Are squatters home invaders or fighters for their rights? What is the situation in Europe, America, Asia and Africa

Close-up of colorful tropical fish swimming in coral reef

Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

For some, squatters are lawbreakers, for others, people who are desperate to find a roof over their heads and decide to occupy an empty house. In this article, we will debunk the myths about squatting and figure out how the authorities of different countries treat illegal tenants. We will also listen to the arguments “for” and “against” this contradictory phenomenon.

What is squatting? 

The word “squatter” itself came from English and literally translates as “invader, unauthorized settler.” Accordingly, squatting is the unauthorized seizure and living in empty, abandoned buildings without the consent of the owner.

The roots of this movement go back to the past, when during times of wars and crises people were forced to find their own homes. Modern squatters are driven by various reasons — from ideological beliefs to outright need.

Who are the squatters today:

  • Homeless and low-income families.
  • Anarchists and freaks protesting against the system.
  • Students and creative youth without money for rent.

Europe: from total prohibition to relative loyalty

In European countries, squatting is fiercely controversial. In some countries, this is the norm of life, in others such a phenomenon is severely persecuted. 

A country where squatting is illegal 

Squatting is completely banned in the UK. In 2012, the country passed a law known as Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2011, which made squatting in residential buildings a criminal offense. 

The reason was frequent conflicts with armed and aggressive groups of invaders. According to the London police, about 25 thousand squatting cases were recorded in the capital every year. 

What is the situation in the rest of Europe

In other countries The EU situation is developing in different ways. Somewhere squatting is formally prohibited, but in fact the authorities may turn a blind eye to it. For example, in France, it is allowed to occupy buildings that are empty for more than 48 hours. And in In Germany, courts sometimes grant squatters the right of temporary residence.

The Netherlands and Denmark were previously among the most loyal jurisdictions to squatters. There is a rich history of this socio-political movement here since the hippie days of the 1970s. 

It is enough to mention the famous Danish autonomous community of Christiania, founded in 1971 on the site of captured military barracks in Copenhagen. In this way, a group of young people wanted to create an alternative society, free from traditional social and economic structures. In 2011, the Danish Supreme Court decided to evict squatters from Christiania, but this decision was not implemented, and squatters continue to occupy buildings to this day.

In the Netherlands, squatting has been criminalized since October 1, 2010, according to the Law on Squatting and Vacancy.

We should also focus on the topic of squatters in Spain, where they are more often called okupas. According to statistics, they take over about 40 houses a day. The problem is particularly relevant in Catalonia, Andalusia, the Valencian Community and Madrid, and is partly related to the congestion of Spanish courts and legal loopholes that both sides use.

“I’ve been returning my apartment for almost 3 years.” How Squatters in Spain take over houses: Lawyer’s comment and the real story 

Express eviction of the payouts by the police is possible only within 48 hours after the invasion. After that, you will have to wait for the court’s decision. At the same time, the eviction process in Spain can be lengthy and difficult. The average trial period is about 20.5 months, including appeals. 

A new Housing law recently passed may further increase the time required for eviction due to additional court formalities. However, it is known that the country plans to adopt a new law concerning payouts. It should simplify the process of evicting illegal tenants. 

Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

The North American experience: from liberalism to harsh measures

The United States and Canada have historically been among the most legally loyal countries to squatters and the illegal occupation of vacant buildings. However, over time, the attitude of the public and the authorities towards this phenomenon began to change dramatically. 

In 1984, major riots took place in Philadelphia with the participation of armed groups of radical squatters of the MOVE movement, attacking the police and erecting street barricades. After these events, measures against illegal occupiers of real estate were sharply tightened in most US states. 

In California, Texas, Florida and other regions, squatting has become qualified as a serious criminal offense involving trespass on private property, robbery and unlawful home invasion. The maximum prison terms have been tightened to 10 years in prison.

A similar tendency to abandon the previous liberal approach to this problem can be traced in Canada. The authorities of this country were also forced to tighten the Housing Code and laws on the protection of property rights. 

Latin America: from extreme to extreme

A completely different picture is observed in Latin American States, which were forced to partially legalize this phenomenon after the initial ban.

So, in a number of countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, attempts to completely ban squatting and impose harsh penalties for violators have not been successful. This was primarily due to the huge scale of the problem of homelessness and extreme poverty in these countries. 

Brazil has even developed huge areas occupied by squatters, known as favelas (for example, Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro and Heliopolis in Sao Paulo). In 2001, the country adopted the law on the right to housing (City Statute). It explicitly prescribes to promote efforts to provide basic housing for homeless citizens, if necessary, by restructuring slums and legalizing seized land plots. 

Approximately the same path has been followed in other Latin American countries — from strict prohibition and repression against squatters to the forced partial or complete legalization of illegally occupied residential premises.

Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

Africa and Asia: Squatting as a way of life

The problem of illegal occupation of empty buildings and territories is also acute in Africa and Asia. In the densely populated giant cities of these continents, millions of poor and homeless families are forced to settle down in illegal settlements and slums – they grow spontaneously in wastelands, territories of former factories and warehouses, along railway tracks.

Thus, according to UN-Habitat (UN Human Settlements Programme), in such major Asian megacities as Mumbai (India), Jakarta (Indonesia), Manila (Philippines) and Dhaka (Bangladesh), hundreds of thousands of the poorest families huddle in illegal shacks, not sanctioned by anyone and made up of improvised materials. 

In Africa, this problem is no less acute. As an example, Kenya, whose capital Nairobi is literally surrounded by huge areas of poverty and slums of Kibera, Mathare and other areas that originally arose as spontaneous squatter settlements. According to official data, almost a quarter of the population of the main Kenyan metropolis vegetates in such terrible conditions.

At the same time, it is worth noting that this phenomenon in itself differs by an order of magnitude from squatter movements in advanced countries in that here it is initially devoid of political, ideological or protest background. For the vast majority of the poorest people from Asia and Africa, squatting is not a struggle against the system, but a matter of basic survival for themselves and their families.

Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

Arguments for and against

The debate over whether squatters are violent criminals or forced fighters for their rights has not subsided to this day. Let’s consider the main arguments of supporters and opponents of this phenomenon.

Those who oppose squatting make the following arguments:

  • The seizure of someone else’s property is a gross violation of the law, whether it is housing, office, warehouse or any other object.
  • Many squatters are antisocial elements who do not want to work or pay taxes and rent, as ordinary citizens do.
  • Among the radical invaders, criminal groups are often found, whose members openly threaten the owners and resort to violence.
  • The arrival of squatters inevitably leads to a sharp aggravation of the criminal situation in the area and a drop in the standard of living of local residents. 
  • The self-seizure of buildings is often only the first step towards the final destruction of the seized real estate.

In turn, supporters and ideological inspirers of the squatter movement actively defend their position:

  • Many home invaders are just homeless people who have no other way to find a roof over their heads due to poverty and high real estate prices.
  • Millions of habitable buildings and premises are empty in the world every year. They could be given over to social housing.
  • Decisive steps to seize are usually taken only after the authorities refuse to legally seize the abandoned property from the owner.

In reality, as it often happens, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is impossible to completely whitewash or denigrate all squatters. This phenomenon is too heterogeneous for its reasons, scales and methods of action.


Сквоттеры — захватчики жилья или борцы за свои права? Как обстоит ситуация в Европе, Америке, Азии и Африке

Yulia Yanukovych Editor-in-Chief

I am responsible for the work of the editorial office. I write expert interviews and guides.


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