Listening to Papenreye – the soundscape of an urban asylum camp

What can soundscapes tell us about the economic, legal and spatiotemporal infrastructure of migration? Kari Anne Drangsland in this essay focuses on the soundscape of urban asylum camps in Germany and explores soundscapes as a method for elaborating on the role of contemporary urban camps in the governing of mobility.

What can soundscapes tell us about the economic, legal and spatiotemporal infrastructure of migration? Kari Anne Drangsland in this essay focuses on the soundscape of urban asylum camps in Germany and explores soundscapes as a method for elaborating on the role of contemporary urban camps in the governing of mobility.

Kari Anne Drangsland is a researcher at the Univer­sity of Bergen, Norway, and writes and performs music in various constel­lations. She conducted fieldwork in Hamburg and in the asylum camp Erstaufnah­meeinrichtung Papenreye between August 2017 and June 2018. Names and personal cha­racteristics of people in the essay are changed to protect their anonymity. Conversations were origi­nally in German.

This text is part of GRIP´s miniseries Speculative Urban Futures. As inequalities rise and cities grow, the need to speculate and probe possible urban futures is more urgent than ever. This miniseries opens up to various types of speculations about potential urban futures.

“Listen. This place is like a graveyard,” Hossain said. Hamburg was grey this Thursday afternoon in 2017, as the harbour city often is in November. Hamburg, the city of interna­tional trade and finance, which the geographer Doreen Massey used as an illustrative ex­ample in her ground-breaking work on how spaces and cities are produced through social relations spanning times, spaces, and spatial scales.1 Hossain and I had just returned to the asylum camp, or Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung (EAE), Papenreye, after a journey through the busy and buzzing Hamburg mid-day streets. Hossain was a Syrian man in his early twenties. He had left Syria in 2013, and spent years in Turkey and in southern Europe, be­fore he went to Germany where his mother and siblings lived. This morning, he had had a discomforting meeting with his lawyer, who had given him bad news. We stood on the muddy field in front of the rows of barracks which provided shelter to around 150 people. Tall fences surrounded the camp and formed part of a physical infrastructure consisting of barracks for different uses, a canteen and a playground. The small paths between the barracks had been named in workshops led by local volunteers. Names like “Birkenweg” and “Malvenweg” were colourfully painted on wooden signs. We waited for the canteen to open. It was close to lunch time. Except for a guard and a couple of employees in front of an office-barrack, Papenreye seemed empty. I followed Hossain’s invitation and listened to this urban space. I heard its silence, and the sounds that permeated it. Papenreye, which was located at the fringes of the popular university area of Eimsbüttel, was striking­ly silent in contrast to the streets we had just moved through. It was a silence out of synch with the rhythm of urban life. A soundscape that set this space off from the surrounding urban spaces. I listened to share this space with Hossain. I listened and wondered what this soundscape could tell me about the camp, and about its role in the economic, legal, and spatiotemporal infrastructure of migration control in contemporary Germany.

As I write this essay in the spring of 2023, Papenreye has been closed for five years. The former sports-field, that was transformed to a camp in 2015, once more looks like a sports-field. The clock over the tennis-hall lobby still dutifully counts the time, as it did through the three years of urban encampment. Few visible traces of the camp are left. The barracks and fences are long picked up and put to use in other spaces. The Hamburg bureaucrat responsible for the camp economy has archived the files. Over the next pag­es, I return to Papenreye. Moving through notes and recordings from my fieldwork in the camp in 2017 and 2018, I again follow Hossain’s invitation and listen to the camp’s sounds and pay attention to my own and others’ practices of listening in this space. Sound is a domain both of control and agency. Due to its associative and relational character, sound creates spaces, moves through boundaries, and problematizes an inside/outside view on space. Just think about the historical role of bells in regulating the social rhythms of the day, or about how you might be touched by a song. In this essay, I listen to fragments of the soundscape of Papenreye as a route to some partial knowledge about what place this was, but also as a method for elaborating on the role of contemporary urban camps in the governing of mobility.

A politically charged snore.

The silence that Hossain made audible to me was politically charged. It formed part of a sound­scape that marked what Sara, another Syrian interlocutor, some days later called the “lack of normalcy” of camp life. I sat with Sara on the floor in the two joined twelve square meter bar­racks that she shared with her husband, Hekmat, and their two children. She talked about their life. Telling was a way to practice German, she said. Hekmat was a dentist and Sara a pharma­cist. They had fallen in love as students in a former Soviet republic. They completed their studies and returned to build a life in Damascus. Then, the war changed everything. At some point our conversation paused. Hekmat’s rhythmic snore filled the barrack. He slept beside us, in one of the room’s four beds. Sara looked at him: “A grown-up man sleeping in the middle of the day. It is not normal. It is wrong,” she said. My thoughts went to another comment made to me some weeks ago. A man I did not know, had stopped me as I passed his barrack: “You want to know about this place?” he said. I confirmed, and started to explain, yet he interrupted me. My research did not interest him. “We are not allowed to work. This place is a factory for sleeping,” he said and turned away.

The man’s description of Papenreye as a “factory for sleeping” aptly captures the em­bodied and subjective effects of the camp as a spatial and legal infrastructure of immobiliza­tion, through which people were – and still are – denied the legal right to work. In October 2015, the German government passed a new regulation, according to which asylum seekers are not allowed to work during their stay in an EAE. Furthermore, the obligation to stay in an EAE was raised from three to six months. Through these measures, the German government sought to manage unwanted mobility. That said, most residents in Papenreye had lived there longer than six months – there were a shortage of alternative accommodation. And not only that: rejected asylum seekers, such as this man, or Hekmat and Sara, were not prioritized for relocation. Hek­mat’s snore, I thought, could be understood as a soundmark of this factory for sleeping.

The sounding rhythm of the camp.

Daily German language courses and navigating the German social, immigration and health bu­reaucracy took its time. Nonetheless, camp time was slow and painful. It was a time of waiting. At some point in our conversation, Sara raised and fetched a carpet, and carefully covered her husband’s feet. “He is killing time,” she said. Recalling this now, I think about Hossain’s grave­yard metaphor, and another image appears to mind: An image of the camp as a graveyard of killed time. Descriptions of camps as spaces where time is killed, or “slaughtered”, as Yousif M. Qasmiyeh writes in his poetry collection “Writing the Camp,” is abundant in research and liter­ature.2 Still, when Hossain prompted me to listen to the camp as a graveyard, his associations seemed to go in other directions. So, let’s move back to that Thursday afternoon. For a while, Hossain and I remained outdoor as he waited for the canteen to open. I would not join him. People had not asked for or acquiesced to my observing gaze and listening ear, and these were hard to escape in the canteen. At one point Hossain said: “This place kills sociality. People stay in their barracks and come out only to fetch their mail and eat.” Soon after, as if his comment was a prompt in a staged play, barrack doors started to open. People came out, one by one, two by two, families, groups of young men. They moved towards the canteen. The space transformed through the sound of voices and laughter.

In the cold and rainy Hamburg autumn and winter, the rhythmic shifts of sound and silence in the outdoor spaces followed and gave auditive expression to the temporal organiza­tion of Papenreye. There were two daily sessions of mail delivery and three daily meals. There were also the opening hours of the camp’s social services. While there was too much time in the camp, this time was foreign controlled, periodized and ruptured. It was a time-schedule anchored in material conditions: Poverty and a prohibition on cooking in the barracks made eat­ing in the canteen a necessity for many. The mail could contain life-changing news. The camp social services were crucial given the intricacies of the German bureaucracy and health system. Furthermore, those who spent several days in a row away, risked being relocated to a new camp. For Hossain, whose mother lived in the south of Germany, this rule made it difficult to visit her. The confinement to this space, the ordering of camp time, the crowded barracks (four beds in each barrack) and the lack of sheltered and private outdoor space worked together to “kill soci­ality,” Hossain explained. Yet, that sociality was killed and silenced through the spatiotemporal organization of asylum, did not mean sociality was not alive and sounding in the camp. As we talked, Hossain’s friends – friendships forged in Papenreye – approached us to inquire about the meeting with his lawyer. I observed how they observed Hossain and me and took in Hossain’s bodily presence. Seconds later, a couple of men gently slapped Hossain’s back. They kept their bodies close to his as they walked together to the canteen.

The sound of a guitar during house arrest.

The global organization, production, and distribution of mobility work along unequal lines to silence some peoples’ sociality and to kill their time while other people live comfortably loud and lively. Papenreye, with its politically charged sounds, must be understood as part of this wider geopolitical context. At the same time, sounds and physical infrastructure affect people on the intimate scale of the body, and their relation to sonic spaces might differ from one day to an­other due to changed circumstances. I write this, because I have wondered whether the silence of the camp was particularly audible and painful to Hossain that November Thursday in 2017. It might have been. That morning, his lawyer had informed him that the Hamburg immigration authorities had decided he was to be deported to another European country, far from his moth­er, siblings, and friends in Germany. In the meantime, they had given him a “house arrest”: For the next three days, while he waited for the police to come at some unspecified time, he was not allowed to leave his barrack. If he did, he faced legal consequences. This practice – which later was deemed unlawful by the court – highlights the plasticity of this urban space: with a pen stroke Papenreye took on a prison-like character for Hossain. That evening we sat in silence on a bench under the clock at the tennis-hall lobby. I listened to his silence, and wondered if he needed something I could provide. I asked: “You want me to stay with you”? “Yes, but only for a while,” Hossain said. We went to the camp music room. We had spent some time there lately, playing two guitars someone had donated. Playing used to be minutes of concentration and smiles. This evening, however, Hossain’s emotional state was audible in the ruptured rhythms and halting chords he played. While waiting in the context of contemporary encampment often is represented in terms of enforced slowness, I heard in Hossain’s playing the sound of embod­ied acceleration in this space of confinement: stress, swirling thoughts, rapid heartbeats. Hos­sain was put in a state that worked on his memory and his ability to play. After some minutes he put the guitar down.

The border carried in voices.

When I started to write this essay, I asked Mo, an Afghan friend, if he often thought about Papen­reye. “No. It was not that bad,” he answered. “It was better than the other camps.” Mo’s answer is a reminder of the difference between our relations to this place. But not only that. It testified to how Mo had moved through spaces of confinement that pressed on him with different force.

Mo was not the only one with such a comparative horizon. Often, people made sense of Papenreye by contrasting it with other camps. They narrated their experiences with encamp­ment and deportation, and their mobility decisions and practices in the past tense, yet despite the sequential temporal character of storytelling, peoples’ stories testified to the continuous presence of spaces and experiences which were absent and past. In a geopolitical context char­acterized by logics and practices of “deport and forget,” I find this an important point to make. In Papenreye, voices speaking different European languages made this presence strikingly au­dible. Some people approached me in Norwegian. Sara and Hekmat’s children spoke to me in Danish – the language of the place where they had waited for two years for an answer to their asylum application, and from which they had fled to avoid deportation to Greece. Others greet­ed me in Swedish. I spoke with people about these languages, which slowly disappeared from active memory to be replaced by German. The voices speaking European languages learned and forgotten “carried the border” within them, in researcher Tom Western’s phrase.3 They situ­ated Papenreye within a wider European geopolitical context and were sonic markers of a Euro­pean system of migration control that forcefully puts people into circulation. They made audible the presence of violently disrupted futures, but also the freedom and power to move exercised by people resisting European border practices.

The sound of rice cooking, or listening for the guards.

Most days during fieldwork I biked home in the afternoon or early evening to share a meal with my family in our kitchen. We gathered over the home made (or self-bought) meal, talked about our days, laughed, rehearsed German words, forgot pre-dinner quarrels. In Papenreye, a fif­teen-minute bike ride from my apartment, gatherings over home-made food were not allowed. A stove and a refrigerator were prohibited in the barracks, due to fire regulation. Furthermore, canteen food was part of the support provided by the state. Buying extra food meant less mon­ey for something else. In my fieldnotes, I write about the first time I witnessed cooking of food in a barrack. I had an appointment with Sara and knocked on her door. She opened, let me in, and there was the smell, sound, and sight of rice cooking. I was surprised by the fact that they were cooking, but also by the discovery of my own naivety. “Yeah, we have a stove,” she said. She laughed while she observed me: “We listen for the security and hide it when they do their rounds. Sometimes they take it, though. Then we buy a new one. They know we have them, and we know they know.” That evening, Sara invited me to share a meal of rice, meat, and vegeta­bles with her family. We ate and talked. The atmosphere relaxed. Loud. Yet I kept on listening for the guards. My act of anxious listening highlights the ambivalence of my role in this space – a presence that relied on the consent of the humanitarian camp contractor and the Hamburg state, but also on those that had invited me into their home: Whose sense of place, and whose rules meant what to me – intellectually and emotionally? Furthermore, it was an act of listening which raised my awareness of how camp discipline operates on the intimate scale of the body.

Mo’s phone.

Mo left his family in 2015. Like many other young Afghan men living irregularly in Iran, he de­cided to leave when the Iranian government forcefully recruited him to the military to fight the Islamic State. He spoke regularly with his mother in Iran and listened carefully to the timbre of her voice. When his brothers in Iran married, he listened to her expectation that he transferred money. When the US sanctions against Iran were reinstated by Trump in 2018, he heard her voice testify about the hardship she endured. She was there with him, when German volunteers, his lawyer, camp employees gave him advice on what to do to secure his status in Germany – yet they paid no attention to her. Once Mo characterized their advice like this: “In Europe they say that you should set yourself your own personal goal and move step by step towards it.” He found that idea strange and detached from most people’s lived reality: Neither his goal, nor his path was his alone. His navigations in the present and his sense of Papenreye and Hamburg were produced through relations stretching way beyond their borders. Relations of love, of re­sponsibility and care, but also geopolitical and economic relations such as those pressing on his mother in Iran through raising costs of bread, wheat, and rice.

The sound of tiling.

While Mo rejected some of the logics underpinning the advice he was given, he listened to learn and to use what was useful to him. In 2016, Germany launched the so-called “Ausbildungsdul­dung”. Through this regulation, people who had their asylum application rejected, such as Mo, could legalize their stay temporarily by entering vocational training. The Ausbildungsduldung was pushed by the private sector and employer organizations and formed part of a develop­ment in German political discourse to frame asylum seekers as potential labour power. The new regulation was a win-win situation, the government said: After five years of successful training rejected asylum seekers would be eligible for a permanent stay (provided they find work), while Germany could add to their stock of skilled workers. Mo started training in 2018. He went to work in the early morning and came home late to learn German until he went to bed. His time, as the time of others in Papenreye who managed to enter training programs, required a strict time discipline. It was a time strikingly different to the time in the “factory for sleeping”. But, while Mo enjoyed spending time with his colleagues and learning the trade, he was still waiting. He waited for a secure legal status and material and economic basis, which would enable him to see his family again, to have his own place and, eventually, his own family. The busy life of train­ing helped him “kill time” he said, echoing Sara’s words. After some months of training, Mo had his much-awaited transfer to a better camp: The Hamburg government had decided to prioritize people in training in their transfer schemes. Once I visited him in his new camp, he showed me a video of a tiled wall, constructed somewhere in the south of Hamburg. The lens of the camera was directed towards the white wall for the duration of the short clip, while the sounds of people talking, of tools put to use, and bodies working, filled Mo’s barrack. It was the sound of people training to become tilers. A soundmark on Mo’s phone of an asylum policy governing through suspension of rights and promises, while emphasizing peoples’ economic usefulness.

Sounding right.

Sound and voice have historically been deeply implicated in the governing of colonized sub­jects and aural spaces, and in upholding classed-based distinctions.4 Also, in the contemporary management of asylum, judgements on the “good migrant” are made on the basis of tone and volume of voices – with legal and material consequences.

One day in January 2018, a young man went back and forth on the open space in front of the canteen where I sat with Hossain. He cried loudly. He shouted. It was the first time I heard uncontrolled crying in Papenreye. “He is too loud,” Hossain said with disregard. Hossain’s com­ment felt significant yet slipped away. Some days later, however, it came to my mind, as I joined Hossain to the Hamburg immigration office. It was not long since our last visit. A visit that had upset him for days. The immigration official had made her contempt for Hossain as an “illegal” migrant sensible through her gestures, words, and tone. Both raised their voice. Now we were back. We waited and watched the queue number display. After a while, we saw the display jump Hossain’s number – the one he had got as he registered. Higher numbers kept ticking in. “They do this on purpose,” Hossain said. On my way to the toilet, I recognized the guard standing there. “What happened to my friend’s que number?” I asked. He lowered his voice and made an apolo­gizing gesture: “He was too loud last time. So now they punish him.”

People I talked with in Papenreye expressed awareness of the role of voice, tone, and vol­ume in performing the “good refugee”. Being “too loud” could have consequences. But silence is suspicious too within today’s political context of migration governance. Research has document­ed the importance of speaking in convincing ways in the context of asylum interviews. But that is not the only setting where silence might stir negative valuations or suspicion. While Hossain was judged to be “too loud,” a camp volunteer once expressed disregard of Mo’s silence. She wanted to help him secure his residence permit through training or work, but she found him hard to ad­vice. “He is so silent. I do not understand him or his motivations,” she said. “Can you talk to him?” Her reaction and response to silence was not unique. Similar to what the researchers Deidre Conlon and Nick Gill find in the UK context, camps in Germany are places where asylum seekers are compelled to prove themselves as liberal subjects who are worthy of inclusion in the German society.5 Part of this is being vocal, participating, transparent. In such a context, silence might be suspicious.

Remembering Papenreye.

As other Erstaufnahme camps, Papenreye was meant to be temporary. The camp was established during a few days in the early autumn of 2015 and dismantled over some weeks in the spring of 2018. In this and other camp spaces, contemporary German and European migration governance come to expression and manifest in the socio-technical practices of their use and their spatio­temporal organization. What happens to our knowledges of migration governance when these spaces disappear from view and their sounds are silenced? This essay has been an endeavour to think through what Papenreye was, through listening to fragments of its soundscape and be­ing attentive to practices of listening. I have done so, conscious of how remembering this place is a situated, ethical, and political act, and that no singular story may be told. Mo hardly thinks about Papenreye, he said. Still, when we are together in Hamburg or talk on WhatsApp, Papen­reye sometimes appears in our conversations. We share memories and smile, or we bump into memories which makes me hesitate and stumble in the conversation because I do not know if we share them.

Photos by Kari Anne Drangsland.



Essay first published in the journal Free Berlin, Free Berlin – free newspaper, free culture, free ideas, Issue No. 10 / June 2023. Errant Bodies Press. Link: Free Berlin – Errant Bodies Press





1. Doreen Massey, For space (London, Thousand Oaks and New Dehli: Sage Publications, 2005).

2. Yousif M.Qasmiyeh, Writing the Camp (Talgarreg: Broken Sleep Books, 2021).

3. Tom Western, “Listening with displacement: Sound, citizenship, and disruptive representations of migra­tion,” Migration and Society 3, no. 1 (2020).

4. Russell P Skelchy and Jeremy E Taylor, Sonic Histories of Occupation: Experiencing Sound and Empire in a Global Context (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

5. Deirdre Conlon and Nick Gill, “Gagging orders: asylum seekers and paradoxes of freedom and protest in liberal society,” Citizenship studies 17, no. 2 (2013), 10.1080/13621025.2013.780748.