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Relativism, Absolutism, and «Cultural Difference». Vulnerability and Boundaries Making in International Protection in Eastern Sicily

Giovanna Cavatorta

Vulnerability came to be a cardinal term for the humanitarian politics of life. On the one hand, it is naturalised as a shared condition and, at the same time, as it is linked to the recognition of specific needs, it becomes a condition for accessing certain rights. As a concept vulnerability tries to conjugate a theoretical aporia: all human beings are vulnerable, but certain subjects or groups are more so. This dilemma becomes particularly relevant in the field of international protection, where obtaining the label of vulnerable constitutes a crucial stake in accessing the right to stay. Through fieldwork research in eastern Sicily, the article moves from the recognition of certain discontinuities in this field. On the one hand, the margins for declaring vulnerable all actors involved in the field of reception, including so-called natives, have been extended. On the other hand, the possibilities have been reduced, through an attempt to improve the efficiency and quality of assessment procedures, which should include a transcultural sensitivity. The article, therefore, engages in an analysis of vulnerability policies within contemporary asylum governance, considering both those deployed by public service providers and by migrants themselves. Showing that the institutional allocation of the status of “vulnerable” is the result of complex and ambivalent practices, involving different actors, logics and discourses, the article explores the institutional will to both relativise and absolutise its work. Also illuminating the dimensions of political economy and structural vulnerability, the text attempts to articulate three levels that are implicated in the use of the category of vulnerability in immigration policies. The article concludes by offering some considerations regarding the controversial opportunity to continue to involve anthropology within this field of study.

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