News Release

Migration: What does it mean to be vulnerable?

EU funded project will examine how nine countries in Europe, North America, Africa, and the Middle East address the vulnerabilities affecting migrants.

Grant and Award Announcement


VULNER Project

image: Funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 Work Programme and the Canadian Research Council SSHRC/CRSH, the VULNER project has a budget of €3.2 million for a period of 3 years. view more 

Credit: VULNER project

An EU-funded project entitled "Vulnerabilities under the Global Protection Regime: How Does the Law Assess, Address, Shape and Produce the Vulnerabilities of the Protection Seekers?" (VULNER) has been launched at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI). Funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 Work Programme and the Canadian Research Council SSHRC/CRSH, the VULNER project has a budget of €3.2 million for a period of 3 years. Combining analysis of the legal and policy framework on migration with empirical case studies, VULNER will examine how nine countries in Europe, North America, Africa, and the Middle East address the vulnerabilities affecting migrants.

The Migration Challenge

One of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century is the constantly growing numbers of people forced to flee their homelands. The UNHCR statistics paint a clear picture: as of the end of 2018 there were some 70.8 million forcibly displaced persons, nearly half of them children. This poses immense social, economic, and legal challenges - and not just in the countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, or Uganda that have taken in a large portion of the refugees. There is hardly a country in the world that has not been confronted with the global streams of migrants seeking protection. "A central challenge for migrant-receiving countries is the development of efficient migration policies that also protect those in need," explains Dr. Luc Leboeuf, head of the VULNER project coordinated at the MPI.

Addressing the Specific Protection Needs of Vulnerable Migrants

In recent years, policy and legal developments at the EU and global level have increasingly emphasized the need to protect "vulnerable" migrants, including unaccompanied minors and victims of sexual violence. The objective is to tailor protection policies in a way that addresses specific protection needs. But who has specific protection needs and who does not? "This lack of precision is what makes the requirement to address 'vulnerabilities' so complex to implement," says Leboeuf. The UN New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants refers to "vulnerability" 15 times in key places describing the situation of migrants, and the UN Global Compact for Migration similarly asks States to address and reduce vulnerabilities in migration. "But there is still no concrete definition or shared understanding about which vulnerabilities should be addressed, and how," explains Leboeuf. "Over the next three years, the task of our international project partners will be to address this gap by producing scientific evidence that makes it possible to better understand migrants' vulnerabilities, the underlying causes and the effects of these vulnerabilities, and to identify best practices for reducing vulnerabilities and supporting migrants' resilience strategies."

Supporting Evidence-Based Migration Policies

The legal scholars, anthropologists, and sociologists in the VULNER project will examine how State actors in nine countries - Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, Canada, Lebanon, Uganda, and South Africa - approach the needs of vulnerable migrants seeking protection. "We are tackling this issue on two levels," explains Leboeuf. "First, we will perform an analysis and comparison of the relevant legal and policy documents and State actors' actual practices. We will then assess the concrete effects of these regulations and practices on the migrants themselves, including how they mobilize existing vulnerability categories to support their survival strategies." The aim of the project is to critically assess whether and under what conditions a focus on the "vulnerabilities" of migrants ultimately enables improvement of protection policies. "The issue isn't merely that every migrant seeking protection can be said to be vulnerable to some extent and therefore it is still largely unclear what exactly is meant by 'addressing vulnerabilities'," notes Leboeuf. "Rather, unless protection policies meant to reduce migrants' vulnerabilities are based on strong scientific evidence and analyses, they risk developing stereotyped approaches that are likely to produce unwanted effects. One such unwanted effect could be to encourage a 'vulnerability contest' in which some migrants seek to frame themselves as more vulnerable than others, with a view to obtaining additional protection."

An International Research Consortium

The VULNER consortium is led by Luc Leboeuf (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and includes the University of Louvain - UCL (Sylvie Sarolea), Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (Winfried Kluth), Ca' Foscari University in Venice (Sabrina Marchetti), the Norwegian Institute for Social Research (Hilde Liden), and the Centre for Lebanese Studies (Maha Shuayb). The Canadian research team led by Delphine Nakache from the University of Ottawa includes McGill University (François Crépeau) and York University (Dagmar Soennecken). Population Europe, the network of population experts hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Andreas Edel), will be in charge of disseminating the research results.

Studying Global Social Change

The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world's leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department 'Law & Anthropology' in 2012. Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.