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The emergence of the notion of the “vulnerable refugee”

Written by
Stathis Poularakis, Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)
Date of Publication:
08 November 2017

The inability – or unwillingness as some would say – to manage the large refugee/migrant population arriving in Europe, has brought the subject of protecting only “genuine” refugees and the aversion of irregular migration at the heart of public discourse. At the same time, for various reasons among which the lack of proper reception conditions for all those arriving in Europe, the concern is, out of necessity, focused only on those refugees/migrants considered as more “vulnerable”, such as unaccompanied minors, disabled persons or persons with serious health problems, seniors, pregnant women and victim of human trafficking, victims of torture or other forms of violence or abuse.

In this context, the notion of “vulnerability” has achieved a central and independent status, as it is linked not only with the appropriate reception and protection of those in need, but also with the political management of the migrant / refugee issue.

The enforcement, to this day, of the agreement between the EU member states and Turkey, from which those belonging to vulnerable groups have been, in practice, excluded, is a bright example of this. “Vulnerable asylum seekers are able to move to the mainland and fall out of the ambit of the “deal”, thus avoiding the risk of being returned to Turkey.

Reaching the mainland these people often enjoy better living conditions as part of special accommodation programs, as opposed to the general refugee population that remains largely in the camps. Moreover, vulnerable people have often better access to healthcare and other supporting services, while their application for international protection is usually prioritized.

One could only wonder where the problem lies in all that. These people have specific needs, and the authorities must ensure special treatment and protection. This implies both the legal framework for the protection of human rights and common sense. But here lurks an important risk that should not be ignored. What should according to law and international obligations be provided to all is, ultimately, only given to few. This way, the importance is gradually shifted from the status of the asylum seeker to the status of the “vulnerable” refugee and migrant. For someone to enjoy protection being a refugee or asylum seeker is not enough, he/she must also attain a “vulnerability” status. Access to appropriate reception conditions and protection is mostly given to “vulnerable” people. The rest are either obliged to reside in inappropriate accommodation structures, often without sufficient services, and without any special assistance or support, or they cannot even access protection services.

The latest example being the recent mini-summit of European and African states that took place in Paris on immigration, where it seems that an agreement was reached granting asylum and resettlement in Europe only to “particularly vulnerable” refugees hosted in African countries.

In this sense, “vulnerability” ultimately serves as a model of exclusion for the majority of the refugee / migrant population and adds yet another serious inequality in accessing health services, accommodation and international protection. At the same time, to the extent that it relates to the political management of the refugee issue, identifying vulnerable migrants ceases to be a means of protecting the persons concerned, and inevitably becomes part of restrictive immigration control policies. In this sense, it seems only natural for there to be pressure both at European and national level to reduce the number of persons identified as “vulnerable” by defining strict criteria so that only those who are “genuinely ” vulnerable achieve the status.

Many humanitarian organizations, among them Doctors of the World – Greece, emphasize, however, a completely different reality. No matter how much we would like to avert our gaze from what is actually happening on the field, refugee/migrant populations are, to a great extent, vulnerable. These people have lived through traumatic experiences and violence in their country or/and during their journey, and upon their arrival in Europe they are faced with various vulnerability factors which dictate their special treatment and protection. Moreover, experience from the field shows that not only the number of the people identified as “vulnerable” is by no means exceedingly high, but on the contrary a large number of “vulnerable” persons are not properly identified, leading to them being deprived of necessary protection.

For their part, Doctors of the World – Greece, as a medical humanitarian organization, provide their services in respect of the needs and requests of their beneficiaries. Of significant importance to them are the social determinants, and, especially, the living conditions of the reference population, both of which constitute the greatest vulnerability factor for the entire population residing this very moment in the refugee camps and other reception facilities.