The Migration-Gender-Insecurity Nexus

Syrian refugees having rest at the floor of Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 5th, 2015. By Mstyslav Chernov.

By Marie Berry for Denver Dialogues

In the past few weeks, reports about sexual violence in connection with Europe’s refugee crisis have proliferated. Some of these reports—such as the mass sexual assaults of women in Cologne, Germany—have raised anti-immigrant sentiment, while others, like this deeply distressing account of pervasive sexual abuse among women refugees, have highlighted the well-known vulnerability of women fleeing from war and repression. What these reports have generally overlooked, however, is how the security of all refugees—including men—is inextricably linked to international security.

Since 9/11, discourse surrounding migration has been increasingly securitized. Migrants are conceived of as a threat to state security, and recent examples of immigrants involved in terror attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have reinforced this sentiment. This is despite the fact that in the U.S., at least, social science research has refuted a supposed link between immigrants and crime. With the reports of other sexual assaults in Finland, Sweden, and elsewhere in Germany—and the fact that adult men that have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2015 outnumber adult women five to two—male refugees, in particular, are seen as not only posing a threat to Western states, but also now to women in general.

Such security framings typically privilege the security of the receiving country and its citizens rather than the security of the refugees themselves. However, the security—or lack thereof—of all people is linked. In the past few decades, security scholars have moved beyond a state-centered approach to security to a human-centered one, which foregrounds the experiences of migrants themselves. By placing the experiences and voices of refugees and migrants at the center of security discussions, we gain a better understanding of the complex violence they encounter during migration. We may also gain a better understanding of how the security of refugees is linked to the security of receiving states and their citizens.

To better understand the insecurities facing migrants and how these insecurities are gendered, we should look to recent research. Migration, like violence, can lead to profoundly different gender-based harms. For instance, recent research has found alarming rates of sexual violence against women and girls among Central Americans en route to the U.S. and among Sub-Saharan migrants en route to Europe. For women and girls, sexual assaults, intimate partner abuse, trafficking, sexual coercion and myriad other harms are heightened during displacement and migration. Perpetrators of these abuses range from husbands and family members to smugglers and immigration officials. They can also include those charged with keeping civilians safe, such as soldiers, aid workers, and UN peacekeepers (see this recent UN report, or last week’s post on the subject).

But while considerable attention is paid to the vulnerability of women refugees and migrants, much less attention has been given to the insecurities that men face during displacement. Men fleeing wars in the Middle East are often suspected to be former combatants, potential terrorists, or products of a deeply patriarchal culture with little respect for women. These assumptions obscure the reality that the vast majority of male refugees are tremendously vulnerable; many cannot return to their home country without facing punishment or death. They may also face financial insecurity, the upheaval of their traditional family structure, and psychological trauma. Many were also subjected to various forms of gender-based violence in their home countries, such as forced conscription, sexual violence, and gender-selective killings (see related scholarship here and here). Most critically, the men that have left their home countries have often decided not to fight; they have removed themselves from the arena of conflict despite threats to their families and their lives. It is therefore essential to make the personal lives, needs, and emotional attachments of male refugees are more visible in discussions of regional security, and to acknowledge the integral role that men will play in ensuring the successful integration of refugees into their new social context (see a recent special issue of the journal of Men and Masculinities devoted to this issue here, or another study’s findings here).

It is also important to note that not all migrants are equally vulnerable: beyond gender, class, race, religion, language, age, sexual orientation, labor market position, migration status, and many other factors intersect to create particular situations of disadvantage for individuals. Recognizing the multiplicity of experiences that men and women face during their displacement should encourage policy responses that are more in tune to these varied experiences. Promoting security—in Europe and beyond—will require breaking down categories in which one group’s security is enforced at the expense of another’s, and will require moving beyond the vulnerable woman/threatening man refugee binary. Instead, we should look at the migration-gender-insecurity nexus as a whole.


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