MIGRANT NARRATIVES OF CITIZENSHIP: A Topological Atlas Of European Belonging
Nishat Awan

Nishat is an academic and spatial practitioner whose research interests include the production and representation of migratory spaces and border areas. She explores how these issues can be addressed through spatial practice, in particular thinking about maps as topological entities. After completing a post-doc at TU Berlin, she returned to University of Sheffield as a lecturer, from where she also holds a PhD (2011). She has taught at a number of architecture schools in the UK and has previously worked in architectural practice. Currently, she is a member of OPENkhana, a collaborative that works between architectural, computational and artistic practice. She is author of Diasporic Agencies (Ashgate, 2016), co-author of, Spatial Agency (Routledge, 2011) and co-editor of Trans-Local-Act (aaa-peprav, 2011).


Where are the edges of Europe, how are they defined and who can be included within them? The project addresses these questions by creating contemporary narratives of European belonging that challenge prevalent conceptions of Europe and its citizens. I take as my starting point the historical connection between the way state entities represent themselves through maps and the ways in which they define citizens and non-citizens. In contrast to the traditional Western understanding of cartography as the representation of an already existing world, I view maps as world-making entities that are traditionally made by those in power.

In the Topological Atlas of European Belonging I will map Europe from the perspective of those who inhabit its edges, those who are in transit, and those hoping to enter the EU. The Atlas will produce a representation of this complex space through foregrounding cultural, social and localised economic relations that challenge the traditional conception of the binary border. With the prevalence of digital tools for map making there has been an explosion in citizen mapping. This project will exploit the potential of such technologies to create a dynamic map of the Black Sea edge of Europe, that overlays the static and contiguous territories defined by national borders. The site runs from Istanbul to Odessa, an area encompassing the varying stages of EU integration and its accompanying tensions and conflicts.

The project addresses ISRF goals by tackling an important and urgent social issue – migration. Its innovation lies in proposing an interdisciplinary methodology that combines methods from the social sciences and humanities, in particular the combination of mapping and visual methods that are part of my disciplinary background in architecture, with more standard social science methods.

The Research Idea

Where are the edges of Europe, how are they defined and who can be included within them? This project aims to uncover lived narratives of citizenship that describe modes of European belonging beyond the traditional norm of birth right. Through working with local actors, visualising these narratives and making them public, the project aims to challenge our conceptions of Europe and its citizens. The increasing popularity of anti-European parties, anti-immigration rhetoric, the crisis in Greece and the conflict in Ukraine, all point towards a growing uncertainty around the European project. There is a need for an informed and accessible debate on these issues that is able to distil the complexity of the issues with the everyday realities of people caught at the edge of Europe. The emerging methodological strand of ‘mapping’ in architecture and other visual disciplines is well placed to do this, combining spatial visualisations, video and GPS enhanced modes of research with the disciplinary skill to produce compelling visual outputs that foreground spatial and social relations. Mapping has also been central to the way in which state entities represent themselves and through such representations define citizens and non-citizens. The aim of the Topological Atlas of European Belonging is to produce other representations that are drawn not from the perspective of those in power, but from those at the margins. It will map Europe from a migrant perspective of those who inhabit its edges, those who are in transit, and those hoping to enter the European Union (EU).


Migration is an increasingly important and polarising topic in Europe that often leads to migrant rights being side lined as politicians attempt to appease perceived voter anxieties. This project takes ideas on migration and belonging from contemporary political philosophy and presents these through innovative visual methods of mapping, film and image making.

Whilst the traditional Western model of citizenship is based on the notion of the binary border as a rigid line that encloses a distinct territory, the porous borders of the EU permit illegal migration and irregular work practices (Mezzadra & Neilson, 2011). Balibar’s concept of ‘Europe as borderland’ (2009) encapsulates such phenomenon with an understanding of Europe through its overlapping peripheries, whether it is the outsourcing of European border security to third countries, or the ways in which certain people are considered more European than others. For Balibar, it is these borders that determine ‘the condition of the stranger/foreigner and the very meaning of “being foreign”, rather than the reverse’ (2009, p. 204). I am interested in the lived consequences of such phenomenon for migrants who inhabit the edge of Europe and who regularly cross its borders. What new kinds of political subjectivities, social practices and relations are being created and how do these intersect with already existing national identities? Through researching migrant narratives this project will uncover how the EU exerts pressure on, and shapes the political and social reality of those inhabiting its edges, whilst often relying on trade or other connections provided by such actors.

The Focus

Research Questions

  1. How do lived relations of migrants at the edges of Europe question the binary categories of citizens and non-citizens and how might they reconfigure notions of citizenship?
  2. How can narratives of migrant lives and people in transit expand our conception of the borders and edges of Europe?
  3. How can digital technologies be used to create dynamic and situated maps of the European borderzone that reflect its complex realities?

These questions are designed to intervene in public debate around migration in Europe through making visible the lived realities at the edges of Europe. Since the production of maps and audio-visual material is central to the project, this material will also be used as a main resource for engaging a wider public through various activities:

  1. An accumulative travelling exhibition, which will be co-produced with project participants
  2. Working with cultural institutions interested in questions of migration, diversity and citizenship
  3. Using the project website to create an online community of interest

The Black Sea edge from Istanbul (Turkey) to Odessa (Ukraine), will be the main site of investigation. This area has been chosen for its historical and current significance as a strategic geo-political location. It also encompasses the varying stages of EU integration: Bulgaria and Romania’s full entry into EU has sparked a polarised debate on free movement within the union, while Turkey and Ukraine are part of the displaced border around Europe. In addition, the Turkish-Bulgarian-Greek border is the most porous of the EU.

Theoretical Novelty

An understanding of Europe as borderland that privileges migrant narratives moves beyond topographical ways of conceptualising space as territory with fixed and stable spatial geometries to a more relational and temporal approach. In topological thinking dynamic associations are made not due to spatial proximity but because of common properties (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004; Thrift, 2008). In cultural topology then, it is not only a question of the connections that are made but also of their quality, their temporal dimensions and historical reach (Shields, 2013). This emphasis on relations allows a conception of citizenship where belonging and inclusion do not necessarily map onto territorial boundaries. The topological approach is thus able to account for the system of differential inclusion operated by the core European countries, as well as for the trans-local connections of cultural and social exchange made by migrants.

The project aims to map such topological interactions as part of the narratives of European belonging. Filmed interviews and drawn maps will form an integral part of the research and will be used to describe and analyse migrant narratives of belonging as a series of encounters and spaces. The use of GPS enabled mobile devices will provide geo-tagging of photographic and video content as well GPS tracking of routes and journeys. Following the fieldtrip, these will be used as a basis for creating maps that analyse the differential inclusions and exclusions of borders and the movements across them focusing on the flows of goods and people.


The JOURNEY will be used as motif and method for territorial research following routes between Istanbul and Odessa taking in national and regional borders. It will aim to uncover connections of migration and trade, working with maritime ideas of the sea as the topological space par excellence (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004). Whilst the exact route cannot be pre-determined, the methods of travel are designed to meet a range of local actors engaged in moving across the borders of Europe: fishermen, oil tanker crews, those involved in small-scale trade in the region. The project methodology will include in-depth interviews and the production of maps and visual material at every stage, combining an ethnographic approach with specific methods from architecture and contemporary art.

The interviews will pay particular attention to the ways in which people describe relations across distances, how and where they perceive borders, and how this intersects with their perceptions of belonging and personal histories. It is anticipated that the analysis will uncover detailed instances of how topological effects are being created in migrant lives, whether this is through collapsing notions of scale, or through forms of inclusion and exclusion that are not based on proximity and that create non-contiguous territories. Maps will be produced based on these narratives, where the scalar dimensions of a standard map are distorted according to translocal and temporal connections that emerge from the interviews.

See attachment ‘Diagram’ for the different types of maps that will form the Topological Atlas of European Belonging.


The project website (already started: www.topologicalatlas.net) will contain the TOPOLOGICAL ATLAS WEB APPLICATION (TA), which will allow individual maps to be navigated temporally and for citizenship narratives to be overlaid according to the modes of belonging and relations being made. It will also contain documentation of the TRAVELLING EXHIBITION, which will be an accumulative display of the maps produced during the field trips, allowing the evolving maps and videos to be made available for discussion with participants and local contacts.

The website will be publicly open and updated regularly with the project output and will be a way of communicating with academic communities, as well as facilitating an on going dialogue with cultural institutions and NGOs that support and host the project.

Three articles in high impact journals will be produced during the award:

  1. On methodological aspects of mappings and how they represent topological spaces (TJ: Environment and Planning D: Society and Space);
  2. On the use of digital methods in the TA (TJ: Computational Culture: A Journal of Software Studies);
  3. On analysing maps and emerging modes of variegated citizenship related to migration that they suggest authored by PI (TJ: Theory, Culture & Society or European Journal of Social Theory).


Beyond the lifetime of the award a number of extra outputs are planned:

  1. An international conference addressing migration and belonging through an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on the domains of sociology, architecture, cultural geography and contemporary arts.
  2. An edited book containing articles from the conference and supplemented with research from this project on mapping European belonging.
  3. A final exhibition that consolidates the maps and travelling exhibition for a wider public audience.

The project also has much policy relevance and a succinct report of the project outcomes will be produced and disseminated to European agencies and NGOs working on migration and labour related issues. The value of the research for policy actors lies in providing a clear and detailed account of how migrants claim citizenship at the edge of Europe as a multiple, overlapping and temporal right. It will provide empirical evidence to support those actors who are campaigning for a more equitable and less rigid approach towards migration policy in Europe.

For the current project, the Topological Atlas website is conceived as a portal through which to view the maps produced. However, there is potential to develop it as a platform that can be used by others to upload their own maps and visual material with geo-located data. This would require technical support from a web developer and I would aim to secure further funding to transform the website into a robust platform for academics and NGOs to share migration related stories and visual material.