ABSTRACT

Since mid-twentieth century squatting in relation to property has been a phenomenon associated with cities of the Global North, legal sanctions against it in the UK have strengthened: from civil action against trespass to a criminal offence. Social disapproval, sometimes associated with negative perceptions of immigration from abroad, has been fed by media reporting of individual cases, especially in London: the Roma family from Eastern Europe occupying a suburban house while its owners were away on holiday; builders staying on in the flat they were refurbishing against the wishes of the absentee owner; the self-professed anarchist group taking over council property long unoccupied. The tension between private property ownership and social problems was expressed by a senior judge: “if homelessness were admitted as a defence to trespass, no-one’s house would be safe.”1 Looking wider than the Global North, the world now has an estimated 1 billion squatters-about one in every seven people-who are found mostly in postcolonial societies of the Global South as rapid population growth puts pressure on property resources.2 In recent years regularizing land tenure has become more accepted by governments and international aid agencies, and Hernando de Soto’s bestselling book, The Mystery of Capital, saw the registration of undocumented property rights as no less than a “magic bullet” to let the world’s squatter poor bring their “dead capital” of unrecognized property assets out of the “grubby basement of capitalism”.3