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The famous adage of Simone de Beauvoir that one is not born a woman (or man) but becomes a woman (or a man) by upbringing and society’s differentiated space for men and women, was formulated in 1949 and sounds awfully outdated. Yet, when it comes to refugees, it seems time to call Simone de Beauvoir back to life.

Perceptions of the social roles of men and women play a decisive, if not reductionist, role in how many non-islamic politicians and media deal with refugees from the Syria crisis. In short, women symbolize innocence and deserve our compassion. Men, on the other hand, depict danger. They would be a danger to their own women who they beat, oppress or rape. And they would be a danger to society, as they are associated with violence or even terrorism.

Dangerous and criminal

When people depict refugees as a ‘terrorist threat’, they are not referring to women. Without being explicit, such a statement invariably refers to the male refugee. As Heather Crawley of Coventry University told me, male refugees are increasingly seen as a dangerous and criminal 'other'. In reality, however, the vast majority of men that run away from violence are vulnerable victims. Instead of joining violent groups, they seek refuge to build a peaceful life with their families.

Having just completed research on refugee responses in Greece, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, I have come to fear that humanitarian aid is similarly caught up in gender-stereotyping. There seems a complete blindness for what Maria Correia and Ian Bannon called ‘the other half of gender’, i.e. men. While the concept of gender stands for the social roles of and relationships between men and women, in the practice of humanitarian aid gender almost always equals women.

There seems a complete blindness for 'the other half of gender’, i.e. men

Women are seen within the humanitarian sector as a vulnerable category of people. Even to the extent that women and children grow together (as if womenandchildren were one word) as an amorphous category of vulnerable people. This is not necessarily positive for women. The equation with children renders women an object of care, not a social actor with agency to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, however, psycho-social assistance exclusively focuses on women as victims of violence.

Men could be forcibly recruited, tortured, molested, shot or castrated, but their involvement in psycho-social support projects is rare. When these projects reach out to men, it is usually to engage them for the cause of women and make them advocates to stop violence against women. During my research, I have seen numerous social projects for refugees, and I have not encountered a single exception: all projects are for women only.

Cigarettes

Apart from being more vulnerable, women are also seen as more reliable and hence a better investment than men. There are fantastic and necessary projects that help women refugees advance economically. Many women are given a chance to start a small business. In cash transfers, women are also seen as the better recipient. One of the organizations that I interviewed had a strongly gendered policy. "We provide women-headed households with direct cash transfers. When there is a man at the head of the family, we pay the rent directly but we do not give cash. Men spend money on cigarettes and we even have had cases where men used the money to add a new young bride to his household." I have no reason to doubt this statement, but I am concerned that the lack of confidence in male refugees has become too generalized and leads to a denial of male suffering and vulnerability.

I am concerned that the lack of confidence in male refugees leads to a denial of male suffering and vulnerability.

A recent study has brought out the predicaments of men, and showed how especially young men may find themselves in a terribly difficult position. Men are expected to earn income. In Lebanon, refugees are not allowed to work legally, in Turkey it has recently become possible to enter the labour market, but many employers prefer to hire refugees in informal jobs, and in Jordan there are no legal restrictions to work yet there is very little employment.

Unsettling topic

While many men manage to get involved in wage-earning, a substantial group of men sits idle at home. Vulnerable and desperate. No need to say, perhaps, that neglect of male vulnerability may lead to adverse coping mechanisms and drive these young men to violent or risky company. It is only now, five years into the Syria crisis, that agencies start to open up to recognize male gender-based vulnerabilities. The International Rescue Committee, who conducted the research is one of the organizations reconsidering its gender policies, and carefully starts experimenting with socio-economic projects for men.

Male-female relations among refugees is a complex and unsettling topic, and studying unintended effects of the attention to women leads, in the words of Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, to a ‘method of unease’. Many refugee women are abandoned or mistreated, and too many men play into the vulnerability of refugees to marry young girls. Abuse should be addressed.

On the other hand, this should not lead to lumping all men together and massively cast them aside from the humanitarian gaze. There are countless male refugees who are vulnerable, reject violence, and are sincere in their intention to protect and provide for their loved ones. It is time to put the spotlight on our gender biases. The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) has as a core responsibility to create ‘safe, healthy and dignified lives for women and girls’. Let the WHS also be a site where we recognize the suffering of male refugees and bring gender-based male problems to the surface.

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Thea Hilhorst is professor Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University …
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