"Vulnerability in Contexts of Flight" - A critical analysis of multiple aspects of vulnerability among refugees
By Josef Kohlbacher & Maria Six-Hohenbalken
As Agier (2011, 158) has aptly put it, "all refugees are vulnerable". The concept of vulnerability fulfils a central function: it serves to identify groups that need targeted support and special protection. In its practical application, however, the concept has ambivalent effects. Used as a "label" that establishes unequal power relations, it neglects existing heterogeneity/s within groups and may lead to an underestimation of the groups' capacity to act. In what follows, we present how our recently published volume entitled Vulnerability in Contexts of Flight advances the discussion on this topic.
Initially applied to risk and disaster studies, the conceptualisation of vulnerability was subsequently taken up and elaborated on by various disciplines. Owing to its application in politics, as well as in guidelines and indicator systems in International Organizations (UNHCR; WHO), the concept has gained additional weight. On the down side, there are some inherent pitfalls to the multiplicity of approaches, applications and discourses and the resulting centrifugal tendencies. In addition to discordant academic approaches, we have to take tendencies of compartmentalization, pathologization and victimization into account.
Vulnerability includes two components: inherent and situational factors. The former refer to aspects that are quasi-inherent to human nature, i.e. a social or affective dependency on other people, basic life needs based on our biological nature, such as those for food supply, physical or psychological integrity, recreation, etc. The latter refer to the need to cope with the challenges of life. By contrast, "situational vulnerability" is context-specific and is influenced by social, political, economic or environmental determinants. These have an inherent temporal component and can be effective in the short, medium or long term. There is a legal definition that stipulates which people particularly need protection. According to Art. 21 of the EU Reception Directive (Directive 2013/33/EU), these are in particular (unaccompanied) minors, people with disabilities, people with serious physical or mental illnesses, pregnant women, single parents, victims of human trafficking, torture or psychological, physical and sexual violence, as well as older people. Furthermore, LGBTIQ refugees are in particular need of protection.
Its relational aspects aside, the concept presupposes the vulnerability of refugees as a given characteristic. Yet, the social construction of vulnerability and the mechanisms of creating and/or denying the ability to act need to be addressed from a scholarly and socio-political perspective. This approach brings social environments, framework conditions, networks, institutions, organisations and discourses into focus. It is necessary to investigate the factors that enable, force or deny the ability of refugees to act. Furthermore, the entitlement of all refugees to universal rights and to social participation must be considered. The rights and needs of refugees and their inclusion in the host societies constitute the uniting theme of all the contributions in this volume.
In addition to highlighting specific problems pertaining to the vulnerability of certain groups of refugees, this volume presents preventive measures geared to promote resilience - i.e. the ability to cope with extreme life crises - and to prevent the development of clinical symptoms of illness. All the authors aim to make visible and give voice to the concerns of refugees who are by definition "vulnerable", be they women, LGBTIQ, people with mental illness or people who do not fall into these categorisations, such as young men and fragmented families. A further intention is to pursue an inter- or transdisciplinary orientation and to point out the challenges for practitioners in refugee work. The authors illustrate the conceptual issues confronting the endeavour to shift the focus to those people for whom fleeing and being a refugee poses special and additional challenges due to age, gender, illness/health, social contexts, etc. The concept of vulnerability is also a challenge for practitioners in refugee work. We attempt to show that the status of being a refugee does not come to an end with a positive asylum decision. The fragmentation of families, problems in family reunification, the long-term consequences of the refugee experience, political violence and torture are factors that perpetuate individual vulnerability. Vulnerability cannot be captured by legal definitions alone. It is the intersectionality of different factors that brings further vulnerabilities to light.
The Contributions in Detail
Monika Mokre deals with the vulnerability of young male refugees. She pursues two analytical goals. Firstly, she shows that discourses on the vulnerability of migrants and the hazards they face do not contradict but complement each other. Secondly, she elucidates the specific gender reference of these discourses, which in effect exclude young refugee men from support services. Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek's contribution is dedicated to the emergence of the vulnerability paradigm and its implementation. Although the term is omnipresent in international as well as national discourses, there is as yet no consensus on to whom and how the term is applied. The author presents the different definitions and approaches based on an inherent or a situational understanding of vulnerability and discusses the legal instruments of operational refugee protection. Sabine Bauer-Amin and Maria Six-Hohenbalken focus on transformations in the family relationships of refugees from Syria. Experiences of flight cause ambivalences and phases of liminality with regard to spatial and temporal factors. The authors use examples from interviews with refugees from Syria to show how family structures, which are anyhow constantly evolving, change in the context of flight. Refuge not only causes a fragmentation of families, but also promotes their denucleation, which as a major consequence leads to efforts to maintain family relationships on a larger scale despite considerable spatial distances. Josef Kohlbacher analyses the resident mobility of refugees from Afghanistan within Austria in the field of tension between determinants of vulnerability and the structural integration opportunities on the housing market. Most refugees prefer to live in an urban setting. As a result, those entitled to asylum, tend to migrate to Vienna. However, this hardly corresponds to a realistic assessment of the real opportunities on the urban labour and housing market, which is analysed in the article. Lena Siemers deals with the situation of Nigerian women who have become victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution. In the course of psychosocial counselling in 2018 and 2019, the author supported numerous trafficked persons and learned about their fates. On the basis of the experience of a young woman sold into prostitution via Libya to France and then to Germany, she describes the practices of human trafficking and the numerous mechanisms of sexual exploitation and oppression young women from Nigeria are exposed to. The text by Serdar Arslan, Cécile Balbous and Magdalena Mach from Queer Base Vienna is dedicated to LGBTIQ refugees, and their specific problems between vulnerability and self-empowerment in the Austrian asylum system. LGBTIQ are exposed to various forms of discrimination, especially to social and institutional racism. In particular, they find themselves in the difficult situation of having to perform their sexual orientation within a normative framework that offers no space for otherness. This contribution examines the socio-political (and legal) situation of LGBTIQ refugees from a perspective grounded in activist practice. Klaus Mihacek and Martin Stepanek of the Psychosocial Centre ESRA (Hebrew for “aid”) analyse the requirements of psychosocial care models for the treatment of trauma sequelae in the context of flight and migration. In psychotraumatology, "trauma" is understood as a physical and psychological reaction to situations of extraordinary threat or of a catastrophic scale that would trigger profound despair in almost any person. The authors describe the requirements that arise for the psychosocial care of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Thomas Wenzel and Reem Alksiri from the World Psychiatric Association, Scientific Section on Psychological Aspects of Torture and Persecution and CEHRI (The Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International) reflect on the many aspects of torture and human rights in an interdisciplinary framework. They emphasise that safeguarding such essential human rights as protection from torture and care for survivors and relatives hinges on an interdisciplinary cooperation bringing together health professionals, lawyers and cultural anthropologists and offering public support for those affected. Ursula Trummer and Sonja Novak-Zezula of the Center for Health and Migration (Vienna) discuss aspects of “irregular migration”. How to offer health care for persons who have migrated to Austria without a valid legal status? Their contribution analyses the results of a study conducted in four EU member states on the economic costs of care for these migrants, comparing primary care and emergency hospital care. The volume includes interviews with two experts on refugee work. One is with Peter Sarto, who works for the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and Young People (Kinder- und Jugendanwaltschaft, KJA), which also attends to the needs of minors living in socio-pedagogical institutions. In the second interview, Ali Gedik reports on his experiences in caring for unaccompanied minor refugees.
The overall aim of the volume is to critically discuss the concept of vulnerability and to provide an overview of the theories associated with it. Of particular concern are the emergence of vulnerability, its differentiations in the context of flight and migration, the danger of instrumentalization, as well as its practical implications. Vulnerability in Contexts of Flight offers conceptual and functional perspectives on this complex phenomenon and provides an overview of the specific practice-related tasks confronting the respective experts. In the context of flight, vulnerability occurs in many different forms, and the resulting consequences for refugees are just as diverse. We plead for a critical reflection on the social and legal framework and its impact on the perpetuation of vulnerability of refugees in the host societies. In politics, the great potential and skills of refugees tend to be overlooked. Institutionally, sustained efforts need to be made to promote and develop the agency of refugees, not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of the host societies.
Agier, Michel 2011: Managing the Undesirables. Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government. Cambridge.
Kohlbacher, Josef; Six-Hohenbalken, Maria 2020: Vulnerabilität in Fluchtkontexten. ISR Forschungsberichte 53. Wien: ÖAW Verlag.
MMag. DDr.Josef Kohlbacher, born 09-05-1958 in Lilienfeld (Lower Austria); graduations in social and cultural anthropology, sociology, German philology, history and Egyptology at the University of Vienna; 1984-1987 researcher at the Vienna Museum of Anthropology (Dept. India and the Himalaya regions), field work in Northern and Central India and in Egypt; since 1988 senior researcher at the Institute of Urban and Regional Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, since 2006 deputy director; main research interests: labour and housing market integration of immigrants, municipal integration policies, interethnic relations in urban neighbourhoods, residential segregation, refugee studies.