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Lecture | Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminar (LIMS)

Vulnerability as Normative Concept and Practical Identification Mechanism in the Context of (Forced) Migration

  • Veronika Flegar
22 May 2018
Vulnerability as Normative Concept and Practical Identification Mechanism in the Context of (Forced) Migration
Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminars 2017-2018
Johan Huizinga
Doelensteeg 16
2311 VL Leiden
Conference Room (2.60)

LIMS Talk by Veronika Flegar (RUG): Vulnerability as Normative Concept and Practical Identification Mechanism in the Context of (Forced) Migration. Reflections based on Field Research at UNHCR Khartoum. Dr. Mark Klaassen wil act as discussant.

Many non-citizens end up in precarious situations in which even their most basic human rights do not seem to be realized. This is commonly argued to be due to the fact that state sovereignty contradicts the principle of universal human rights: The principle of state sovereignty allows states to independently govern their internal affairs and to freely decide who is granted access to the political community and resources. States are thus largely free to decide to only assist their citizens rather than, for instance, everyone residing on their territory. Yet, the international community generally seems to be willing to protect and assist those non-citizens in the most precarious situations – regardless of their legal or residence status.

In this context, the criterion of “vulnerability” seems to be developing as a possible bottom line in international human rights law and humanitarian policies below which at least the most basic human rights of non-citizens are not further restricted. Yet, it remains unclear what considerations underlie developments in this direction. Are they in line with what normative-theoretical discussions on vulnerability try to achieve? What understanding of vulnerability is reflected in these developments and why might this be the case? To what extent is the use of vulnerability as identification mechanism for assistance or protection desirable from a normative-theoretical perspective?

Inspired by questions like these, my PhD research focuses on the structural and normative influences upon how vulnerability is understood in international human rights law and in the policy design and implementation of international organizations operating in the context of (forced) migration. In my presentation, I will share my work in progress in this respect and discuss some preliminary thoughts. In distinguishing three approaches to vulnerability (group-based, universal and relational vulnerability) my presentation will reflect upon the following questions in light of my recent field research at UNHCR Khartoum (Sudan): how is vulnerability defined and identified? What contextual elements shape this identification? What meanings are conveyed through this? In excavating these elements I hope to show some of the current contradictions surrounding vulnerability. I will then make some preliminary remarks about how vulnerability could potentially be (re-)conceptualized both as a normative concept and as practical identification mechanism in a way that is responsive to these empirical findings. On this basis, I would like to discuss whether vulnerability, understood in such a way, could potentially help to mitigate the dilemma between state sovereignty and universal human rights.


The Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminars (LIMS) aim at fostering further discussion across disciplines on migration-related topics and creating an open dialogue between the speakers and the attendees. The seminars are a platform for those at Leiden University working on migration-related topics.

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