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Vulnerabilities under the Global Protection Regime: how does the law assess, address, shape, and produce the vulnerabilities of protection seekers?

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VULNER (Vulnerabilities under the Global Protection Regime: how does the law assess, address, shape, and produce the vulnerabilities of protection seekers?)

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2021-01-31

The VULNER project starts from the observation that the ‘vulnerability’ of migrants seeking protection (such as asylum seekers and those applying for other kind of humanitarian protection statuses) is increasingly becoming a key notion within the emerging international protection system, as illustrated by the New York Declaration and the UN Global Compacts. These latest developments at the international level are in line with ongoing developments at the EU level.

Yet, ‘vulnerability’ lacks sharp conceptualisation and is understood differently depending on the context in which it is applied. This lack becomes even more problematic when it is acknowledged that every migrant seeking protection is vulnerable to some extent, depending on the context, their resources, and intersecting social identities, such as ethnicity, gender, age and nationality. The focus on the specific needs of some vulnerable migrants seeking protection is the result of a policy choice to value some vulnerabilities over others. If not based on scientific data that give a clear and non-stereotyped understanding and conceptualisation of the vulnerabilities that are actually lived and experienced by the migrants seeking protection, such policy choices run the risk of failing to address, exacerbating or even producing further vulnerabilities.

The overall objective of the VULNER project is to fill that knowledge gap, through a comprehensive study of how migrants seeking protection experience their ‘vulnerabilities’ and how these experiences are continuously shaped and produced in interaction with the legal and policy frameworks and implementation practices of the relevant decision-makers. The project is designed to produce the scientific data, knowledge and conceptualisations needed to prevent any stereotyped understanding of the vulnerabilities of migrants seeking protection, and to develop a critical reflection on the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ might be an appropriate standard to guide the future development and implementation of the global protection regime and the EU asylum regime – or not.

Therefore, the VULNER project is documenting, evaluating and reflecting on 1. how the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the migrants seeking protection are assessed and addressed in the protection regimes of select countries in Europe (Belgium, Germany, Italy and Norway), the Middle East (Lebanon) and Africa (South Africa and Uganda) and 2. how and to what extent this in turn shapes or even produces the ‘vulnerabilities’ as experienced by the migrants seeking protection through a process of constant interactions. Data are being collected on how the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the migrants seeking protection are defined, assessed and addressed in the legal and policy frameworks and implementation practices of the relevant decision-makers, and on the experiences of the migrants. A novel theoretical approach to understanding and addressing the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the migrant seeking protection is being developed, with a critical perspective on the notion of ‘vulnerability’, which is being thoroughly questioned and assessed on the basis of the data collected.
During the period under review (first year of the project), a systematic analysis has been undertaken, in the countries under study, of the legal provisions, case law, policy documents and administrative guidelines that provide for the assessment of the vulnerabilities of migrants seeking protection. Moreover, more than 200 in-depth interviews were conducted with public servants who are implementing these provisions, such as social and aid workers in reception facilities for asylum seekers, public servants in charge of the refugee status determination, and judges.

The work carried out so far allowed to 1. develop a full and analytical mapping of the various legal and policy approaches to the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the migrants seeking protection in the countries under study, and to 2. document and analyse how the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the migrants seeking protection are understood and addressed by the relevant decision-makers in their everyday practices.

7 comprehensive research reports have been established. They contribute to a better understanding of the multiple methods to assess and address ‘vulnerabilities’, of the concrete ways in which state actors make use of their margin of appreciation when implementing the overall (and often vague) requirement to address ‘vulnerabilities’ and give particular attention to the specific needs of ‘vulnerable’ migrants, and of the challenges that have emerged at domestic level, including the lack of a coordinated approach among the various services involved and/or an opposition to strictly defined ‘vulnerability’ categories that do not reflect realities on the grounds as perceived by the decision-makers.
Based on the data collected and analyses made so far, the VULNER project members could identify discernible patterns and arrived at a number of preliminary research findings, such as the lack of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to the assessment of ‘vulnerabilities’ between the various State administrations, international organisations and aid agencies involved; an overall emphasis on addressing the practical needs of ‘vulnerable’ migrants pending a decision on their asylum application; the unease and difficulties decision-makers have in implementing the requirement to address ‘vulnerabilities’ which they often perceive as too vague; the criticism commonly expressed by decision-makers against existing ‘vulnerability’ categories which they often believe do not reflect realities on the ground (especially with respect to Uganda and Lebanon); and how the emotions of decision-makers and feelings of compassion play a role when identifying and addressing ‘vulnerabilities’.

It is expected from the upcoming phases of the project that they will allow to deepen the analysis and to further enlarge the knowledge base on the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the migrants seeking protection, including how this notion is being continuously constructed through interactions with the authorities. They should also allow to identify the best practices in assessing and addressing vulnerabilities, and reflect on the various concrete uses and mobilisations of 'vulnerability', both as a tool to get access to additional resources and advantages and to legitimise the exclusionary effects inherent in migration control policies.