When “vulnerability” is at stake: discourses on precarious lives in Marseille

On the one hand, vulnerability is controlling, restricting, and patrolling access to protection, health, and welfare for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. On the other hand, vulnerability can be strategically mobilized by asylum seekers and undocumented migrants themselves, as a claim for the inclusion of those who are otherwise not protected by the nation-state.

By Christine M. Jacobsen and Pascaline Chappart, the University of Bergen

Last November, as France was envisaging a gradual exit from its second national COVID-lockdown, the police evacuated several apartment buildings in the Petit Séminaire low-income apartment blocks (HLM) in the Quartiers Nord of Marseille, one of the poorest suburbs in Europe. The city council had previously issued a decree of imminent danger due to the unsafe condition of the buildings. For several months, the flats had been squatted by between 150 and 300 West- African asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

Humanitarian associations and activists supported the evicted residents and denounced eviction without relocation.

Prior to the eviction, the city council of Marseille had called out to the State demanding “the effective care of vulnerable persons as soon as possible and […] the provision of supporting measures and emergency accommodations at the earliest possible stage”.

The city also asked for “the unconditional sheltering of the squatters during the winter truce”, a period during which decisions to evict tenants should normally be suspended. Urgency evacuations still take place though, with reference to the security of inhabitants, control of identity, insalubrity, or damage made by residents.

This eviction allows us to unpack some dimensions of vulnerability in the French socio-political context. As we saw, the city emphasized “care of vulnerable persons” when reminding the State of its obligation to provide support and notably accommodations as provided by the law and in reference to the enforceable right to housing. But what does it take to be a ‘vulnerable person’ when you are an asylum seeker or an undocumented migrant?

Gendered vulnerabilities

Due to the scarcity of housing dedicated to asylum seekers in Marseille and more generally at a national level, the assessment of ‘vulnerability’ in relation to accommodation has been understood and operationalized in a gradually more restrictive manner by local authorities.

For instance, from 2018, only women who are 8 months pregnant or more and who possess a medical certificate are considered as having a ‘special need’ for housing.[i] In this sense, the very notion of vulnerability, and its limitations, can be understood as a political tool aiming at managing the structural shortage of budgetary funding allocated to reception conditions of asylum seekers.

This restricted understanding of vulnerability was challenged during the eviction from the Petit Séminaire, as the media and activists particularly emphasized the presence of women and children.

During an interview conducted as part of PROTECT data collection, Abdel, who was one of the co-founders of a self-organized association of asylum seekers, l’Association des usagers de la Pada, decried the restrictive application of the criteria of vulnerability by authorities by referencing how not even women and children were found sufficiently vulnerable to be protected from eviction.

Bolstering the criminalization of migrants

A different approach to gendered vulnerability was articulated by Marion Bareille, the mayor of the 13 and 14 arrondissements, who represents the right-wing party Les Républicains. In local media, she decried the presence among the squatters of ‘migrant smugglers’, ‘mafia’, and ‘women forced into prostitution[i].

She appealed to the State to take care of the evicted and stated that the local area could not ‘take’ any more of these ‘problems’. Mobilizing a trafficking discourse could have led to identifying the women at Petit Séminaire as ‘vulnerable persons’.

In this case, however, it seems rather to bolster the criminalization of the evicted residents, as explicitly formulated by the far right-wing former district mayor Stéphane Ravier, who called for the deportation of the ‘illegal migrants’.[i].

As we see in this example, the question of gendered vulnerabilities tends to be reduced to a question of identifying and labeling ‘vulnerable persons’, selecting them for exceptional care measures. Some actors, however, moved towards a consideration of the structural features that produce vulnerability.

Abdel from l’Association des usagers de la Pada, who we quoted above, thus explained that: ‘These women [who were evicted from the Petit Séminaire] have nothing; they do not have work, and they do not receive the financial assistance for asylum seekers (ADA), yet they are not considered vulnerable.’

The pandemic as a magnifying glass for structural inequalities

The sanitary emergency caused by Covid-19 has magnified and exacerbated vulnerabilities stemming from intersecting structural relations of power and domination related to legal status, economic precarity, and gender. 

Housing is particularly interesting since measures to stall the pandemic largely focused on the home as a protective space, reducing people’s mobility outside of their homes. And yet, in Marseille many asylum seekers as well as undocumented migrants live in makeshift camps or squats or depend on temporary emergency housing structures, which already were overfilled and in a bad sanitary state before the pandemic.

While authorities stated their intentions to extend sheltering to all during the sanitary crisis, many remained without shelter or were even evicted from their temporary homes, like the residents of Petit Séminaire.

During the pandemic, lack of ‘a home’ exposes people both to severe health risk and the risk of being fined for violating confinement regulations.

In a public revendication, the migrants evicted denounced the insupportable living conditions that the eviction and temporary relocation in low-cost hotels run by the prefecture had caused.

While the asylum seekers were guaranteed housing in hotels until the end of the winter truce, those in an irregular situation continue to live under permanent insecurity and the threat of further eviction and expulsion.  

The cost of renting in the private market is unobtainable for those living off the economic support allocated to asylum seekers alone, or for undocumented migrants who do not receive such support. In France, most asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are not permitted to work and depend on finding work in the informal economy.

The latter group is usually not covered by the national schemes of salary support mobilized during the pandemic.

Furthermore, while mobility to and from work is protected for those in the regular working life who cannot work remotely, many construction workers, domestic workers, and sex workers have had their mobilities restricted and controlled – including through fines for breaking lockdown rules – in such a way that their livelihoods have become more exposed and sometimes impossible to sustain.

The exacerbated vulnerability of sex workers during the pandemic was the topic of an interpellation addressed by the sex workers union Syndicat du travail sexuel to President Macron in April 2020 so as to draw attention to the lack of emergency funding for those who lost their income during the pandemic: ‘The current health crisis is occurring in a context where sex workers are already vulnerable and in increasingly precarious situations, a consequence of the 2016 law that introduced the penalization of clients.’

A critical intersectional approach to vulnerabilities

These two petitions problematize the ways in which the question of vulnerability tends to be reduced to a labeling process. Rather, they point to structural inequalities related to legal status, economic precarity, and gender.

Taking these interventions seriously means that in thinking through issues of inequality and migration, we need to engage critically with the uses to which ‘vulnerability’ is currently being put.

On the one hand, vulnerability is controlling, restricting, and patrolling access to protection, health, and welfare for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. On the other hand, vulnerability can be strategically mobilized by asylum seekers and undocumented migrants themselves, as a claim for the inclusion of those who are otherwise not protected by the nation-state.

As one activist in a local network advocating the right for asylum seekers stated in an interview we did with her, ‘Vulnerability is perverse. We [the associations and activists] use it, but it turns against us’.

Legally enshrining vulnerability

In France, legislative and statutory texts regarding migration and asylum policies are classified in the Code of entry and residence of aliens and the right to asylum (Ceseda). In 2015, the transposition of the EU Directive on reception conditions of asylum seekers (2013/33/EU) into French legislation introduced the notion of “vulnerability” in the article L. 744-6 of the Ceseda entitled “needs assessment”.

This notion is related to the provision of accommodation, material support, and specific procedural guarantees for asylum seekers considered as “vulnerable”. In charge of assessing the vulnerabilities of asylum seekers, the officials of the French Office for immigration and integration (OFII) use a brief questionnaire focused on “accommodation needs” and “adaptation needs” for pregnant women, persons with disabilities (sensory and motor) or health issues.

Thus, to quote a civil servant in charge of this assessment, the administration focuses on “objective vulnerabilities”. This interpretation of “vulnerability” considerably reduces the scope of application of this notion, as provided for in the European Reception Directive.

[i] Observatoire Asile Marseille, 2018, L’asile en exil. Etat des lieux de l’accueil des personnes en demande d’asile à Marseille 2017-2048, p. 108-109.

[ii] Le squat du Petit Séminaire à Marseille évacué ce lundi matin – YouTube, accessed 23.02.2021

[iii] Idem