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Vulnerability and its role in who receives protection

How do protection mechanisms in place for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers translate in practice? An EU-funded project reports.

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The need for countries to protect vulnerable migrants and refugees is evident. But how do different states identify these vulnerabilities, and how do they address them? A recent report published as part of the EU-funded VULNER project explores current protection mechanisms in place for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers considered to be vulnerable and then compares these mechanisms with the vulnerable individuals’ actual experiences. The first phase of the VULNER project yielded seven country reports on the different state regulations and practices through which the vulnerabilities of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are identified and addressed. The countries studied were Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, Norway and Uganda. The findings were based on legal analyses of each country’s domestic legislation, administrative guidelines and case law, and were supplemented by 216 in-depth interviews with social and aid workers, public servants and judges.

The different meanings of vulnerability

Contextualising the seven country reports, this research report shows that the term vulnerability can mean different things, depending on how it is used. In other words, is it used as an analytical tool for the empirical study of human experiences, or as “a legal and bureaucratic tool to tailor state intervention to people’s needs?” The report also shows that, far from being a neutral concept, vulnerability in fact carries “implicit ideological meanings and conceptions of equality” that play a role in shaping the vulnerability assessments that determine who will receive protection. Research report author and scientific coordinator of the project Dr Luc Leboeuf of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology commented on the findings in a news item posted on ‘idw’: “It’s fascinating to see how a seemingly consensual policy objective set out at the UN and EU levels, such as the protection of the most vulnerable people, can be understood in very different ways and lead to very different outcomes. The impressive amount of data collected during the first research phase shows a great variety in approaches to identify vulnerable persons and address their needs across the countries under study – from standardised vulnerability assessment procedures to flexible processes, which leave a wide leeway to the public servants in charge. It allows us to better grasp the respective disadvantages of each approach. We are very much looking forward to deepening our analysis based on the ongoing study of how migrants’ realities are impacted as a result of these different approaches.” The VULNER (Vulnerabilities under the Global Protection Regime: how does the law assess, address, shape, and produce the vulnerabilities of protection seekers?) report emphasises the dangers of relying too much on standardised vulnerability assessments. Such assessments help to identify immediate practical needs based on age, gender, serious health problems and so on. However, if these criteria result in definitive consequences, they can deprive state actors of the flexibility needed to meet the needs of the vulnerable individual they are responsible for. A social worker in Norway described the disadvantage of this approach in the ‘idw’ news item: “We are capturing the more serious things, such as disabilities and whether a person is deaf. You know in these cases that something needs to be done. Less visible needs are more difficult to discover. Vulnerabilities caused by what happened in their home country or on the journey to Norway are not easy to voice.” For more information, please see: VULNER project website


VULNER, vulnerable, vulnerability, migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, protection

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