General Considerations

It is important to note that ‘vulnerability’ is an imposed category that some ‘vulnerable’ groups would challenge. While this needs to be acknowledged, it is generally held that vulnerability refers to those individuals or groups who, due to age, ill-health, infirmity, minority status or their otherwise disempowered position in society may be open to exploitation (whether physical, emotional or psychological). Many individuals that seek your assistance are likely to have certain characteristics (age, disability, sexual orientation) that render them comparatively vulnerable: at risk of exploitation, discrimination, mis-treatment and so on. Individuals who display multiple “vulnerable” identities may experience greater vulnerability than those who only display a singular disadvantaged identity.

This vulnerability could manifest itself as difficulties or impediments in accessing services – legal aid, legal attention (whether for refugee status determination – RSD – or other access to rights procedures), and should be screened for and taken into account when providing legal aid. Adapting to your clients’ vulnerabilities is important not only in order to deliver high quality legal aid and refer vulnerable individuals to relevant necessary support services, but vulnerabilities may have significant impacts on the RSD process in particular. For example, credibility of LGBTI asylum seekers is frequently doubted in certain cultural contexts, or in others the vulnerabilities of children may not be recognized if status determination is taking place in a context where it is normal for young teenagers to have relatively high levels of familial responsibility or duties. In the case of individuals with limited understanding, issues of informed consent and protection through confidentiality are important and must be addressed with the specific individual’s needs in mind.

The following sections look at the specific considerations to take into account when working with LGTBI clients, children and those with psychological support needs.
It is best practice to establish organizational protection policies or attention protocols in order to mainstream vulnerabilities-sensitive practices and make the relevant information available to all staff.

Also refer to the information on the page Psychological Support and on Referrals to consider approaches for clients who need psychological or other help outside your area of expertise.

The following sections are by no means comprehensive. Vulnerable populations may include:

  • Minors,
  • LGBTI individuals,
  • economically disadvantaged individuals,
  • racial and ethnic minorities,
  • detainees,
  • the elderly,
  • pregnant women,
  • the homeless,
  • Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) survivors,
  • torture survivors,
  • trafficked individuals,
  • single mothers,
  • indigenous people,
  • HIV positive individuals,
  • clients suffering post-traumatic stress disorder,
  • clients with other chronic health conditions, including mental illness,
  • rural unaccustomed to navigating institutional settings,
  • illiterate individuals,
  • sex-workers,
  • former child soldiers,
  • landmine survivors,
  • undocumented individuals,
  • substance users.

While it may be unrealistic to prepare a policy specific to each group, you may wish to consider your most common client profiles and draw up policies regarding the most frequent vulnerable groups you assist. Your filing system may also have a section to record vulnerable characteristics.

Further information: