Women and children are the first vulnerable groups in a crisis situation. The term “vulnerable” has weaknesses, though. In the context of human rights, it can become a problem. © Farid Ershad/Unsplash

While the noun Vulnerabilität (vulnerability) is not a term freely used in German, many people have a mental image when they hear or read about a “vulnerable group”. Giving a definition of the term, however, is more difficult. “In the political and legal debate, the term is often insufficiently defined,” notes Monika Mayrhofer, a political scientist at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Fundamental and Human Rights in Vienna. Together with her colleagues Margit Ammer and Katrin Wladasch, she is conducting research at the interface of anti-discrimination, asylum, migration and climate change.

An old concept in a new context

“The concept of vulnerability stems rather from natural-sciences research and is now being transferred to the social sciences,” says Mayrhofer. In the field of environmental protection, the term has long been in use, while in human rights discourse and in jurisprudence, people more often use other terms, such as inequality. Vulnerability only began to be used in this context a few years ago. What exactly the term means in these contexts has been difficult to grasp.

The three researchers wanted to change that. As Mayrhofer explains: “We want to find out what we are actually talking about when we use the term vulnerability. What does the term mean compared to others such as equality, inequality and discrimination, and is its use helpful in the furthering of human rights?” Principal investigator Mayrhofer and her colleagues have been exploring these questions since 2019 in the context of the research project “The concept of vulnerability in the context of human rights” funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

One term, three levels, countless texts and conversations

The three political scientists analyzed the term at the national, European and international levels, combining theoretical analysis and empirical research. For a national case study, they analyzed asylum decisions in recent Austrian case law that include the term Vulnerabilität. Lawyer Margit Ammer conducted interviews with Austrian judges and legal practitioners to learn how they understand and use the term.

In order to learn more about the EU perspective of the term, the researchers analyzed the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Using these insights as a basis, they then did a case study using the Albanian example in order to understand how the term is used in EU enlargement policy. For this purpose, lawyer and political scientist Katrin Wladasch conducted interviews including with employees of the local UN representation and employees of the EU Commission and the Council of Europe in Tirana. “What struck us particularly was the fact that at the EU level, the term is only used in the external human rights dimension, but internally it is hardly used at all,” says Mayrhofer.

For the global level, Wladasch analyzed how UN human rights organizations use vulnerability in official documents on climate change. It was striking that the term is increasingly used in UN documents to refer to women, children and migrants, and it is quite broadly defined. UN representatives speak and write of vulnerable institutions, regions or countries. In a next step, Mayrhofer will conduct interviews with representatives of various UN institutions in order to get a more detailed grasp of their understanding of the term.

Disputed "vulnerability" with consequences

Mayrhofer explains that the use of the term “vulnerability” is understandable but not uncontroversial. A “vulnerable group” evokes many associations, but the term is indeed closely associated with groups. This makes it difficult to differentiate between individuals and to portray them in all their complexity. In addition, the term implies being “susceptible to harm”. “The connotations of the word have implications. Vulnerable individuals or groups are seen as needing help, being restricted in their actions and needing protection,” says Mayrhofer. If a group is vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis, for example, and is forced to migrate as a result, this group is to some extent considered to be unable to take action. But migration could also be understood as active adaptation to climate change. In other words, one can apply a so-called adaptation frame to the context.

The use of the term “vulnerable” could also have far-reaching effects in jurisprudence. “It could shift the discourse to a point where not every person has the right to an asylum procedure any longer, but only vulnerable groups. In our analysis, we found phrases like: 'He is a young man and therefore able to work and not vulnerable',” notes Mayrhofer. Legal representatives respond to this situation by trying to portray their clients as particularly vulnerable.

The future of a term

In some institutions and spheres, people are beginning to shun the term because of these critical issues, as Mayrhofer explains: “We observe that the term is disappearing from EU policies and the communication of some UN institutions.” The UN Social Committee will no longer write or speak of vulnerability. Other institutions are replacing the term “vulnerable group” with “individuals in a vulnerable situation.”

At the end of the project in October 2023, the researchers want to compile the findings from the case studies and derive recommendations. After all, as Monika Mayrhofer explains, “If from a human rights perspective we want all people to have equal access to rights, we have to ask ourselves what terms we use to define inequality – and whether these terms do not lead to more inequality.”

Personal details

Monika Mayrhofer studied political science at the University of Vienna. She currently holds a position as Senior Social Science Researcher at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Fundamental and Human Rights, where she conducts research on climate change and mobility – migration – displacement, climate policy and gender equality, anti-discrimination and intersectionality, and the European human rights system. The project “The concept of vulnerability in a human rights context” (2019–2023) receives roughly EUR 405,000 in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF.


Monika Mayrhofer and Margit Ammer (forthcoming): Climate Mobility in Austrian Asylum Procedures, in: Frontiers in Climate, Sec. Climate Mobility 2022

Monika Mayrhofer: Victims, security threats or agents? - Framing climate change-related mobility in international human rights documents, in: International Journal of Law, Language & Discourse, Vol. 8, 2020 (pdf)

Monika Mayrhofer: The challenges of the concept of vulnerability in the human rights context from a discourse-analytical perspective, in: Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte, Vol. 14 (2), 2020