Wherever one looks, the notion of ‘vulnerable groups’ seems to be growing in popularity. In the ETHOS project itself, two series of studies have examined the economic struggles and legal claims of groups labelled ‘vulnerable’ including young women, Roma, migrants, asylum seekers, disabled people, religious minorities and prisoners. The 2018 annual conference that took place in Budapest also dedicated a thematic panel to dependency and vulnerability.

Likewise, the idea of vulnerability has become increasingly salient in UK official discourses, and nowhere more so than in the Home Office with reference to asylum seekers. Multiple initiatives have been introduced to identify and provide protection for certain asylum seekers labelled as ‘vulnerable’. Stephen Shaw, former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, carried out a review into the ‘welfare in detention of vulnerable persons’ in 2016. Earlier this year the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) published an inspection of Home Office approaches to the ‘identification and safeguarding of vulnerable adults’. A matrix of 24 indicators of vulnerability, many of them overlapping with the ‘vulnerable groups’ addressed in ETHOS, is being piloted to identify people at critical stages of the asylum process.

Such initiatives may ostensibly offer relief to those worst affected by current asylum policies, but judgement should be withheld until considering their rationale and consequences. The popularity of the label ‘vulnerable’ has grown alongside wider denial of rights and reduction of services. The ICIBI report refers to Home Office recognition that identifying ‘the needs of vulnerable individuals is a test not just of its competence but also of its capacity for compassion, both of which have been questioned in recent months’. It continues with a frank admission that there is an ‘emerging picture of negative outcomes linked to our system’ and ‘immigration control measures which deny access to services can increase vulnerability’. Despite the acknowledgement that the system creates or increases ‘vulnerability’, the response is to identify those individuals most seriously affected rather than to change the system. The explicit objective is to enhance the credibility of the asylum system without changing wider policies.

Similarly, the Shaw Report found that ‘vulnerability is intrinsic to the very fact of detention’. Shaw refers particularly to the negative impact on detainees’ mental health. It then makes multiple recommendations to reduce the suffering of the ‘most vulnerable’ but stresses that these recommendations ‘do not go far enough’. The terms of reference however do not extend to the nature of the wider system. The logic of these approaches appears to be that the current system has a detrimental impact; certain individuals are more affected than others; the wider system is set in stone.

It could be argued that identifying and safeguarding ‘vulnerable’ people is better than doing nothing. There is clearly an urgent need to improve the well-being of people in crisis. However, we argue that in addition to failing to address systemic causes, vulnerability approaches have at least three detrimental outcomes:

  1. Reinforcing distinctions between deserving and undeserving;
  2. Obscuring the active dimension of oppression;
  3. Promoting moral regression to sufficientarianism.

  1. Reinforcing distinctions between deserving and undeserving

Vulnerability discourse relies on framing particular individuals as helpless in order to grant minor exemptions to neoliberal assumptions of individual responsibility for hardships. The identification of people as ‘vulnerable’ becomes a means of distinguishing those worthy of support from those who are not. Using vulnerability as a requirement for support effectively relegates those not labelled as ‘vulnerable’ to the ranks of the undeserving. As disabled activist and academic Jenny Morris has written, we should be ‘campaigning to remove the policies and practices which create vulnerability, not using the term as a qualification for support’. When systemic problems are narrowed down to individual examples of vulnerability, solutions become framed as acts of generosity toward people considered deserving.

  1. Obscuring the active dimension of oppression

Labelling people as ‘vulnerable’ presents the problem as stemming from individual traits rather than systemic barriers. This obscures inequality and undermines rights-based achievements, including the obligations enshrined in the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Groups that are labelled ‘vulnerable’ are frequently also exploited, excluded or otherwise mistreated. The infographics of ETHOS papers on economic struggles highlight how young women disproportionately take on unpaid childcare; Roma get trapped in low-paid dead-end public work; and migrants face conditional residence rights, stigmatisation and unrecognised qualifications.

As Frankie Boyle tweeted, ‘If the thing you are “vulnerable” to is your own society, you’re oppressed’ (14 October 2018). Or, as Dorota Lepianka pointed out at the ETHOS annual conference, vulnerability describes a state of affairs whereas oppression denotes an agent. The language of vulnerability conceals oppression by recasting its agents as benevolent protectors of helpless victims of misfortune.

  1. Promoting moral regression to sufficientarianism

The portrayal of immigration enforcement officials as protectors of ‘vulnerable’ people reveals and catalyses a moral regression toward what could be characterised as Hobbesian sufficientarianism. Provision for asylum seekers does not seek to achieve equality or rights but merely to reduce risks of imminent death. In the UK people with active asylum claims receive financial support of £ 37.75 per week. Those whose asylum claims are refused have support reduced or entirely stopped. Similarly, citizens in receipt of Universal Credit may be subject to sanctions whereby all support can be stopped.

When state services are cut to this extent, people’s survival becomes dependent on discretionary support from family, friends or wider allies. This situation inevitably increases vulnerability. For those identified as vulnerable enough to be eligible for ‘safeguarding’, the focus is on reducing loss of life not providing what might be considered a decent standard of living. Destitution has become an overt tool of government policy.

Vulnerability discourse is not restricted to the Home Office or state institutions. Civil society organisations frequently adopt these framings to facilitate collaboration and to access funding. However, as such discourse becomes more pervasive, the risk is that it ceases being simply a tactic. Instead it reinforces hegemonic views about deservingness, individual responsibility and sufficientarianism.

We must not allow the scope for progressive imagination to sink so low that protecting people labelled as ‘vulnerable’ appears the only achievable option. Challenging distinctions of human worth, eliminating oppression and upholding rights-based achievements are essential to the urgent task of building a more caring society based on redistribution, recognition and representation.

Those who share this aim should hear the plea from Jenny Morris: ‘It took us many years to reframe our position in society away from that of a matter of protection and exclusion. Please don’t collude in imposing that history back onto us’.

Rebecca Yeo and Pier-Luc Dupont are researchers at the University of Bristol