Recognising ‘qualified vulnerability’: Obstacles to mobility in the Humanitarian Corridors Project in Lebanon
A Syrian family waits to board a humanitarian corridor flight to Italy in the Beirut airport. All pictures by the author.
‘We live in the era of Ryanair, Easy Jet, Flybuys. There is every way to move from A to B in a safe and secure way, yet there are still people who die in the Mediterranean. This makes no sense.’ (Coordinator of the Humanitarian Corridors Project)*
The Central Mediterranean route, connecting North Africa to Italy, is the deadliest migration route in the world. The deaths of those who attempt this crossing are symptomatic of wider policies of the European Union prioritising border closure and funnelling mobility through ever scarce and narrow channels. In the face of increased human mobility, EU policy is a continuous cocktail of bitter deterrence, control, and externalisation measures pushing the border far past the territorial confines of member states into the sea and towards the very bodies of the humans in search of other options. The result of this policy is a toothed legal barrier that does not correspond to geographical demarcations but rather follows and moulds itself to the people attempting the crossing. However, every barrier bears a certain porosity.
One such example of porosity is the humanitarian corridors (HCs) project, born out of an attempt to increase the availability and accessibility of safe and legal modes of arrival to Europe. The idea for their existence was conceived when the Italian-based Federation of Protestant Churches and the Community of St. Egidio asked themselves if there were alternatives to deaths at sea. HCs were conceptualised to be just that. They have often been described as ‘aerial bridges’ that allow beneficiaries to take regular airlines to reach Italy and other European countries. They are a form of safe and legal pathway that provides passage from Lebanon and Ethiopia, countries of transit, to a single EU member state. This article will focus on the corridor from Lebanon to Italy.
As for their legal underpinning, the religious organisations, well aware of their limitations as members of civil society, decided to look for an existing legal provision. They found article 25 of the Schengen Visa Code which allows for humanitarian visas with limited territorial validity to be granted ‘on humanitarian grounds’, ‘for national interest’, or ‘because of international obligations’. The first Memorandum of Understanding that these religious organisations signed with the Italian government in 2015 establishes an obligation to select beneficiaries in ‘particular conditions of fragility or vulnerability’. The countries that have agreements permitting HCs are Italy, San Marino, France, Belgium, and Germany.
Using the example of HCs, this article will examine the recognition of refugees in a different light through the words of practitioners of the HC project interviewed in 2017-2018 and work on the project in 2019. I will show how considerations of recognition change when refugee status is delayed until after the arrival of people on the move. This differs from resettlement programmes in which prior formal recognition of refugee status is crucial. In HCs, beneficiaries are chosen, granted a humanitarian visa that is valid for 90 days, and then they apply for asylum upon arrival at the European airport. The granting of this status could take around one year. Though HCs are generally a much speedier and more efficient process than resettlement, the delay in recognition also creates some hoops beneficiaries have to jump through. I will explore this expanded and delayed recognition to argue that it actually leads to a more stringent conception of the worthiness of refugee protection – something I call ‘qualified vulnerability’.
Predominantly Syrian camp in the Beqaa Valley.
Borders act differently for different people. This is the sad reality of the current system. Law Professor Violeta Moreno-Lax effectively captures it in the concept of ‘status-sensitive border’, a border that can usher in or deter based on the specific characteristics and politico-legal status of the person facing it. HCs open these borders ever so slightly to people who might otherwise be turned away. However, to pass through successfully, these people need to demonstrate some very particular characteristics.
The first of these is the concept of vulnerability and worthiness. Worthy, in this case, could be seen as synonymous with ‘needy’ and ‘deserving’. Paolo Naso, the head of the project, put it simply: ‘without vulnerability, there is no humanitarian corridor’. HCs’ very existence depends on the premise that there are people in great need trapped in a political impasse. Naso described this impasse as not solely a humanitarian issue, but also ‘a devastating situation of conflict… of real war’.
However, in a situation where everyone could be seen as vulnerable for their previous experiences and current surroundings, beneficiaries need to stick out for their exceptional fragility. Pitting needs against needs to select a limited number of beneficiaries, of course, meets ‘a degree of partiality at its core’, as another interviewee pointed out, and faces what are often called ‘hierarchies of worthiness’. To try to avoid some of this partiality and to be able to go about the work of providing limited visas in an overwhelming situation of need, all potential beneficiaries need to be referred first through other organisations. These organisations assess their specific needs.
‘Specific needs’ could be the illness of a child; the disability of a parent; extreme poverty; old age; being widowed or single with children or a victim of gender-based violence; being at risk of self-harm or suicide; being in immediate danger because of political affiliation, group membership or sexuality; or desperately needing a medical treatment that is not available in the current context. True to vulnerability’s etymological roots, it is often the ‘wounds’ (vulnus, vulneris) – or the danger thereof – that provide access through the ‘status-sensitive border’.
All conditions rest on different degrees of what an informant described as the dependence arising from ‘not being able to do it alone’. Most people who qualify as vulnerable demonstrate a dependence on systems and others for daily life. This dependence could manifest itself in complete reliance on other people for mobility or communication or health or educational services tailored to their needs for survival and integration. This exists alongside a necessary tendency among practitioners to focus on the physical, legible needs, such as illness, physical disability, gender, or age.
Residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of Beirut.
Once potential beneficiaries have proven their worthiness, the next test they must pass is an interview with the relevant embassy to be granted a humanitarian visa of limited territorial validity, circumscribed only to the host country. This is the first time the border presents itself on the journey of the potential beneficiaries – Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, or formerly Syrian-based Palestinians, now residing in Lebanon.
Another characteristic of the ‘status-sensitive border’ is that it follows the people it repels far beyond the territorial confines of the state. It manifests itself in exit policies and in carrier sanctions on planes that affect the mobility and transportation options of people on the move. HCs are no exception. After the visit to the embassy, names also have to be submitted for another round of governmental security checks in Lebanon.
The selection process needs to consider what the potential beneficiaries will experience after arriving in a European country. The security checks they face, both on the part of the European country considering admission and by the country of transit, assess two things: whether the person in question would pose a security risk to the country; and whether they would be likely to engage in secondary movement (beyond the host state). For the former, the applicant’s name is quickly checked to identify any political affiliations and past crimes; for the latter, officials examine whether the person in question has close relatives in other European countries that they might be likely to reunite with. This form of secondary movement away from the first point of arrival is not permitted under a visa of limited territorial validity. The HCs project is well aware of this and sometimes has to ask some rather personal questions about the applicant’s past and their family’s whereabouts outside of the region.
Diffused hospitality and adaptability
Once these questions are surmounted, potential beneficiaries face another challenge: adaptability to the host society. The majority of the beneficiaries of the HCs are hosted in Italy. One of the obstacles they encounter stems from the nature of the funding of the project. The HCs project firmly situates itself in the domain of civil society in more senses than one. Firstly, it was conceived by vociferous members of civil society. Secondly, it is completely financed by voluntary donations such as the ‘ottopermille’ (“eight per mille”) optional tax scheme and support from various religious organisations. Thirdly, upon arrival, the visa holders are paired with a community ready to host them.
Beneficiaries are, thus, hosted – not simply ‘dropped’ in the country and left to their own devices. They are supported financially and emotionally for twelve to eighteen months after their arrival. They are provided with housing, Italian lessons, assistance in navigating the novel health and education system by a community willing to host them. This model is what the organisations involved have called ‘diffused hospitality’, in which beneficiaries are placed all over the country based on community invitations. However, the understanding is that this (financial) assistance will be of limited duration. This model of diffused hospitality is aimed at encouraging the beneficiaries to ‘stand on their own two feet’ shortly after their arrival in Italy.
This temporary financial assistance leads the HCs selection process – prior to their departure for Europe – to also consider the intention and motivation of potential beneficiaries to rethink their lives upon arrival. Their integrabilità (adaptive potential) in the host state forms a parallel criterion that must be considered alongside vulnerability. Many informants referred to their experience as being ‘transplanted’ and ‘re-potted’ or ‘grown’ in another country. In this way, vulnerability is also ‘qualified’ through the infusion of pragmatic considerations of future self-reliance.
Street view of the market in Saida.
Refugee status recognition
The last condition that potential beneficiaries must meet is examined only after they have resided in the host country for a while, and overlaps greatly with the initial vulnerability criterion. According to the Convention on the Status of Refugees of 1951, status can be granted if the person is found to be persecuted for at least one out of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. This is a condition that all potential beneficiaries must meet, but unlike programmes in which recognition comes first, it is neither the first nor the most important one.
This stems largely from the fact that the majority of the selected beneficiaries are what the project coordinator called ‘Serie A refugees’ – after the name of the highest football league in Italy. Syrians are highly visible and widely considered legitimate candidates for protection in Europe. Therefore, in the case of the humanitarian corridor in Lebanon, whether the beneficiaries receive refugee protection in Europe is not as critical as security checks, secondary movement concerns, proof of vulnerability, and adaptability to new contexts. However, this begs the question of whether the balance of the criteria would shift if a corridor were to be implemented from a context that was not hosting highly visible potential beneficiaries. People on the move in sub-Saharan Africa rarely enjoy the same consensus on ‘worthiness’ of international protection as afforded to Syrians.
The status necessary to pass through the border is the result of an ever rigid intersection between vulnerability, security concerns, and adaptive potential upon arrival. To access this particular form of mobility, Syrians, Palestinians, Yemenis, and Iraqis residing in Lebanon first have to demonstrate sufficient need and vulnerability to qualify for a humanitarian visa, which will eventually lead to refugee status recognition upon arrival in the host country. Then, they have to also prove they are qualified enough to be able to adapt and successfully transplant themselves in the new country. It is the merging of these three criteria of vulnerability and adaptive potential that I have called ‘qualified vulnerability’.
This is apparent in the discourse of the people responsible for the selection process when they talk about the ‘light vulnerability’ of military deserters or small family nuclei in which only one member needs grave medical help, in contrast with the ‘heavy vulnerability’ of dependent elderly. At the same time, they talk about the need to balance different cases against each other in their selection in order to not overwhelm the hospitality team waiting in Europe. This means that HCs beneficiaries consist of a mix of lighter cases (single, young homosexual men, families with one child who has a treatable illness) and heavier cases (large families with multiple members who are ill or have a form of disability, the elderly).
The selection team, however, is aware that vulnerability does not disappear upon arrival. On the contrary, this ‘transplanting’ can exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities.
2020 has been a year of unexpected events for the world. It has been no exception for the HCs project. The future of the HCs lies in uncertain waters after COVID’s detrimental effect on the economy, the aftermath of the explosion in Beirut, and the need to sign another Memorandum of Understanding with the Italian government to renew the HC’s mandate.
* All citations are taken from interviews conducted by the researcher between 2017-2018.
Lessons from HCs
1) Regional, comprehensive efforts cannot be replaced by small initiatives. In the absence of other alternatives, programmes like the HCs project are greatly needed. However, these cannot depend on civil society alone. HCs were always meant to be a keyhole operation of mobility not intended to ruffle too many governmental feathers. To truly expand conceptualisations of ‘legal’ movement and understandings of family reunification and need, efforts would have to be regional, not the compassionate initiative of a few member states.
2) EU member states must engage in more flexible border policies. Civil society-led programmes will only be truly effective when they accompany a more porous and flexible border. Programmes like HCs should not be the sole action, diverting public attention from unsavoury practices of border control and extraterritorial measures. In order to put pressure on states and lead by example, civil society must be permitted to maintain the necessary distance from governmental roles.
3) To avoid qualifying vulnerability, civil society and state responsibilities must be separate. When civil society is involved in every stage of the pathway, something will be compromised. In the HCs case, this is, most noticeably, the assessment of vulnerability at the heart of the programme. For vulnerability to not be ‘qualified’ by other considerations of adaptability and risk of secondary movement, civil society would need to focus primarily on what it does best: fairly selecting beneficiaries and offering hospitality to migrants. The state, in turn, would need to do its part with financial support, security checks, and education, health, and labour opportunities upon arrival. Without this governmental support, the criteria used by civil society organisations are susceptible to the infiltration of considerations of security concerns, adaptability, and secondary movement risks. Responsibility needs to take the form of a synergy between civil society and the state.
4) Humanitarian corridors should also be open to other refugees in different regions. To completely equate the chances to access a humanitarian visa of limited validity and refugee status, the corridors would need to be implemented from countries hosting people on the move who are not as ‘hyper-visible’ as Syrian refugees. For the example of corridors to truly extend to the neediest, it would need to be accessible to the less visible, but nonetheless deserving populations.
Hannah is a Research Specialist with Generations For Peace in Amman, Jordan and a part-time LLM student in Public International Law at the University of Oslo. Hannah completed an MA in Social Anthropology and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, with a year abroad at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. Afterwards, during her MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, she focused primarily on alternative safe and legal pathways for mobility. She enjoys hiking, anything involving bodies of water, taking very slow strides in Arabic, and questioning what it means to be a hospitality-accepting vegetarian. She is also an editor at Routed Magazine.