Invisible Victimisation: The Gendered Politics of the Refugee Crisis

Foreword: This is an essay I wrote as part of my undergraduate degree. Note that the text has been edited and the references removed to better fit this platform (to ask for a source, please contact me here). I realise that the tone and length may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but nevertheless, I feel that it is important to share this. I fear that with so many dreadful events reported everyday in the media, we will become – if we haven’t already – desensitised to the injustices of our governments.

The global refugee crisis is believed to be the worst humanitarian disaster since the second world war. Fleeing from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, we might presume that the only factor influencing the refugee experience prior to these individuals’ resettlement is the degree of suffering they endured. However, many do not reach the point of resettlement because a large obstacle faced when seeking asylum is being legally recognised as a refugee. There are many reasons why immigration officials might reject refugee claims, but these reasons often work to veil underlying motives.

Gender is one of these leading underlying motives for rejection of refugee status. Respective gender narratives for both women and men inform immigration officials’ decisions in dissimilar yet equally devastating ways. Through research and case studies, I argue that if the gender identities of asylum-seekers are inconsistent with Melanie Griffiths’ social construct of the ‘ideal refugee’ (as will be described below), they risk being denied protection by the receiving state despite meeting the conditions listed in the Refugee Convention.

As stated in Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who “… owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it”.

To be considered a refugee, applicants must fit into this definition. In many cases, this is straightforward; however, under certain circumstances, gender can be used as a vehicle by which the experiences of some refugees may be discounted.

By regarding the state as a hegemonically-masculine institution, asylum-seeking might be understood as partial to men. That means that men might be more likely to be recognised as refugees than women, and thus receive access to more protection than their female counterparts. Yet, in such an environment, the patriarchal paradigm that rewards men in other institutions can bestow an adverse effect.

The experiences of refugee men navigating the asylum system are characterised by powerful gender narratives. Some even argue that the state’s failed understanding of men as three-dimensional people is more problematic than the disadvantages posed by womanhood. Men tend to be painted as active agents unfailingly responsible for their circumstances; in the words of Ruth Judge, they are “… easily subsumed into the ugly caricature of (the) threatening young male asylum seeker”. Migrant men are often homogenised by the law as immigration criminals, thus rendering their vulnerabilities invisible. By constructing ideas of radicalised and morally deviant men, the state can justify denying refugee status on the grounds that such individuals would not serve national interests. This might be framed as setting men up as ‘better off’ to cope with the situation in their home country, and therefore less deserving of refugee status.

That is not to say that women are immune to typecasting. Not unlike in most arenas of life, they are depicted as naturally passive and vulnerable. According to these constructions, the female body is repeatedly victimised — an image Rutvica Andrijasevic likens to that of a puppet on strings. This metaphor of the ‘human marionette’ conveys how the female body is lifeless, helpless, and able to be manipulated and exploited by the strings on which it is borne. This identity contrasts with the narrative that men pose a safety threat, and perhaps feeds into what many academics call a ‘feminisation’ of the refugee experience.

Photographed by Roger Arnold for the United Nations

Those who have studied sociology and criminology might be familiar with Nils Christie’s concept of the ‘ideal victim’. The ideal victim is defined as an individual who is weak, virtuous, innocent, and attacked by a stranger who is big, bad and powerful. They are also recognised as someone who cannot threaten the interests of those trying to help them. Not unlike Christie’s ideal victim, Melanie Griffiths argues that there also exists an ‘ideal refugee’, with the characteristics of this individual reflecting that of the ideal victim. According to Griffiths, the ideal refugee is “… moralised, feminised, and pacified”, and stands in paradoxical contrast to what men are criticised for, yet are still expected to be. In light of this, the argument that men are more disadvantaged than women when seeking asylum appears reasonable. Gender synonymy — the idea that only women are affected by the gender regime of asylum-seeking — thus lacks conviction.

However, despite constructions around femininity aligning with those of the ideal refugee, female asylum-seekers are affected in other ways. In the Refugee Convention, we observe that the definition of a refugee is problematic because it operates under the assumption that all refugees share the same experiences and treatment regardless of their gendered identities. Issues pertaining to this arise when we consider how individuals more likely to be recognised as refugees are those who visibly participate in political activism. These individuals tend to be men, as women are more likely to engage in supportive roles that might not meet widespread understandings of political activism, and hence fly under the radar of immigration officials. The actions of these women are consequently rendered apolitical and invisible, and this invisibility greatly reduces their chance of being recognised as political refugees.

The invisibility of the political victimisation of women has contributed to the argument that gender should be included as a category in the Refugee Convention. James C. Hathaway insists that gender clearly meets the criteria of a “… social subset defined by an innate and immutable characteristic”, however feminist perspectives are unsympathetic to this. Although they agree that the rights of women are neglected during the asylum process, they also argue that including gender as a social group would only prove disadvantageous to women because of the assumption that women are persecuted purely because of their gender. Such an assumption is dangerous because, by holding their gender accountable, the law depoliticises women’s experiences as political agents. We know that political supporting roles are already rendered insignificant by the state; expanding that invisibility to gender would only regress the second-wave.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees responded to these dissensions by claiming that, “States… are free to adopt the interpretation of women asylum-seekers who face harsh or inhumane treatment due to their having transgressed social mores of the society in which they live… as a ‘particular social group’ within the meaning of… (the) Refugee Convention”. The key feature of this statement is that states can freely interpret what a particular social group entails. This means that they bear no legal responsibility to treat women as belonging to such a group.

Take the system adopted by the United Kingdom: each applicant is assessed as an individual rather than as a member of a social group. Susan Akram considers this to be a perilous gateway into cultural relativism (the idea that moral right and wrongness can be judged according to cultural norms).

Photographed by Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

To further illustrate the consequences of this free interpretation, Akram recounts the 1991 case of Nada, who applied for refugee status in Canada after being persecuted in Saudi Arabia for refusing to wear a veil and resisting sexist laws. She explained how she had been stoned, spat on, and hissed at when venturing outside without her veil, and listed repressive laws such as driving, study and travel prohibition that compromised her freedom as a human being. She also noted that, if arrested, the mutawwa’in — the religious police — would beat and jail her for breaching these laws.

Nada’s lawyer cited both her political activism and membership to the social group of women as the grounds for her persecution in Saudi Arabia. Her case was rejected by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board because her feminist demonstrations were not considered political, and – quoting from Akram – it was “… not credible that an Arab Muslim woman would disagree with the authorities of a Muslim state”. Here, we observe both the invisibility of female political activism and cultural relativism interacting to weaken Nada’s case and serve the interests of the state.

While female refugees must grapple with the likes of the above, male refugees must deal with obstacles of a different kind. In 2015, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would no longer accept single Syrian males as part of their refugee resettlement program. That decision impacts the future of refugees such as Adham, a 29-year-old man who left Syria for fear of being conscripted by the army. “There’s a lot of young men leaving Syria because they don’t want to be in the military,” he explained in the Al Jazeera article. “It’s better than being Syrian and killing one another.” Adham’s punishment for evading service is imprisonment and potentially death, and his solution was to apply for refugee status elsewhere. However, his ability to be recognised as such is complicated by the state’s conceptions of masculinity.

The argument many politicians offer as to why young, able-bodied men should not be granted asylum in this context is that they have a duty to stay back and fight for their country. Trudeau’s decision not to accept single Syrian males as refugees has been supported by the likes of Donald Trump, who drew upon the male-migrant-terrorist rhetoric when he quoted, “You look at migration (and) it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated”. Conscientious objectors such as Adham protest the assumption that young men have a responsibility to sacrifice themselves in a war that they do not support. His case highlights how the state can fail to understand violence directed at men — whether that be inflicted by the home or receiving state — as justification for protection. Both the case studies of Adham and Nada demonstrate how constructions of gender contribute to the difficulty in evidencing a prerogative for refugee status.

There exist many similarities between the experiences of female and male refugees. Their identities are both constructed by gendered narratives that essentialise their trauma, however it would be inappropriate to conflate the two. As explained by Melanie Griffiths, whilst it is far easier for women to fit the passivity and vulnerability of the ‘ideal refugee’, the depoliticisation of their actions and suffering undermines their claims to asylum. For many of these individuals, their womanhood reinforces “… the existing and paradigmatically masculine normative structures of international refugee law” (see Heaven Crawley). Meanwhile, male refugees are disadvantaged by constructs of masculinity that contradict the very meaning of the asylum-seeker. As the case of Adham demonstrates, it is somewhat ironic that states abuse their responsibility to protect male refugees, whilst simultaneously denying these refugee’s rights on the grounds that they have a responsibility to protect their own country.

By analysing the asylum-seeking process through a gendered lens, we can further understand how underlying assumptions preclude the experiences of both female and male refugees from state protection in the wake of this humanitarian crisis. Through such knowledge, we can address this gender discrimination and improve the future prospects of refugees on a global scale.

In the words of Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray, “… gender constructs policy as policy constructs gender.” The ramifications of this are clearly reflected in the asylum process, and illustrates the stronghold gender norms still have over society. Successfully challenging these norms is a process antithetical to all we have learnt, but the best place to start is through the exposure of such biases. If refugees can navigate the asylum-seeking system in the face of gender expectations and ideals, then the impact on their quality of life will be immeasurable.

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