A Hierarchy of Refugees: Fixing Vulnerability among Refugees from Mali in Burkina Faso

In: Public Anthropologist
Nora BardelliUniversity of Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland,

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This article discusses the pragmatic dimension humanitarian classifications and discourses play in hierarchical and discriminatory practices taking place in the refugee regime. It does so by focusing on the notion of “vulnerability,” very much used in contemporary humanitarianism. The paper deconstructs the two main uses/understandings of this notion: its use as a humanitarian tool to categorize those most in need among the humanitarian beneficiaries – i.e. its use to categorize “people with specific needs;” and its “unofficial” use by humanitarian workers. In addition to being both limited and stereotyped, they are further in contradictions with each other; yet, they both ultimately reproduce hierarchies and inequalities among refugees from Mali. Eventually, performing the ideal, vulnerable refugee becomes impossible for urban refugees in Burkina Faso, and most other refugees too, thus making it harder for them to be perceived as legitimate refugees in the eyes of the humanitarian community.


This article discusses the pragmatic dimension humanitarian classifications and discourses play in hierarchical and discriminatory practices taking place in the refugee regime. It does so by focusing on the notion of “vulnerability,” very much used in contemporary humanitarianism. The paper deconstructs the two main uses/understandings of this notion: its use as a humanitarian tool to categorize those most in need among the humanitarian beneficiaries – i.e. its use to categorize “people with specific needs;” and its “unofficial” use by humanitarian workers. In addition to being both limited and stereotyped, they are further in contradictions with each other; yet, they both ultimately reproduce hierarchies and inequalities among refugees from Mali. Eventually, performing the ideal, vulnerable refugee becomes impossible for urban refugees in Burkina Faso, and most other refugees too, thus making it harder for them to be perceived as legitimate refugees in the eyes of the humanitarian community.


“There will always be a priority place for vulnerable people in everything we do,” stated the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) national representative of Burkina Faso when, in October 2015, she announced the end of food and cash assistance for refugees self-settled in an urban context.1 That day, humanitarians stressed how “vulnerability” was the crucial criteria to receive humanitarian assistance; simply being recognized as a refugee by the host country and the international community didn’t guarantee that anymore. Indeed, vulnerability is used in humanitarian settings as the criterion to decide who is most in need among those in need. “You should not equate refugee with assistance; it is the fact of being refugee and vulnerable that means you’ll get assistance,” added the World Food Program (wfp) country director. What does it mean to be “vulnerable” in that context, and how does one qualify as such? The answer to these questions and the quest for this answer are at the center of this article.

In most humanitarian operations, “special needs assessments” are used to define who are the “beneficiaries” most in need. In a situation where the funding is limited and assistance is provided only to those who are recognized as refugees and vulnerable, it thus seems plausible to rely on those assessments to decide who deserves scarce resources. However, as I show in this article, deconstructing and examining these assessments and their criteria quite rapidly show their limitations in actually assessing who is “most in need.” Furthermore, and importantly, in practice there can be contradictions between the official – from the agency – criteria and tools used to assess “vulnerability” when entering the humanitarian space and the unofficial discourse around “real vulnerable refugees” that is used to decide who gets (discretionary) assistance in that same humanitarian space, as I observed in Burkina Faso. This paper further discusses how both forms of vulnerability (official understanding/tool and unofficial discourse) are conceptualized in fixed, stereotyped, and decontextualized manners,2 and what are some consequences of that.

Unpacking these uses of “vulnerability” as applied to the humanitarian intervention for refugees from Mali living in Burkina Faso also highlights how these tools, discourses, and practices keep reproducing the idea of the “passive refugee.” Refugees still need to be seen as passive, vulnerable victims to be deemed as deserving and worthy of actual assistance by the humanitarian community. I say “still” because anthropologists have critiqued this phenomenon for several decades now – the simplistic perception and representation of refugees as homogenous, passive, voiceless, and vulnerable victims, particularly on the African continent.3 The “ideal refugee” is, therefore, one who embodies these characteristics. Yet, because of how vulnerability is conceptualized and assessed in the humanitarian context, this figure of an “ideal and deserving refugee” cannot be reached, or performed, by most actual refugees, and certainly not by refugees self-settled in urban Burkina Faso.4 This eventually reproduces hierarchies of refugees that are not merely operational ones, which are used to distinguish between refugees most in need in situations of scarce aid. These hierarchies participate in reproducing and reifying existing inequalities and hierarchies among refugee populations, notably those associated with gender and socio-economic class.

Finally, this paper also shows how today, “vulnerability” is in that context what makes political rights operational: “being vulnerable” is what allows a refugee’s right to protection to also include assistance – whereby assistance can be seen as differentiating political concerns of protection from economic concerns of material and cash aid.

After presenting important contextual details, this article discusses the term “vulnerability” in a broader sense than just applied to humanitarianism, so to better scrutinize the implementation of the concept. I then turn to describe the official understandings – by which I mean understandings and definitions of humanitarian agencies – of “vulnerability” and “people with specific needs.” In the following section, the article discusses the empirical limitations of those understandings, sharing concrete examples of their shortcomings. Next, the unofficial use of “vulnerability” and related notions will be addressed. Here, what seems to be the main quality needed to be recognized as a vulnerable refugee is the inhabited space: vulnerable refugees must live in camps, urban refugees are not really (vulnerable) refugees. This understanding of the “vulnerable refugee” reinforces the stereotypical image of the refugee victim which still corresponds to what is “celebrated” – at least on the surface – by most humanitarians I met as being the legitimate refugee worthy of assistance. A worthy and legitimate refugee is a vulnerable refugee; yet a vulnerable one according to fixed, crude, and simplistic criteria, which do not correspond to how vulnerability can actually play out in that context. This is what I explore in the latter part of the paper, by addressing the gap between actual, official, and unofficial understandings of vulnerability as observed in Bobo-Dioulasso – and the unintended consequences of that gap.

This article is built on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with refugees from Mali living in Burkina Faso, where I have been doing research since 2013, at first in the context of a camp close to Ouagadougou, and, from 2015, with refugees self-settled in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. This work is particularly based on ten consecutive months of research carried out in Bobo-Dioulasso in 2015 and 2016, but builds as well on my previous stays, particularly as they provided me with much contextual knowledge and information, and with contacts to access interlocutors in Bobo-Dioulasso. There, my larger research aim was to study the encounter of the refugee regime with the refugees’ lives, hence my “field site” included all places and people that are part of that encounter: refugees, humanitarians, locals, and the spaces they occupy. I mainly relied on “hanging out”5 and participant observation, informal discussions, and semi-structured or open-ended interviews, and used purposive snowball sampling to reach out to potential research participants. I met with humanitarians and government officials prevalently in their offices in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, but also in public gatherings when events were organized for the refugee community in Bobo-Dioulasso. I would meet my main interlocutors, the refugees, mostly at their houses, but also at their workplace, in a few maquis,6 at the former distribution center when events were held there, at my house, or celebrations in different neighborhoods.

And how did some people from Mali end up being legally-recognized refugees in Burkina Faso? The crisis that pushed people from Mali into Burkina as refugees is highly contested, ongoing, and the result of complex politico-historico-social dynamics, and involves an intricate variety of actors from different “scales” and with different involvement levels and goals.7 What is essential to grasp for the sake of this article is that the refugees I worked with in Burkina Faso left Mali following the uprisings that started in January 2012. Some fled the conflict zones (coming from the North); some fled areas close to the conflict zone because they had neither economic stability nor physical security guaranteed in the long-term; and others fled the persecution experienced because of their Tuareg origins (mostly those living in the South of the country). In camp settings, the majority of refugees were of Tuareg origins,8 whilst the refugees living in Bobo-Dioulasso were from several different groups (including Fulani, Songhai, and Arab), and most understood the local language, Dioula, as the main Malian language, Bambara, is very close.

conaref (the Burkinabè national commission for refugees) and unhcr have assisted and provided protection to refugees from Mali since the 1990s when the previous crisis in Mali produced significant numbers of refugees. After a peace agreement was signed in 1995, unhcr and conaref organized programs of repatriation in 1996 and 1997. During the crisis in the early 1990s, the office of conaref was open and operational in Bobo- Dioulasso. It then closed, and re-opened in late 2012, when “the refugees were coming en masse” (conaref officer). unhcr Burkina Faso remained operational after the 1990s crisis, but it was significantly downsized between the two Malian emergencies: at the end of 2011, Burkina Faso was hosting around 500 refugees from 11 countries, who arrived at different times, resulting in the unhcr office only having three staff members. When I started my first research in the country in 2013, there were around 50,000 refugees in bf.9

In summer 2012, unhcr and conaref re-started assisting refugees in Burkina Faso; the two agencies made a support and assistance plan concerning health, education, and food. unhcr is thus the main humanitarian agency in the country and is in Burkina Faso to support conaref which, as the national agency, has the authority to grant asylum. This support is firstly financial, but unhcr is also responsible for the protection of refugees: this translates to supporting conaref in making sure refugees have their required documentation to move freely and that they are provided with legal assistance when/if needed. The Agency also makes sure that wfp provides food and cash assistance to refugees and that the distribution of these goods goes smoothly. unhcr has implementing partners to which it outsources part of the implementation of refugee protection and assistance, such as schooling, health care, water, sanitation, and non-food items (shelter) in camps, self-sufficiency programs, and so on. When I talk about “humanitarian workers” in this paper, I am mainly referring to unhcr and wfp workers.

If this description might remind that of other humanitarian settings, some aspects make the Burkinabè context particular. Refugees from Mali, because of various legal instruments,10 have the same rights as those recognized or granted by Burkinabè citizenship except voting; these include access to the legal and justice system, the right to work and move freely, housing rights, education rights and access, welfare, free movement, free transfer of capital and property. In addition, these rights are the same also for Malians residing in Burkina Faso without the refugee status as, besides the reification of the Economic Community of West African States (ecowas) treaties, the bilateral agreements between the two countries grant all people from Mali those rights in Burkina Faso.

Within these rights, there is also the choice of where to settle, meaning refugees from Mali can decide whether to live in a camp (there were two left in the North of the country in 2015) or self-settle elsewhere, in both rural and urban areas. The situation of refugees from Mali living in Burkina Faso is therefore quite atypical in comparison to other humanitarian interventions around the world, and this is particularly true for refugees living in urban areas. In other contexts, the lack or restriction of rights for refugees is one of the main factors that negatively “shape the opportunities, strategies, vulnerability, and livelihoods of refugees in African cities.”11

Moreover, despite “integration” never having been institutionally pushed or promoted through programs, most of my interlocutors living in Bobo-Dioulasso often said how well “integrated” they felt in their host country. What helps, in addition to a supportive legal framework, is being able to speak the same or very similar language and living close to each other, both before the displacement and after. Indeed, my informants all lived scattered in various neighbourhoods of the city, and most shared courtyards with Burkinabè. Language and socio-cultural similarities, together with legal rights and a positive attitude of the host state and community towards self-settled refugees may not be the only factors playing into the – mostly – successful co-habitation, but they certainly played a significant role. “Integration” as perceived by my research participants, meant they feel at home in Bobo-Dioulasso, with up to 75% of my interlocutors not planning on going back to Mali, even when the situation stabilizes.

What is Vulnerability?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, vulnerability is “the quality or state of having little resistance to some outside agent,” or “the state of being left without shelter or protection against something harmful.”12 The term comes from vulnerable, “which originally meant ‘capable of being physically wounded’ or ‘having the power to wound’ (the latter is now obsolete), but since the late 1600s, it has also been used figuratively to suggest a defenselessness against non-physical attacks.”13

A contemporary, critical approach to the term acknowledges that vulnerability “ought to be understood as relational and social, and […] it always appears in the context of specific social and historical relations that call to be analyzed concretely.”14 If the inherently negative connotation of vulnerability has been deconstructed and questioned in scholarly works – and its positive and/or transformative potential effects have also been highlighted (as the works just mentioned show),15 in the humanitarian realm this questioning seems less central. And why does this matter? Because beyond what “vulnerability” might mean and represent in a more theoretical way, the term has become a humanitarian operational one used to assess and talk about needs.

Zhukova stresses how within the humanitarian realm “the concept of vulnerability is primarily applied to those who are considered the most vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the elderly, or people living with disabilities” and this “can contribute to rendering victims passive, inevitably justifying humanitarian intervention (Bankoff 2001).”16 This is what happens in Burkina Faso too. Specific groups and individuals are characterized as vulnerable in decontextualized ways. Without entering into the debate around the – emic – appropriateness of the term “vulnerability” in Burkina Faso, a static use of the term means that a number of (power) relations and asymmetries that might make some individuals or groups vulnerable in certain settings, can be overlooked or even normalized by humanitarian interventions.17 In Burkina Faso, vulnerability is used to prioritize certain refugees, as the resources of humanitarian agencies are increasingly scarce, but it is implemented in simplistic and reductionist ways. Additionally, vulnerability is fixed onto bodies, spaces, and other specific characteristics, as illustrated in the later sections of this article: urban vs. camp; married vs. unmarried; child vs. adult; elderly vs. adult; poor vs. rich; women vs. men.

So, how does it become so central in humanitarian interventions and programs, to the point of seemingly being what transforms political rights (of asylum and international protection) into operational ones (right to assistance)? This is a question too large to be addressed here in detail, and it is not the focus of this work. However, a historical explanation can be found in Glasman’s insightful work, and his argument that, starting from the 1940s, assessing needs became crucial in the understanding of humanitarian impartiality. There thus has been a shift and today “needs have not only become the metric, but also the moral compass of humanitarian aid.”18

The legitimacy of belonging to certain categories of individuals is constructed on “strong beliefs and deep prejudices” that are somewhat intrinsic in the moral evaluation of difference.19 If today’s humanitarian programs, particularly for protracted displacement situations, center around notions of self-sufficiency, resilience, and work, other notions – such as vulnerability and needs – remain just as central in the everyday of operations and the moral evaluation of difference.20 In times of crisis, “criteria of attention produce hierarchies of need (the more life-threatening conditions receive aid first). But in chronic conditions, where life itself is not the central question, triage produces hierarchies of kind.”21 My work builds on this literature to show how aid can also create new, or reify existing, inequalities, power relations, and exclusionary tendencies. In the rest of this article, I show how these logics can be observed in the use and importance given to vulnerability in humanitarianism, which becomes central in the “ideal and deserving refugee” in the Burkinabè humanitarian context.

“Vulnerability” as a Humanitarian Tool

When I talk about vulnerability as a humanitarian tool, or about its official understanding, I refer to the actual use of “vulnerability” and “specific needs assessments” by humanitarian agencies to target the assistance they provide. According to aid agencies, “a better assessment of people’s needs is a precondition for aid that is more just.”22 However, as Glasman shows in his book, “[t]he more aid agencies have acted on larger scales, the more they have reduced and simplified their definitions of needs.”23 In this article, I link reduced and simplified understandings of “vulnerability” to the reproduction of hierarchies and inequalities among “beneficiaries,” and discuss how these linkages also reinforce the idea of passivity as underlying a worthy refugeehood.

“Vulnerable refugees” regroups several sub-categories of unhcr’s people of concern, that fall under the broader classification of “people with specific needs” (psn), used to define and classify who are the refugees officially recognized as vulnerable, as I was also explained by a protection officer from unhcr.24 The bureaucratic classification of psn is used in Burkina Faso by unchr and its partners as an official recognition of vulnerability; when humanitarians talk about the officially recognized vulnerable refugees they refer to those categorized as psn. People’s specific needs are assessed during the registration process, which happens when refugees register for the first time, upon arrival in the host country, and are then re-confirmed when their documents need to be renewed, every couple of years in Burkina Faso. These psn categories are:25 woman at risk (wr); single parent (sp); separated child/unaccompanied child (sc – “child” is any person aged 18 or less); child at risk (cr); elderly at risk (er – “elderly” is any person aged 60 or more); disabled person (ds); serious medical conditions (sm); and other (O). These categories can then be separated into sub-categories.

In theory, these psn categories are seen as including risks and needs which are not only economical but also relate to access to services, being and feeling safe, the social position of that specific category in the context, and related risks. However, in practice, official categorizations of vulnerable refugees were mostly understood as related to economic and material hardship in Burkina Faso and “solved” with economic/material solutions. The extra support that was available for psn refugees was only additional food and cash assistance, repeated drug prescriptions, or targeted income-generating activities (iga) for women. These measures are mostly directed to compensate items that were perceived unattainable by a psn because of economic reasons, as because of their “vulnerability” they may not have been able to work and get them by themselves. If, in theory, the different risks to vulnerability recognized in humanitarianism are larger than economically driven ones, I am not aware of specific measures undertaken in Bobo-Dioulasso that reflect this nuance.

These classifications should therefore allow for humanitarian assistance to target the beneficiaries more in need, or with particular needs, to make sure that the aid delivered is as fair as possible. However, as I observed in my research, this is not the case, and how this tool, psn, is used in Burkina Faso, does not make for a more just and fair humanitarian intervention, particularly in its relation to “vulnerability.”

Of Specific Vulnerable Categories and Bodies

The first time I met Aissa and Seydou was in February 2016, four months after the start of my research with refugees from Mali self-settled in urban Burkina Faso. When I entered the shared courtyard where they lived in Sarfalao, a neighborhood in Bobo-Dioulasso, I quickly realized that, among my interlocutors, they seemed those in the most precarious economic situation. I thought that from what I could observe: a shared courtyard hosting at least six families, plus two working hangars for metalsmiths but only one motor scooter and a few bikes – certainly no cars – and children playing around on a school day. These were all indicators of quite low socio-economic conditions. At times my first “socio-demographic impressions” proved wrong, but not on that occasion, as with time passing and lengthy discussions with them, it was clear they struggled financially. Aissa and Seydou are Songhai who arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso from Gao (northern Mali) in early 2012, together with their eldest daughter who was four, and their newborn son – he passed away a few weeks after they arrived, they do not know why.

For over three years and until December 2015, they received food and cash assistance from the humanitarian agencies, as every refugee living in Bobo-Dioulasso, and they complemented that by selling soup at the evening market of Sarfalao. From that activity, they would earn no more than $45–50 per month, “in the good months,” which is very little for Burkina Faso. In Bobo-Dioulasso they had two other sons, one born in 2013, and the youngest born during my fieldwork, in June 2016. The daughter started school aged eight, as Aissa and Seydou could not pay for it earlier and they never managed to get the fees at least partly covered by the aid agencies. They were not sure yet when their sons would go to school, as, again, they were not sure about when they would have enough money to pay for the registration fees. No member of their household was officially recognized as a “vulnerable refugee” – by being classified as “people with specific needs” by the humanitarian agencies, which should have allowed them to get extra assistance – because they are a “complete” family, with both mother and father. In fact, a “complete family” does not correspond to a vulnerable subcategory as defined by aid agencies, independently of the actual (social, economic, health, or other) difficulties and vulnerabilities a “complete family” might face.

When vulnerability is simplistically used as an operational concept and tool to “help” (in development and humanitarianism), it often overlooks crucial contextual information and provides generalized and inappropriate analysis, especially when that tool has been conceptualized in a context different from the one where it is applied.26 Vulnerability is socially and culturally constituted; it is multifactorial and depends on many regimes of structural inequality. We are all vulnerable, “but not in the same way, nor at the same time.”27 Vulnerability and needs should be localized within intersecting structures, and we should focus on studying “the unequal distribution of need and vulnerability.”28 An intersectional approach to the term29 would help to better seize the complex, varied lives of humanitarian programs’ beneficiaries, in particular how their experiences are shaped by different structures and power relations. This kind of analysis does not imply to merely describe different categories of identification, it is important to analyze how they combine each other to produce, for example, subjects that are more or less excluded from being valued as deserving of humanitarian programs.30

What happens in the Burkinabè humanitarian context is that specific representations and understandings of “vulnerability” are simplistically attached to specific bodies and/or categories of refugees. Particular representations and imaginaries of “refugee” form the basis on which a judgment about who is a deserving refugee is made and those constructions are based on a narrow conceptualization of vulnerability. Identity markers, taken as monolithic and generalizable, become keys in producing “vulnerability” as used and understood by humanitarian agencies and workers. This “vulnerability” eventually upholds and strengthens today’s discourses on the passivity of refugees.

Concretely, here are a few further instances of why I take issue with the categories of psn and thus the construction of “vulnerability” as used by unhcr and wfp in Burkina Faso. A person is considered a single parent (sp) when she – as it usually is a she – has children to care for on her own, at least on paper. This means that she must be registered as head of household and as having dependents on her refugee certificate. This is the case of Fatou. When I met her, she had a son of 5, and two brothers of 16 and 17, all registered within her household. One of the two brothers was in a private high school on a government scholarship, as he won an excellence award the previous year. The other brother was working as a mechanic, and Fatou herself was working, selling clothes and jewelry in her neighborhood. She was not planning to return to Mali, and met her husband in early 2015 (they married in 2017), a quite successful Burkinabè tradesman who, already before they married, was helping support her and her extended family that remained in Mali. In unhcr’s records, she was registered in the at-risk category single parent (sp) and hence receiving extra support, as that was the situation when she arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso in 2012 and she was still non-married in the subsequent registration confirmation in 2016. On the other side, let’s consider the scenario of another interlocutor of mine: Oumou, a married woman registered in the household attestation together with her husband. Despite also being registered as refugee, her husband was rarely in Burkina and mostly moved around Mali looking for earning opportunities. He did not send remittances, as trading was not going well. Oumou, who at the time had 4 children, all below the age of six, was not considered as needing extra support from the agencies, as she was married and thus had a husband who provided for her. If a woman is married, it seems to mean in unhcr’s psn action plan that she is cared for. Yet this is far from the case, particularly in the context of Burkina Faso and Mali. Indeed, many may be married but live apart – even if the husband is registered as refugee.31 This case also often happens when a woman is registered in the attestation of a male relative, like a cousin or brother. No one goes to check that the stated head of household supports its members. Further, when a marriage is involved, it is hard to qualify for specific assistance needs (except maybe for medical reasons), as also illustrated by the story of Aissa and Seydou.

“Vulnerability” is in this context not simply (used as) a humanitarian tool supposed to better help beneficiaries, particularly as it becomes a stereotypical and fixed discourse to justify which refugees still deserve assistance and which do not. In this sense, while the refugee status is meant to bestow political rights that one’s own state refuses to grant, vulnerability seems to be the way to make those political rights operational, to receive assistance.

This politico-economic role of “vulnerability” is further observable in its unofficial use. Refugees experiencing what could be seen as vulnerability in a specific situation were, as I just detailed with a few examples, not officially considered vulnerable refugees. However, even for those considered as “vulnerable,” officially recognized as psn, from January 2016, that was not enough to keep receiving some forms of assistance, despite humanitarian officers having stressed at that October 2015 meeting that it was the fact of “being refugee and vulnerable” that granted access to that help. This is because there was another understanding of “vulnerability” in Burkina Faso, an unofficial one, yet even more “powerful” in deciding who would get what. And one that was even more “simplistic” in its understanding of vulnerability: vulnerable, “real” refugees are only in camps.

Not Vulnerable Enough: Aminata

“[T]hose in the city aren’t vulnerable, because they have opportunities to work, trade and petty trade, and so on,” a humanitarian told me in Ouagadougou. This opinion was shared with me many times by different humanitarian workers throughout my various research trips, showing me again and again how there was an overall conception of vulnerability as meaning economic vulnerability due to a lack of employment opportunities. Vulnerability should always be defined in relation to a what, and there are many dimensions and structural inequalities that may make a person or a group vulnerable to something or someone, as said earlier. Focusing only on economic vulnerability as a lack of employment, and combining it with simplistic, rigid, and patriarchal idea(l)s of vulnerable categories, is problematic. This also meant that refugees in situations of precarity in the urban context were unacknowledged, and when the food and assistance stopped for everyone in Bobo-Dioulasso in January 2016 their situations worsened, like in the case of Aissa and Seydou, but also of Aminata, who was actually officially recognized as a psn.

Aminata, a refugee from Mali of around 80 years old – she doesn’t know precisely, “but in any case I’m old!” she said when we were talking about age – with physical disabilities and frail health, shared her household with her 10 years old granddaughter, for whom she took care of on her own. They live in a shared and very modest courtyard, not far from the main mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso, just behind a football court and a big open space, where the granddaughter was usually playing with friends and neighbors when I would go visit. Before coming to Bobo-Dioulasso, she always lived in the Timbuktu region, but in 2009 she moved to Burkina Faso with her husband and her young granddaughter, whom she was already taking care of. Her husband passed away shortly after she moved with him to the new country, and when the crisis in Mali started and Aminata understood that going back was not an option, she applied for refugee status for herself and her granddaughter. Her husband managed to buy the place where they live now as soon as they arrived in the country, so luckily she did not have to pay rent. It was a simple one-bedroom flat, but she felt at home, and owning it was an advantage. As she is quite old, she cannot work anymore, and she has not been able to for a while, so she relies on remittances from her children and family, particularly those back in Mali, to care for herself and the granddaughter – “but I never know if they can send something.” Both she and her granddaughter were categorized as vulnerable refugees by unhcr, but, as mentioned, after the food and cash assistance stopped in December 2015, Aminata did not receive even the help that was promised to be continued for, specifically, vulnerable refugees. Urban refugees, even those qualified as vulnerable by unhcr itself, are believed to be surrounded by job opportunities – especially in a place like Burkina Faso where people from Mali have the right to work – or to have someone in their close network that does have a job and thus can support them.

Unofficial Uses of “Vulnerability:” Urban vs. Camp Refugees

When scholars talk about “urban refugees,” this is often to highlight the various forms of “political, social, economic, and legal barriers for refugees in urban settings, particularly as these shape the opportunities, strategies, vulnerabilities, and livelihoods of refugees in African cities.”32 Scholars in this field have discussed the different forms of refugee status determination according to the lived areas;33 social and political hostility experienced by refugees living in urban settings;34 the difficulties of doing research with displaced populations that are self-settled and not gathered in one single space (such as a camp);35 potential differences in identity construction processes;36 and also the role of unhcr in driving and constraining support to urban refugees via a specific policy.37

These works highlight opportunities that refugees living in urban areas might have, but also, and importantly, the “vulnerabilities” and obstacles of various kinds that these groups face. The latter seem to “clash” with stereotypes or ideas unhcr and humanitarian agencies are said to have towards refugees living in urban areas: urban refugees are usually thought to be self-sufficient, autonomous people,38 as well as predominantly young, male, and single.39 Of course, this is far from the heterogeneous reality of refugees settled in urban areas, but reflects deeply-anchored ideas, as I further discuss below. What seems less studied, is how “urban refugees” have been constructed in opposition to “other” refugees by humanitarian agencies, on which stereotypes or ideas this opposition is produced, and how this relates to specific constructions of “vulnerability” found in the humanitarian context.

The notion of urban refugees is, to me, a shortcut when referring to refugees that live in urban areas, most often self-settled there (i.e. not living in camps or organized housing/sheltering solutions), and when I use this notion it is not my intention to reify characteristics that have historically been associated with the figure of an “urban” in contrast to a “rural” refugee within unhcr’s classification system.40 However, this opposition, and particularly also for the sake of this article’s argument, needs to be situated within larger debates marked by unhcr’s policies and classifications. Indeed, Glasman talks about the construction of the – conceptual – opposition of “rural”/“urban” refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the context of refugee settlement schemes on the African continent (where refugee assistance and protection were linked with a number of tasks/roles to be carried out around their organized settlements in rural areas). This created a distinction between the “best possible refugee for a ‘rural settlement’ program” and those seen as harder to “integrate.” The former was “young and able, had farming experience and was willing to contribute to voluntary community work,” whilst the latter included “elderly, children, […] persons with disabilities […], bureaucrats, students and pastoralists.”41 If the “ideal” refugee I encountered in my research does not correspond anymore to the same figure, the hierarchization between ideal/real and “not real” refugees, and its relatedness to the separation between urban and camp (rather than urban and rural) refugees still stands. Today’s separation is just more heavily relying on the specific idea of “vulnerability” discussed in this work, one that creates spatial politics that decide who, among those legally recognized as refugees, have a right to assistance in addition to international protection. Spatial politics that define who are the deserving refugees, and who are not.

Before getting into the discourses around urban vs. camp refugees I encountered in Burkina Faso and exploring their ties with a specific idea of “vulnerability,” some additional contextual information on this situation is needed.

When people from Mali enter the borders of Burkina Faso as refugees, they are usually informed of their rights and duties as refugees42 in the country, as well as where the closest camps or settlements are, and are then free to go where they prefer. Their destination in Burkina Faso, in addition to resources available or networks, also depends on the border area where one enters the country. Refugees from Mali arriving in Burkina Faso from the Malian central-south areas in early 2012, at the beginning of the crisis, would usually go to Bobo-Dioulasso. Once there, refugees either went to temporarily live with family members or acquaintances, or they went to the municipal stadium, where a short-term camp was set up. As that placement was far from ideal and temporary, many refugees were moved a few months later to San-Nioniongo refugee camp (close to Ouagadougou, the camp I did my previous research in and that shut down in 2015), but those who preferred the urban context and who could afford it (as in the city they would not get “free accommodation” as in the camp) stayed in town as officially recognized self-settled refugees.

The distinction between urban refugees and camp refugees in Burkina Faso seems at first to simply qualify two groups living in different spaces (to be noted: self-settled refugees living in rural areas were seldom mentioned in the context of my research, despite being an additional “category of beneficiaries”). However, this distinction is more than just that, it can also mean different access to assistance and aid and, consequently, particular ties and co-construction with specific ideas of “vulnerability.”

In the early days of the refugee operation in Burkina Faso, urban refugees in Bobo-Dioulasso were counted within the national camp aid plan, meaning they were included in food assistance programs, although supporting urban refugees is not “mandatory” in unhcr and wfp’s policies. In the unhcr 2009 policy on urban refugees it is stated that food provision for refugees living in urban contexts depends on the host-country situation, in terms of rights and discrimination the refugees may face.43 No final criteria are given to determine whether food assistance should be provided or not; it is therefore left to the discretion of the local and regional offices (in this instance, Ouagadougou and Dakar) to take a decision. Such decision heavily depends on the choice made by the national representative of the country, a choice that intrinsically also reflects representations that such person and their staff might have of refugees living in urban areas. This was particularly visible in discussions I had with various humanitarian actors surrounding the end of assistance for certain groups of refugees.

The Ideal Vulnerability of the Ideal (Camp) Refugee

“Vulnerability” – taken as a discourse, and not as the humanitarian tool ‘psn’ – is further used in the Burkinabè humanitarian space as the main characteristic to distinguish and justify different measures and treatments for urban and camp refugees, as well as to designate who still receives assistance and who does not. Vulnerability seems to characterize “real refugees,” the suffering subjects in need of humanitarian assistance: “we take care of those who are really vulnerable,” a wfp staff member in Ouagadougou told me during an interview. But, how do we identify “those who are really vulnerable”? This remains unclear. On the one hand, there are the official categories of psn discussed earlier; as shown, they do not however seem sufficient to mean a person still has access to assistance (like Aminata). On the other hand, there seems to be an unofficial hierarchy, constructed by humanitarian workers on the ground, of who is perceived as a vulnerable refugee in Burkina Faso. Yet, the unofficial hierarchy between refugees based on their supposed needs and vulnerability does not necessarily correspond to the official psn designation.

During the meeting in October 2015 when the assistance cut for urban refugees was announced to the refugee community, the wfp director stressed how, because of the lack of funding, they were going to “assist refugees, not anymore according to the legal status, but according to the degree of vulnerability of the single persons.” It was then that he said, “you should not equate refugee with assistance, it is the fact of being refugee and vulnerable that means you’ll get assistance.” In practice though, vulnerability was assessed simplistically among specific groups and, importantly, as depending on the inhabited space, as explained in the previous sections. Vulnerable urban refugees (psn) are, in the unofficial humanitarian hierarchy, lower than non-vulnerable camp refugees. Two instances prove this is the case in Burkina Faso: food and cash assistance for psn stopped completely in Bobo-Dioulasso, while it continued in 2016 for all refugees in camps in Burkina. And, because of a lack of funding, assisting psn in Bobo-Dioulasso would have been too costly and so funding was prioritized for camp refugees (psn and not). For urban refugees, starting in January 2016, even being officially recognized as vulnerable, like Aminata, was not enough to receive assistance.

In April 2016, while interviewing two staff members (a local and an international one) of wfp I asked them why nothing came for psn in Bobo-Dioulasso, a support that was promised at the October meeting. They told me that “even if we want to send something to the psn in Bobo, the costs would be too great; if they’re around 200, it would mean to send a truck for not even 3 tons, for 360km, it’s too much. If there’s a possibility to do it otherwise, we may be able to do that, but now there isn’t funding anyway.” No solution was found during my visit, nor by the time I returned in 2016 and 2017. Subsequently, I asked if one person, when moving from the city to the camp, would still have the right to assistance. One of the staff members responded: “wfp shouldn’t even give assistance to urban refugees, a refugee shouldn’t live in the city. Refugees are in camps. […] When a refugee arrives [to Burkina, or the host country], he must be destitute, he must have nothing. When we speak of refugees we speak of camps.” In addition to having a stereotyped understanding of “the refugee,” to this humanitarian, vulnerability seems only conditioned/caused/solved in economic terms, with material assistance: “even the psn in Bobo were asked if they wanted to move to the camps to keep receiving the assistance, and unhcr would have paid for it, but they said no! How can you appreciate their vulnerability if they refuse even this?” However, those are prejudices and representations attached to a legal status. Being a refugee is a legal status and situation, it is not a matter of what one possesses, or where one lives. According to this view, whoever is not in a camp and is not destitute, should not be a refugee or be supported.44

This, therefore, adds a simplistic and problematic spatial dimension to the use of vulnerability in the humanitarian context in Burkina Faso. During meetings with humanitarians at the start of my research in October 2015, I thought that the rationale for cutting assistance for urban refugees could make sense, because of the lack of funding and the increased employment opportunities in cities compared to the two camps in the north of the country. Of course, I quickly realized that earning opportunities were not that widespread there either, that these opportunities were not for everyone: many refugees in Bobo-Dioulasso, just like locals, were in extremely precarious situations. And not everyone could look for a job, like Aminata. Nonetheless, the cut in assistance for urban refugees and the focus on refugees in camps could seem to make sense at first. Yet, when one finds out that if the same person moves from the city to the camp, the funding is there to support them, and the person transforms themselves from non-vulnerable (independently of their actual situation in the city) to vulnerable, the issue of how vulnerability is used in that context starts to be questionable. A body becomes vulnerable, according to this logic, depending on the space inhabited. More precisely, a body becomes deservingly vulnerable, according to the agencies, depending on spatial politics. This, per se, is not necessarily a problematic understanding of vulnerability, in that spatiality and spatial politics can indeed play a role in accentuating vulnerabilities of various kinds and situations of precarity (e.g. disabilities- related, with architectural barriers; gender-related, if it is a space with high sgbv rates). What is problematic is how unhcr and wfp appear to be “supporting” people to become vulnerable.45 As Fatou told me when sitting by my side at the October 2015 meeting, “they want to put people in the camps, that’s what she’s [unhcr senior officer] actually saying.” In addition, this ignores how vulnerabilities are also present in urban spaces and does not contribute to supporting people in precarious situations in urban contexts. This is in stark contrast to the agencies’ current emphasis on refugees needing to be self-sufficient and resilient,46 but also to the unhcr’s policy on supporting refugees in urban areas.47 Vulnerability is thus poorly conceptualized in separating urban from camp refugees and operationalized, as shown in the previous sections.

With time passing, and the funding diminishing, it thus seems that “vulnerability” helped redefine refugeehood, making “refugee” separate from “assistance” in a context where economic concerns seem to prime over political ones relating to protection.48 Space seems a crucial element in defining who is a real, vulnerable – suffering and passive – refugee and therefore deserving of assistance, a crucial element in producing vulnerability.

Conclusive Thoughts

As scholars have argued for quite some time, the reproduction of an “ideal refugee” within the refugee regime, and thus also by humanitarian agencies, is neither new nor anodyne. For example, it has been discussed how humanitarian interventions/programs reproduce an “ideal refugee” according to simplistic stereotypes, often gendered or age-based.49 This is not to be taken as just a simple unilateral imposition from the refugee regime on the refugees and forced migrants. These are actors that depending on their circumstances may perform such expectations, reject them, or incorporate them. However, these stereotyped figures are not always attainable or performable – as they are representations – and this unattainability can have a series of exclusionary consequences. This is particularly dangerous when corresponding to these figures is necessary to access assistance: indeed, the reproduction of figures of an “ideal refugee” within the refugee regime and humanitarian agencies (i.e., a single mother, dispossessed, living in a camp) is based on stereotypical representations, but their consequences are concrete. In the Burkinabè humanitarian context, a central aspect of this figure of the ideal refugee is that of “vulnerability,” primarily an economic vulnerability conceptualized according to fixed and simplistic ideas of it.

One cannot deny that a significant dimension that exacerbates human vulnerabilities is economic, as economic stability or independence can in itself play a big role in allowing a person, family, or group, to live with dignity. Rights, however, are another element, so is equality, in all possible conceivable spheres, and safety as well. Origins and skin color in the context of Burkina Faso can also make someone vulnerable to, for instance, discrimination, abuses, or assault. Of course, all vulnerabilities could rarely be addressed by an agency like unhcr or a government. Yet, pretending to address refugees’ vulnerabilities and arguing that vulnerable refugees are in camps, as for those it is harder to be self-sufficient economically, is highly reductive.

If the way refugees talk about their “refugee experience” (which I could not develop here, but I discussed elsewhere50) points to the emphasis being not so much on vulnerability as being primarily economically driven, but more on feeling shattered and lost, on the “spending your days doing nothing,” the overall understanding field agents have is economically related and linked with the idea of a deserving refugee as being a dispossessed person and living in camps. This is important as it becomes definitional and exclusionary. The link between economic hardship and vulnerability therefore seemed like the more important one on the ground. Yet even this economic approach to vulnerability is highly simplistic.

In Burkina Faso, a refugee needs to prove their vulnerability to be a “deserving refugee,” as there is a lack of funding and therefore a need to prioritize between individual refugees. The problem is that one can be vulnerable only in specific ways. The narrative in the field – then materialized in assistance or not – wants a refugee to be vulnerable as indicated by living in a camp, and preferably also being clearly dispossessed or officially recognized as pns. Some constructions of “the refugee” are valued more than others in specific places and times, and the economically vulnerable camp refugee is the “best one” in Burkina Faso. When I say valued, I mean it in terms of social/institutional legitimacy given by the humanitarian agencies, but also and mainly in terms of secured financial support, through programs, measures, and food and cash assistance. Here the “deserving refugee” as it is idealized by the refugee regime in Burkina Faso becomes even harder to reach for urban refugees. This is also in contradiction with another figure today very much in vogue in humanitarian contexts, and briefly mentioned earlier: that of the resilient and neoliberal refugee. Vulnerability as economically driven (in terms of access to the job market) is what most humanitarians used to justify supporting mostly/only refugees living in camps, and promoting mostly/only programs aimed at making refugees economically self-sufficient. However, as I showed in this paper, the ways in which “vulnerability” is used in the humanitarian context in Burkina Faso – both in its tool/official and unofficial conceptions – eventually reinforced and reified the idea of real, deserving refugees as being passive victims.

Vulnerability concerns all humans in different ways at different times, and it is a loose concept that should be defined, at least, in relation to a “what” and “when” (defining these though doesn’t necessarily make it a useful operational tool). Taking vulnerability as a condition, as victimhood and passivity, is problematic in that it does not allow us to actually focus on the “how and why” of that vulnerability. “The status of victim […] reduces the complexity of any human being as well as individualizes social problems, including the political production of vulnerability, by rooting them in essentialist notions of the self.”51 The categories of vulnerability I analyzed in this article are another example of how the humanitarian enterprise relies on tools, standards and principles that are understood to be universal, implemented everywhere and anywhere in a supposedly neutral fashion in order to do a certain work for the human good. However, when they come into the specifics of different milieux, their suitability is proven to be seriously lacking, often with harmful and counter- productive consequences.52 For as long as vulnerability is used on the ground in a simplistic and decontextualized way as the means to judge refugees on their deservingness in the humanitarian context, this will create “hierarchies of humanity” and most will not fit the figure of that ideal refugee. Using “vulnerability” as an assessment/evaluation criterion (officially and unofficially) increases exclusion, produces hierarchies, and homogenizes people into stereotyped boxes.53 And it eventually reproduces yet more vulnerability.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Gina Crivello, who helped me shape my thoughts and take on the specific topics discussed in this paper (and many others), and whose professional and personal support was crucial throughout my academic journey. You left us way too soon and are deeply missed.

I wish to also thank from the bottom of my heart my research participants in Burkina Faso that accepted to share their time, opinions, experiences, anecdotes, and information with me. I am also very grateful to the three anonymous reviewers, Antonio De Lauri, Dawn Chatty, and Myfanwy James for the precious feedback on this or earlier versions of the paper, and to the Swiss National Science Foundation for funding part of the research on which this paper is based and the fellowship that gave me the time to write this article up.


That meeting took place in Bobo-Dioulasso (16/10/2015); prior, refugees self-settled in the urban context of Bobo-Dioulasso received for over three years a monthly food and cash assistance “package.”


My idea of fixed vulnerability is not far from that of the “ever-moving vulnerability categories” discussed by Ikanda, F.N. (2018). Animating “refugeeness” through vulnerabilities: worthiness of long-term exile in resettlement claims among Somali refugees in Kenya. Africa 88(3): 579–96. In his work, the author importantly highlights how in a Kenyan refugee camp a certain type of vulnerability – rape, belonging to a minority, etc. – was seen as the most important one in a set period, and refugees needed to adapt their narratives accordingly when trying to qualify for resettlement programs.


E.g.: Harrell-Bond, B.E. (1986). Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees. Oxford University Press; Malkki, L.H. (1996). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. Cultural Anthropology 11(3): 377–404; Fresia, M. (2004). “Frauder” lorsqu’on est réfugié [“Smuggling” as a refugee]. Politique Africaine 1(93): 42–62.


I cannot develop this in the article too, but of course, the way a “legitimate refugee” is represented in a specific context is not just a unilateral imposition from the humanitarian regime. Refugees conform, perform, or negotiate with this representation/figure in different ways depending on their opportunities, resources, or barriers. In the context of my study, they mostly tried to conform to it, as being recognized as vulnerable meant accessing assistance. My interlocutors thus reproduced what could be termed the compassionist discourse: the refugee is depicted as a suffering, struggling, and vulnerable victim – see Inhetveen, K. (2006). “Because we are refugees:” utilizing a legal label. New Issues in Refugee Research 130 (October), unhcr Geneva. However, this reproduction did not necessarily correspond to their life struggles or actual vulnerabilities, but only to what they thought humanitarians were expecting from them.


Rodgers, G. (2004). “Hanging out” with forced migrants: methodological and ethical challenges. Forced Migration Review 21: 48–49.


A bar/restaurant, where one can drink, eat some staple dishes, and at times listen to music and dance.


See Lecocq, B. (2010). Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. Brill; Soares, B. 2012. On the Recent Mess in Mali. Anthropology Today 28(5): 1–2; Lecocq, B., Mann, G., Whitehouse, B., Badi, D., Pelckmans, L., Belalimat, N., Hall, B., and Lacher, W. (2013). One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts: A Multivocal Analysis of the 2012 Political Crisis in the Divided Republic of Mali. Review of African Political Economy 40(137): 343–357; Bencherif, A. (2018). Le Mali post « Accord d’Alger »: une période intérimaire entre conflits et négociations [Post “Algiers Agreement” Mali: an interim period between conflict and negotiations]. Politique africaine 2(150): 179–201.


For insightful work on displaced Tuareg in Burkina Faso and Mali see Gonzales, G. (2017). Displacement and Belonging: musical consumption and production among Kel Tamasheq Refugees from Mali in Burkina Faso. St Antony’s International Review 12(2): 89–113; Gonzales, G. (2020). Mobility, Politics, and Ambiguity. Kel Tamasheq’s Presence in Bamako: The Ongoing, Tensed, and Heterogeneous Formations of Kel Bamako. PhD Thesis, Dipartimento di Culture, Politica e Società, Università degli studi di Torino.


unhcr Fact Sheet | 30 Mar. 2013 | unhcr Operation in Burkina Faso.”


National law on refugees (Assemblée Nationale du Burkina Faso, “Décret N° 2008–755/pres du 27 novembre 2008 promulguant la Loi n° 042-2008/an du 23 octobre 2008 portant sur le statut des réfugiés au Burkina Faso”), as well as bilateral and regional treaties and agreements, such as the ecowas 1979 protocol on Free movement (ecowas, “Protocol A/P.1/5/79 Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Residence, and Establishment.” May 29, 1979, Dakar).


Fábos, A., and Kibreab, G. (2007). Urban Refugees: Introduction. Refuge 24(1): 3–10, p.3; see also Kibreab, G. (1999). Revisiting the Debate on People, Place, Identity, and Displacement. Journal of Refugee Studies 12(4): 384–410; and Malkki, L.H. (1995). Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. University of Chicago Press.


Butler, J., Gambetti, Z., and Sabsay, L. (2016). Introduction. In J. Butler, Z. Gambetti and L. Sabsay, eds., Vulnerability in Resistance, Duke University Press, pp. 1–11, p.4. See also Zhukova, E. (2020). Vulnerability. In A. De Lauri, ed., Humanitarianism: Keywords, Brill, pp. 230–232.


See also the insightful work of Tyszler, E. (2021). Humanitarianism and Black Female Bodies: Violence and Intimacy at the Moroccan-Spanish Border. The Journal of North African Studies 26(5): 954–972.


Zhukova, E. (2020). Vulnerability, p. 231.


For an insightful discussion on the appropriateness or not of using the term and a call to decolonize interventions – and their study – in the “Global South” see Turner, L. (2021). The Politics of Labeling Refugee Men as “Vulnerable.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 28(1): 1–23. I believe that showing the limitations of how “vulnerability” is used in the Burkinabè context supports that call.


Glasman, J. (2019). Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs: Minimal Humanity. Routledge, p. 5. Like many other humanitarian and development discourses and tools, this too is intrinsic to its colonial and racialized history. For further insights on this see also Chapter 1 of Glasman’s book.


Fassin, D. (2005). Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France. Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 362–387, p. 366.


See Fassin, D. (2007). Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life. Public Culture 13(3): 499–520. See also Ticktin, M. (2011). Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. University of California Press.


Feldman, I. (2017). Humanitarian Care and the Ends of Life: The Politics of Aging and Dying in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. Cultural Anthropology 32(1): 42–67, p. 54.


Glasman, J. (2019). Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs, p. 4.


Glasman, J. (2019). Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs, p. 4.


In this section when I use “vulnerable” I thus mean it as psn in the way it was used by unhcr as I witnessed in Burkina Faso. This use of psn, both mine and of the humanitarian workers, is however reductive in that it does not represent the complexity and historicity that lies behind unhcr and humanitarian classifications such as this one, as well as the historicity of addressing “human needs” in that context. For that, see Glasman, J. (2017). Seeing Like a Refugee Agency: A Short History of unhcr Classifications in Central Africa (1961–2015). Journal of Refugee Studies 30(2): 337–362; and Glasman, J. (2019). Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs.


This is meant in a similar way to what Scott-Smith argues about the ikea shelter used by aid agencies, saying that the shelter “does illustrate social norms, but not those of the people who will inhabit it. Instead, it reflects the worldview of its humanitarian designers” (2019. Beyond the Boxes: Refugee Shelter and the Humanitarian Politics of Life. American Ethnologist 46(4): 509–521, p. 510). One could here similarly say that vulnerability in how it is conceptualized in humanitarian operations in Burkina Faso does illustrate social norms, but not those of the people who experience it. And this also relates to feminist works highlighting the reproduction of asymmetrical gender power relations and patriarchal norms (oftentimes Western patriarchal norms) in humanitarianism and the refugee regime. See e.g. Hyndman, J., and De Alwis, M. (2003). Beyond Gender: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Humanitarianism and Development in Sri Lanka. Women’s Studies Quarterly 31(3/4): 212–26; Mertens, C., and Myrttinen, H. (2019). “A Real Woman Waits” – Heternormative Respectability, Neo-Liberal Betterment and Echoes of Coloniality in sgbv Programming in Eastern dr Congo. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 13(4): 418–439; and Bhabha, J. (1993). Legal Problems of Women Refugees. Women: A Cultural Review 4(3): 240–249.


Crivello, G., and Espinoza-Revollo, P. (2018). Care Labour as Temporal Vulnerability in Woman-child Relations. In R. Rosen and K. Twamley, eds. Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes? ucl Press, pp. 139–154, p. 151.


Rosen, R., and Twamley, K. (2018). Introduction. The Woman-child Question: A Dialogue in the Borderlands. In R. Rosen and K. Twamley, eds. Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes? ucl Press, pp.1–20, p. 11.


For the origins of the term intersectionality and/or this analytical approach, see Hooks, B. (1980/2015). Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Routledge; Davis, A.Y. (1981/2019). Women, Race and Class. Penguin Random House; Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1: 139–167.


E.g. Cabot, H. (2013). The Social Aesthetics of Eligibility: ngo Aid and Indeterminacy in the Greek Asylum Process. American Ethnologist 40(3): 452–466; and Tyszler E. (2021). Humanitarianism and Black Female Bodies. For a more general theorization of how intersectionality might produce subjects that are excluded from being valued as equals, as fully humans, see Da Silva, D.F. (2007). Towards a Global Idea of Race. University of Minnesota Press.


For strategies such as living apart, relying on networks, or keep moving between regions and countries to increase earning opportunities among refugees from Mali in Burkina Faso, see also the work of Sadio Soukouna (e.g. (2019). Réfugiés du Mali: mobiliser la solidarité pour sortir des camps [Refugees from Mali: relying on solidarity to leave the camps]. In Se chercher en migration: expériences burkinabè. L’Harmattan, p. 141); and Bardelli, N. (2020). When the Refugee Status Becomes an Economic Asset: How Malians in a Burkinabé City Negotiate the “Refugee” Category. Ethnic and Racial Studies 43(2): 333–350.


Fábos, A. and Kibreab, G. (2007). Urban Refugees: Introduction, p. 3. See also the whole special issue on this topic: (2007). Refuge 24(1).


Kagan, M. (2007). Legal Refugee Recognition in the Urban South: Formal v. de Facto Refugee Status. Refuge 24(1): 11–26.


Kibreab, G. (1999). Revisiting the Debate on People, Place, Identity, and Displacement; and Fábos, A. and Kibreab, G. (2007). Urban Refugees: Introduction.


Polzer, T. (2008). Invisible Integration: How Bureaucratic, Academic and Social Categories Obscure Integrated Refugees. Journal of Refugee Studies 21(4): 476–497.


Malkki, L.H. (1995). Purity and Exile.


Crisp, J. (2017). Finding Space for Protection: An Inside Account of the Evolution of unhcr’s Urban Refugee Policy. Refuge 33(1): 87–96.


Glasman, J. (2017). Seeing Like a Refugee Agency. This is also what usually allows agencies (unhcr, but wfp too) to “forfeit all material assistance (except punctual assistance for the most ‘vulnerable’ and medical assistance),” p. 357.


Crisp, J. (2017). Finding Space for Protection.


See Glasman, J. (2017). Seeing Like a Refugee Agency, p. 349.


See Glasman, J. (2017). Seeing Like a Refugee Agency, p. 349.


People from Mali arriving in Burkina Faso as a consequence of the ongoing conflict usually receives prima facie status recognition. Prima facie refers to group determination of refugee status. According to Rutinwa, B. ((2002). Prima Facie Status and Refugee Protection. New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper 69), this “means in essence the recognition by a State of refugee status on the basis of the readily apparent, objective circumstance in the country of origin giving rise to exodus. Its purpose is to ensure admission to safety, protection from refoulement and basic humanitarian treatment to those patently in need of it,” p. 1. This mechanism is usually triggered by the large-scale influx of displaced persons, and it is often used in the African context, via the adoption of the 1969 oau Convention, which provides for a more nuanced and contextual definition of “refugee” than the 1951 Convention. In Burkina Faso, prima facie recognition as a protection instrument is also included in the law 0.42 relating to the status of refugees (mentioned above).


See e.g. points 114/118/119/120 of unhcr & wfp. (2011). Memorandum of Understanding between the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) and the World Food Programme (wfp).


Here it needs to be noted that if these statements reflect a conservative view that is no longer supported by unhcr institutionally, further research should be undertaken in this area to understand what lies behind such stereotyped and simplified discourses about “real refugees” that can still be shared by some humanitarian workers. Indeed, in a context of diminishing resources, choices must me made in order to decide whom to support among the agencies’ beneficiaries. And these decisions might partly be influenced by stereotyped/problematic representations and ideas humanitarians have about “worthy refugees,” but other factors should be taken into account, including at a more micro level, such as the workers’ desire to make things more “efficient” or “easier,” a desire to simplify the logistics involved (on related issues concerning street-level bureaucrats, see e.g. Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. Russell Sage Foundation), or yet other reasons.


See also Ikanda’s analysis on Somali refugees in Kenya and certain resettlement programs prompting “them to keep vulnerabilities alive” – Ikanda, F.N. (2018). Animating “Refugeeness” Through Vulnerabilities, p. 582.


For an enriching analysis of how these concepts can be paired with vulnerability as “attempts to move away from notions of ‘victimhood’” see Turner, L. (2021). The Politics of Labeling Refugee Men as “Vulnerable.” For a broader discussion on the paradigms of classical humanitarianism and resilience humanitarianism see also Hilhorst, D. (2018). Classical Humanitarianism and Resilience Humanitarianism: Making Sense of Two Brands of Humanitarian Action. Journal of International Humanitarian Action 3(15).


unhcr. (2009). unhcr Policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas.


During the 1980s and 1990s, Glasman sees a conceptual shift taking place within the refugee regime, where despite “the unhcr made a formal distinction between ‘material assistance’ and ‘protection’, it became increasingly accepted that meeting refugees’ immediate needs was an integral part of protection.” Glasman, J. (2017). Seeing Like a Refugee Agency, p. 349.


E.g. Turner, S. (2001). The Barriers of Innocence: Humanitarian Intervention and Political Imagination in a Refugee Camp for Burundians in Tanzania. PhD diss., Roskilde University; Inhetveen, K. (2006). “Because We Are Refugees;” Szczepanikova, A. (2010). Performing Refugeeness in the Czech Republic: Gendered Depoliticisation Through ngo Assistance. Gender, Place & CultureA Journal of Feminist Geography 17(4): 461–477; Grabska, K. (2011). Constructing “Modern Gendered Civilised” Women and Men: Gender-Mainstreaming in Refugee Camps. Gender and Development 19(1): 81–93.


Bardelli, N. (2018). “The Refugee” Reproduced, Negotiated, and Represented: Hierarchies of Malian Refugeeness in Burkina Faso. DPhil Thesis, Department of International Development, University of Oxford.


Feldman, I. (2017). Humanitarian Care and the Ends of Life, p. 10.


Scott-Smith, T. (2019). Beyond the Boxes. See also Glasman, J. (2019). Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs.


unhcr and other humanitarian agencies are increasingly relying on assessments of vulnerability in implementing projects and programs. For insightful analysis on this trend see Glasman, J. (2019). Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs; Turner, L. (2021). The Politics of Labeling Refugee Men as “Vulnerable.” See also Sözer, H. (2019). Categories that Blind Us, Categories that Bind them: The Deployment of Vulnerability Notion for Syrian Refugees in Turkey. Journal of Refugee Studies (published online) – in this latter article Sözer explains how using “vulnerability” in humanitarian assistance “translates into selective assistance rather than additional assistance to some segments of the community.”

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