Humanitarianism with a neo-liberal face: vulnerability intervention as vulnerability redistribution

Sozer H.

JOURNAL OF ETHNIC AND MIGRATION STUDIES, vol.46, no.11, pp.2163-2180, 2020 (SSCI) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 46 Issue: 11
  • Publication Date: 2020
  • Doi Number: 10.1080/1369183x.2019.1573661
  • Journal Indexes: Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), Scopus, Academic Search Premier, International Bibliography of Social Sciences, EBSCO Education Source, Educational research abstracts (ERA), Geobase, Index Islamicus, Political Science Complete, Public Affairs Index, Social services abstracts, Sociological abstracts, Worldwide Political Science Abstracts
  • Page Numbers: pp.2163-2180
  • Keywords: Vulnerability, distribution, redistribution, humanitarianism, cash-transfer, neo-liberalism, RESILIENCE, REFUGEES
  • Middle East Technical University Affiliated: Yes


The notion of vulnerability has recently gained prominence in humanitarian discourses. This article examines the contemporary humanitarian deployment of the notion of vulnerability, with respect to Syrian forced migrants. It argues that current humanitarian deployment of vulnerability hints the emergence of a new humanitarian morality responding to and reproducing neo-liberal political-economic configurations. The article, first, identifies a recent shift in humanitarianism's lexicon of concern from forced migrants' vulnerability to 'vulnerable' forced migrants. Accordingly, it became thinkable, morally acceptable, reasonable, and even desirable to provide humanitarian assistance only to segments of forced migrants. 'The vulnerable' becomes an unevenly distributed label. Second, it examines neo-liberal vulnerability interventions via cash-transfer by means of specific redistributive schemas. It claims that such interventions indicate not only a discriminatory distribution of assistance but also a recalibration of the purpose of humanitarian assistance from relief to terminating migrants' use of negative coping strategies. Finally, such deployment of vulnerability, at best, redistribute vulnerability, if not in financial terms, by jeopardizing 'vulnerable' migrants' relations within and outside the migrant community. Overall, the article problematises the use of the notion of vulnerability in humanitarianism for its damaging effects made between all forced migrants deserving of humanitarian empathy and the newly 'vulnerable' forced migrant.