Why a Vulnerability Framing of Asylum Seekers can be Harmful

By Felicity Kersting, Migration Researcher

Content note: This article contains mention of suicide.

In December, the 2023 Global Refugee Forum took place, providing a platform for many different stakeholders to come together and commit to actions to improve the lives of refugees and displaced people globally. This Forum led to a number of important commitments from various actors, including over 1,600 pledges and 2.2 billion USD in financial commitments over the coming few years. Of the pledges, around 1,300 comprised pledges related to financial, material, technical, and policy support. While this concrete support is essential, it is also crucial to consider the language we use when talking about asylum seekers and refugees. Building on an expanding body of research on the role of complexity in migration, this article examines how particular groups of asylum seekers are often framed as inherently vulnerable and considers the consequences of such framing.

The Benefits – It allows for empathic understanding and can facilitate the success of some asylum cases

The use of vulnerability framing can provide practical benefits in the short-term, particularly within the context of xenophobia and hostility towards asylum seekers. This framing involves emphasising additional perceived vulnerabilities that asylum seekers have – such as health conditions, gender, and age – thereby opening the door for intersectional experiences to be considered in policymaking. It can also be advantageous in asylum cases for specific individuals, individuals’ exceptional circumstances of vulnerability can avoid the use of the ‘floodgates’ argument regarding the number of asylum cases being granted. Additionally, vulnerability framing provides an accessible entry point to promote compassion and empathy, whether to the general public or professional stakeholders, which are often lacking in the asylum system. This in turn can facilitate the social integration of asylum seekers and refugees through encouraging connections between the public and asylum seekers as well as the development of resources to support asylum seekers to settle in the host country.

The Disadvantages – It can exacerbate discriminatory behaviour towards specific groups with significant policy implications

However, it is important to acknowledge that vulnerability framing, while beneficial in some ways, tends to homogenise groups of refugees as vulnerable. First, this overlooks the diverse experiences, skills, and resilience of refugees, positioning them as victims, particularly for women, girls, and Disabled people. This portrayal can be disempowering as it removes individuals’ agency and voice. Furthermore, this approach requires individuals to present themselves as victims with little agency, reinforcing harmful stereotypes. This vulnerability framing can inadvertently contribute to and reinforce patriarchal and ableist rhetoric, limiting the nuanced understanding of refugees’ identities and capabilities.

The need to carefully consider how language impacts people’s perceptions is exacerbated by the increasingly hostile and polarising narratives many countries are using to talk about migration and asylum. For example, in August 2023, Belgium’s State Secretary for Asylum and Migration announced that single male asylum seekers would no longer be provided with shelter, with places instead reserved for families with children. Meanwhile, the UK has been working towards housing male asylum seekers on the vessel Bibby Stockholm since April with over 130 individuals living on the barge in November. This policy has received significant criticism from various actors, particularly after one man living on the barge took his own life in December. Internal guidance limits who can be relocated to the vessel to male asylum seekers between 18 and 65 who have not experienced modern slavery or trafficking; do not have complex health needs or serious mental health issues; and have not experienced torture or serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence. At the end of 2023, a report on the impact assessment of the Bibby Stockholm briefly published on the government website found that this guidance constituted a form of direct discrimination on the basis of age and sex, but went on to note that the Equality Act made provisions for such discrimination if justified. These examples highlight the differential treatment of, and rhetoric around, male asylum seekers compared with other groups of asylum seekers, culminating in entirely different policy approaches and decisions regarding the rights and support provided to them compared with other groups of asylum seekers.

Vulnerability framing can also legitimise states limiting overall refugee rights despite their legal obligations. This framing creates a narrative that suggests fleeing persecution alone is inadequate for receiving asylum therefore leads to an ever-narrowing definition of refugees which focuses on specific and subjective groups deemed ‘vulnerable’, with the level of exceptionalism required to meet this definition ever-increasing. This framing creates a hierarchy of deservingness and vulnerability, with young single men, particularly men of colour, at the bottom of this hierarchy. This framing, combined with a culture of suspicion towards asylum seekers, has placed older asylum-seeking children in a particularly precarious position during the use of age assessments. In addition to being inaccurate, the existing benchmarks for the relationship between physical development and age are based mainly on white European children, despite the limited evidence which examines the impacts of ethnicity showing that there are differences in the age at which children can be expected to reach maturity depending on ethnicity.

Concluding Remarks: Challenging the narrative is necessary to ensuring an inclusive approach to refugee rights

In conclusion, while prioritisation regarding resettlement is needed due to limited resources, it is crucial to challenge the idea that young men are inherently less vulnerable than other asylum seekers. Perpetuating this view overlooks the impact of trauma on all individuals and ignores the international obligations that states have towards asylum seekers, regardless of their perceived vulnerability. Stakeholders must recognise asylum seekers and refugees as individuals with agency and complex, often traumatic, experiences and provide resources on this basis. Supporting asylum seekers and refugees in this way, by addressing their actual needs rather than their assumed needs based on demographics, will also better allow them to engage with and integrate into their local communities. Addressing these inherent contradictions in the portrayal of asylum-seeking populations is vital to ensuring a more just and inclusive approach to refugee rights.

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