Male Refugees Deserve Asylum, Too

By Noah Berlatsky

An exhausted Syrian man is dragged out of the water after swimming the last 50 meters to shore as migrant families from Syria arrive in an inflatable dinghy on the island of Kos after crossing a 3-mile stretch of the Aegean Sea from Turkey on Aug. 28, 2015.

“Apparently they are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America,” President Obama said recently of Republican politicians who oppose accepting Syrian refugees. Obama was mocking the cowardice and ridiculousness of the GOP — directing his ire toward the likes of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who proudly claimed that he opposed allowing those fleeing the war in Syria to resettle in the U.S., even “orphans under five.”

Concerning the Republican candidates who’ve come out against accepting refugees, Obama continued: “At first, they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of 3-year-old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.” Tough guys, Obama derided, are not afraid of widows and orphans. It is unmanly, unvirile, and generally, well, embarrassing to cower before the likes of the fairer sex and their progeny.

I’m all for mocking the GOP and their callous, racist demagoguery about Syrian refugees. But is the problem really that Republicans are afraid of “widows and orphans”? If so, does that by extension mean that Republicans are justified in fearing adult male Syrian refugees?

Canada seems to think so. A new Canadian federal refugee policy states that only women, children, and whole families will be accepted. Unaccompanied men, considered a “security risk,” will not be allowed entry. Of this new plan, to be implemented today, Philippe Couillard, the Quebec premier said: “All these refugees are vulnerable but some are more vulnerable than others — for example, women, families and also members of religious minorities who are oppressed.”

The GOP may fear widows and orphans. Canada fears single men.

Upon first cursory thought, that might seem reasonable. We tend to see men as more of a threat than widows and orphans. Men are violent and aggressive; men are capable; men traveling alone may be dangerous. Yes, the GOP is alarmist and ridiculous in its blanket exclusion of women and children. But isn’t Canada just being prudent?

The problem is that supposed prudence here means excluding and demonizing a group that is in dire need of shelter and refuge. During genocides, men — frequently young boys and the elderly — can be among those targeted for the most savage persecution and violence. In the Balkans war, for example, Canadian genocide scholar Adam Jones writes that “selective massacres of ‘battle-age’ men . . . constituted the dominant and most severe atrocities inflicted on non-combatants.”

Jones cites an incident in the Muslim village of Glogovac in 1992, in which women and children were loaded on buses and forcibly removed from the village. Men were “lined up, two-by-two, and marched into the gymnasium.” A thousand of them were shot and their corpses dumped into the Drina River.

Men were also especially targeted in Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and in the early stages of the Turkish Armenian genocide. Not every genocide singles out men in this way (the Rwandan genocide, for example, did not), but still, it’s not an uncommon pattern.

In an open letter to the Canadian Prime Minister that Jones shared with me, he writes that Syrian men have also been the target of brutal, gendered violence. He writes:

“From the beginning of the uprising against the Assad regime in 2011, younger men overwhelmingly have been the ones targeted for extrajudicial killing, arbitrary detention, torture, and ‘disappearance.’”

The Guardian points out that Assad is “press-ganging young men into the military,” forcing them to fight in order to bolster his shrinking army. Thus young men whose families emigrate to Canada will be especially vulnerable without financial or emotional resources, caught between Assad and rebel demands to join the battlefield.

This is, of course, not to minimize the unique horrors facing women and girls living in or fleeing conflict zones. Reports outlining ISIS’s treatment of women — from kidnapping to sexual slavery to child marriage — are almost inconceivable in their brutality. And too often there is little reprieve from the savagery for those who can and do flee. Research conducted by the UN Refugee Agency discovered that “women and girls are less likely than refugee men and boys to have access to even the most fundamental of their rights,” which includes “their right to food, health care, shelter, nationality, and documentation.” Women and girl refugees also face staggering rates of sexual violence, forced marriage, exploitation, and human trafficking — all while being told things like rape isn’t a real issue.

But perceptions of male refugees are also off. During genocides and wars, the international community often sees men as only potential aggressors, not as victims, Jones told me in a brief interview. “How often have you heard a claim like, ‘Three-quarters of the world’s refugees are women and children?’” he asked.

This figure makes it sound like men are a small minority of those in need of asylum. In fact, though, since around 50% of worldwide refugee populations are under 18, the figure simply means that half of refugees are children and another 25% are women. You could as easily and accurately say that 75% of refugees are men and children. “But,” Jones said, “declaring ‘half of the world’s refugees are female!’ doesn’t have quite the same alarmist ring or political convenience, does it?”

Activists emphasize refugees who are women and children for the same reason that Obama talked about “widows and orphans”; women and children are seen as naturally virtuous and victimized. Talking about them is a way to highlight the neediness, and harmlessness, of refugees. It’s a tactical choice to leverage gender stereotypes in an effort to elicit sympathy and compassion.

Unfortunately, as the Canadian policy shows, this use of gender stereotypes can have serious consequences. It plays into false, sexist assumptions about female helplessness. And it suggests, also falsely, that men cannot be victims — and that male refugees require, and deserve, no sympathy or aid.

It also reinforces longstanding prejudices around minority men and minority women. Feminist author Vron Ware notes that “deep-rooted ideas about racial hierarchy, white supremacy, and Christian hegemony” are “bolstered by the notion that ‘we’ in the west are ‘civilized’ because we are more liberal on questions of gender equality and sexuality.” Just as intervention in Afghanistan is justified on the grounds that America needs to save and protect Afghan women from Afghan men, in narratives about refugees, Western culture and Western nations are positioned as noble saviors, swooping in to save Middle Eastern women from vicious, animalistic, savage Middle Eastern men. Refugee policy is hopelessly entangled with racist fantasies of chivalry and white savior narratives.

To disentangle it, we need to recognize that refugees need asylum not because of who they are, but because of what has happened to them — and what will happen to them if they are not offered shelter. The problem with anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric is not cowardice — it’s cruelty and racism. Focusing on women and children refugees as Obama has may seem like a way to elicit sympathy. But such tactics simply reinforce gender and racial stereotypes, and ultimately backfire, failing some of the world’s most desperate populations.

Male Syrian refugees aren’t somehow by nature terrorists, jihadists, and monsters. They’re human beings who have faced horrible violence. Men need help and asylum too. And until we convince ourselves of that, refugee policies will continue to be based in hatred, ignorance, and fear.


Lead image credit: Flickr/Freedom House

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