New research asks who counts as ‘vulnerable’ in Canada’s refugee protection regime

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What does it mean to be vulnerable? York University Professor Dagmar Soennecken (School of Public Policy and Administration, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies) is part of a global team of researchers examining the meaning of vulnerability in the context of migrants who need special assistance and protection.

Soennecken and Canadian collaborators in the VULNER Project at the University of Ottawa, McGill and Waterloo, have recently released their first research report, “Vulnerability in the Canadian Protection Regime” (along with a shorter brief) that examines the policy frameworks related to this topic.

The VULNER project was launched in 2020 with a 3.4-million Euro grant from the European Union (EU). The project seeks to examine “vulnerability” as a concept, as it is increasingly used to define migrants in need of special protection in law and policy.

All migrants face inherent vulnerabilities because of their intersecting social identities (ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, nationality, etc.) but some can be identified as particularly vulnerable, such as unaccompanied minors and victims of sexual violence. Beyond those groups, says Soennecken, questions need to be asked about who else should be included, which vulnerabilities should be identified, and how should they be addressed?

Despite the frequent use of the concept of vulnerability in the United Nations 2018 Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees, there is no universal meaning ascribed to it. The VULNER project therefore asks how legal regimes at national, regional and international scales define vulnerabilities; how decision-makers understand and address the vulnerabilities of migrants; and how legal frameworks and practices affect the experiences of vulnerable migrants.

The project involves a global group of anthropologists and sociologists, as well as policy and legal scholars, who conduct research in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, Norway, South Africa and Uganda. The research consortium is led by Luc Leboeuf at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.

The first phase of the Canadian research, undertaken in 2020-21, examined how vulnerability is defined in Canadian legislation, court cases, regulations, administrative practices and policy documents. The report reviewed 377 legal and policy documents and more than 884 cases from various levels of courts in Canada, including the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The team found that even though vulnerability is increasingly recognized in Canadian law and policy, it is still vaguely defined. The result is an opaque situation in which wide discretionary powers reside with immigration officers to decide who is vulnerable and in need of protection, says Soennecken.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the risks that migrants face on their journey to safety,” says Soennecken. “It has become even more important to understand the different ways in which the concept of vulnerability is understood internationally and then translated into migration law and policy.” 

The authors make several recommendations on how the Canadian refugee protection regime could be improved, including:

  • appointing a ‘designated representative’ to assist claimants in navigating Canadian legal processes in all immigration proceedings, and offering legal aid in all provinces;
  • oversight of, and ways to appeal, the discretionary powers exercised by decision-makers in immigration and refugee proceedings; and
  • assessments of vulnerability that are based on the lived experiences of claimants, not stereotypes.

The VULNER project (grant agreement No 870845) was one of three migration initiatives selected through the prestigious Horizon 20/20 program, a joint Canada-EU initiative. The Canadian team is exclusively funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Fonds de Recherche de Québec – Société et Culture (FRQSC). It is headed by Delphine Nakache (University of Ottawa), and includes co-investigators François Crépeau (McGill University), as well as Soennecken. Collaborators in the project include Anna Purkey (Waterloo), Nathan Benson (Refugee Hub, University of Ottawa) and James Milner (Carleton University).

As the work advances, the VULNER project will seek to deepen understandings of the circumstances faced by forced migrants, and the diverse legal regimes they encounter around the world, with the goal of engaging decision makers in the EU and in Canada in a meaningful dialogue of how to improve laws and policies concerning migrants. For the Canadian team, the next step will be to interview front-line and higher-level decision makers, practitioners, such as lawyers, community organizers and service providers, and migrants themselves.

More information on VULNER and its research is available on both the EU’s and the Canadian project website.