Towards Individualized Vulnerability in Migration Policies

By Veronika Flegar, University of Groningen, v.l.b.flegar(at)

The Dutch parliament recently pledged for separate reception centres for vulnerable asylum seekers. In a reaction, the Dutch State Secretary of Security and Justice Klaas Dijkhoff objected to this claim, arguing that placing “vulnerable groups” into separate reception centres is stigmatizing. Instead, he calls for a tailored approach. He certainly has a point, but one should be aware of the fact that talking about “vulnerable groups” in itself already has a stigmatizing effect – even without physically placing them into separate centres. In his statement, Dijkhoff varies between referring to “vulnerable individuals” and “vulnerable groups” which reveals insufficient awareness about the difference between these approaches. I would therefore like to draw attention to the need for a more nuanced approach towards vulnerability. There should be more emphasis on an individual assessment of the needs of persons who might be particularly susceptible to harm.

The concept of vulnerability is increasingly being used in the field of human rights, both in academic and political contexts. This is mostly done through labelling individual persons, such as children or women, as members of a particular vulnerable group. However, doing so blurs essential nuances and factors of vulnerability. Adopting a more flexible approach on the basis of an individual assessment of vulnerability can overcome stigmatization and paternalistic policies.

Vulnerability can be understood as an increased dependency from the support of others. From this point of view, it becomes apparent that asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants are often particularly vulnerable: they are dependent on the country and society which receives them. However, not each asylum seeker, refugee or other migrant is vulnerable in the same way. Additionally, vulnerability due to a particular residence status is not necessarily the only reason why a non-citizen might be susceptible to harm: women, children, the elderly or a person with a medical condition could, for instance, be seen as additionally vulnerable within the so-called vulnerable group of asylum seekers.

This reveals that clarifying how and on what basis vulnerability can be determined is of crucial importance for adequate policies for asylum seekers. There are various approaches which could be used. The most common way, which is apparent from Dijkhoff’s statement, is to determine vulnerability on the basis of group indicators. The vulnerable-groups approach views humans as distinguishable into groups on the basis of certain common features. This is often a natural thing to do: people can be distinguished on the basis of externally visible factors such as age, gender or origin, making it easy to estimate their vulnerability. At the same time, this ‘labelling’ of particular people as belonging to a vulnerable group can be seen as overly generalized.

Such generalizations can signal a stigmatizing, paternalizing and static approach as not everyone is equally vulnerable in every situation. For instance, a young healthy white male would fall outside any typical vulnerable group approach, but that does not mean that he cannot be vulnerable. He can also become vulnerable through, for instance, traumatic experiences, the lack of a social network or the lack of prospects for the future. Oversimplification does therefore not do justice to the reality of vulnerability, as not all group indicators necessarily apply equally to all individuals considered members of that group. Moreover, this approach does not recognize the possibility to diminish a person’s vulnerability through empowerment or the activation of a person’s resilience. Rather, once part of a vulnerable group, that person will always remain part of that group unless he or she changes the inherent characteristics which make him or her belong to that group (which is often not possible if you think about age, origin etc.).

A more nuanced approach to vulnerability can cater more closely for specific vulnerabilities, because the point of reference is the individual. This can reveal that someone is vulnerable due to the context of his or her current situation, while at the same time recognizing that this vulnerability is no inherent aspect of the person. Efforts to alleviate poverty in the Western world can serve as a simplified analogy in that respect: people can be poor in various degrees and for various reasons and even though the strict cause of their poverty is a lack of (financial) resources, it is considered common sense to consider the individual circumstances of someone who is living in poverty. These considerations usually take into account a multitude of factors such as debt, spending habits, education, work experience, family situation etc. which together construct very diverse individual contexts. Acting upon this individual context is considered to increase the chances of effectively improving the situation of that person and helping him or her out of poverty. Similarly, many factors matter in assessing whether an individual is vulnerable and an individualized assessment can increase the chances for a tailored approach that actually ensures the protection of an individual which might otherwise have faced particular hardship or harm.

The group versus individual approach reveals different levels of analysis and provides guidance for thinking further about the content and implications of vulnerability for migration management and for the treatment of asylum seekers in particular. This is essential as the identification of vulnerability is the first step before we can start to think about the possible consequences and necessary actions to be taken with regard to this vulnerability. In reconsidering the responsibility of the state for asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, we should start thinking about vulnerability first. Vulnerability can serve as a mediation tool between the host state and the individual in need of protection. However, in order to do so, it is necessary to start recognizing each individual as a person with different needs and possibilities. Vulnerability is no quick fix or universal solution but a reconsideration of the concept and a discussion of its implementation would be a great first step towards a more sustainable approach towards the needs of persons who find themselves in situations of a heightened risk of harm.

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