt to modify it and appropriate it (Fremont et al., 1984). It should be noted that Lefebvre (1974) considers lived space to be distinct from spatial practice, which refers to the practice of individuals dictated by “daily reality” (use of time) and “urban reality” (journeys and networks traversed to accomplish certain tasks).
  • [10]
    In French “territoire accueillant”. The adjective “accueillant” (welcoming) appeared in the 13th century. It refers both to a person who “fait bon accueil” (gives a warm welcome) and to material, or even immaterial, objects which are “d’un abord agréable” (pleasant to approach) (Rey, 2005: 63).
  • [11]
    See the Regional scheme for the reception of asylum seekers, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, 2016-2017, [online]. URL:
  • [12]
    The majority of local actors we interviewed emphasised the positive contribution of the regeneration of accommodation facilities for asylum seekers.
  • [13]
    Utilitarianism implies, in particular, that if people act “for others out of sympathy, it is because they find satisfaction in doing so - whether in moral terms (compliance with the law, for example) or religious terms (acting towards their salvation)” (Airut, 2013: 1071). As applied to the reception of exiles, satisfaction of local actors is in responding to territorial fragility.
  • [14]
    Territorial attractiveness is a concept that refers to “a territory’s capacity to attract by virtue of the attraction (pull) it exudes” (Chaze, 2017) and as “the capacity to draw in and attract people and activities, capital and skills, to a territory” (Rieutort and Angeon, 2007).
  • [15]
    “In Ambert, there are quite a lot of activities. Those who are in Ambert are lucky. For those in Saint-Amant, it’s more complicated. I was asked to go to Saint-Amant to teach dance lessons, but I said that, with the snow, I couldn’t. It’s complicated for everyone and even more so for asylum seekers.” (Extract from an interview with Lilia, a thirty-nine-year-old volunteer living in Arlanc, January 2018)
  • [16]
    More than 100 volunteers were listed by the CADA at the beginning of its establishment.
  • [17]
    It should be underlined that those who claim to be part of the anarchist movement reject the term volunteers and prefer to refer to themselves as being in solidarity with the cause of those in an insecure situation, which they believe is produced by the “capitalist system”.
  • [18]
    115 or SAMU Social is a municipal humanitarian emergency service provided in several cities in France.
  • [19]
    Tragically, in the autumn of 2018, Clive died in a car accident.
  • [20]
    This means that food, drink and music are offered at a price that participants are willing, and more importantly, able, to pay.
  • [21]
    This figure is based on observations at a particular point during our fieldwork. In the interests of confidentiality and the protection of the people housed there, we have chosen not to give all the details, which could be used against the rejected asylum seekers living there and those involved in the cause.
  • [22]
    By shaping the territories of reception, asylum seekers and people living in exile are also important actors in this struggle. See Przybyl’s (2016) thesis on unaccompanied foreign minors in France.
  • [23]
    This illustration was provided by Clive. It is similar to other descriptions by volunteers (“I know we’re going to suffer, but we have to do it”, etc.).

Ce que le territoire fait à l’accueil, ce que l’accueil fait au territoire. Geographie de l’asile dans le territoire ambertois

À partir de l’exemple du territoire ambertois, cet article analyse comment les territoires non métropolitains fragiles, confrontés à des problématiques d’enclavement et de décroissance démographique, agissent sur les dynamiques d’accueil. Les attributs du territoire ambertois constituent à la fois une ressource et une menace pour l’accueil qui apparaît comme paradoxal et inégal. Cet article souligne ensuite comment l’hétérogénéité des espaces vécus des bénévoles fait émerger des dynamiques d’accueil hétérogènes dans la lignée d’un devoir d’accueil et d’un droit à l’accueil. Malgré leur hétérogénéité, ces dynamiques d’accueil sont complémentaires et témoignent d’une capacité d’innovation sociale dans les territoires non métropolitains. En retour, ces dynamiques d’accueil reconfigurent le territoire ambertois par l’émergence d’un territoire solidaire qui s’inscrit dans une temporalité légitimiste et d’un territoire révolté qui s’inscrit dans une temporalité contestataire.

  • accueil
  • demandeurs d’asile
  • territoires non métropolitains
  • coproduction
  • géographie

Based on the example of the territory of Ambert (France), this article analyses how fragile non-metropolitan areas, faced with problems of isolation and declining populations, affect dynamics of reception. The characteristics of the territory of Ambert are both a potential resource and a risk in relation to reception that appears paradoxical and unequal. This article also highlights the extent to which the heterogeneity of the volunteers’ lived spaces leads to the emergence of heterogeneous dynamics of reception in line with a duty of reception and a right to reception. These dynamics of reception, though heterogeneous, are complementary and reflect a capacity for social innovation in non-metropolitan areas. In turn, these dynamics of reception reconfigure the territory of Ambert through the emergence of a “territoire solidaire” (territory of solidarity) which is part of a legitimist temporality and a “territoire révolté” (territory of rebellion) which is part of a temporality of protest.

  • reception
  • asylum seekers
  • non-metropolitan areas
  • coproduction
  • geography

Cómo el territorio influye en la acogida, cómo la acogida influye en el territorio. Geografía del asilo en Ambert

Tomando como ejemplo la zona de Ambert (Francia), este artículo analiza cómo la fragilidad de los territorios no metropolitanos, que sufren problemas de aislamiento y declive demográfico, influye en la dinámica de la acogida. Las características del territorio de Ambert constituyen a la vez un recurso y una amenaza para la acogida, que se desarrolla de manera paradójica y desigual. En segundo lugar, este artículo subraya cómo la heterogeneidad de las vivencias de los voluntarios conduce al surgimiento de dinámicas de acogida heterogéneas en consonancia con un deber de acogida y un derecho a la acogida. A pesar de su heterogeneidad, estas dinámicas de recepción son complementarias y demuestran una capacidad de innovación social de los territorios no metropolitanos. A cambio, estas dinámicas de recepción reconfiguran el territorio de Ambert mediante la aparición de un territorio solidario que forma parte de una temporalidad legitimada y un territorio rebelde que forma parte de una temporalidad de protesta.

  • acogida
  • solicitante de asilo
  • territorios no metropolitanos
  • coproducción
  • geografía
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Rafik Arfaoui
PhD student in geography; University of Clermont Auvergne, AgroParisTech, Inra, Irstea, VetAgro Sup, Territoires, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand;
Translated by
Katherine Booth
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
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Uploaded on on 09/12/2021
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