Tag Archives: gender

Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else

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This text first appeared on the ISS blog on Global Development and Social Justice (BLISS), and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdamand a PRIO Global Fellow.

Leave No One Behind. Photo: Caratelllo via Flickr

Camp Moria, housing 13,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, burnt down on 8 September. The tragedy has been long in the making—Europe has failed the migrants in Moria for years, forsaking them to a sub-human non-life in overcrowded refugee camps. Those of us who hoped that the dramatic fire would act as a wake-up call have seen little progress this past week in the wake of the fire. Europe, except for Germany, has so far responded in a cold and calculating way.

The little response we have seen has mainly focused on unaccompanied children and to a lesser extent on families. The Netherlands, for example, has offered to receive a few hundred families from Moria. The ‘offer’ is even less generous than it appears, as their number will be deducted from the total number of vulnerable refugees to be received by the Netherlands on the basis of a standing agreement with UN refugee agency UNHCR, much to the dismay of the agency.

The focus on unaccompanied children plays into the primary feelings of sympathy of many Europeans. A Dutch woman who started a campaign to collect sleeping bags for Lesbos told a reporter from the national news agency in the Netherlands: “I am a mother. When I see children sleep on the streets, I must do something, no matter what”. It may be natural for people to respond more to suffering children than to adolescents and adults, but surely politics should not only be dictated by motherly instincts alone?

It remains important to unpack the thin policy response to the fire in Moria. The focus on children and families makes a false distinction among refugees that makes it seem as if only children are vulnerable. It is a cheap, yet effective trick that puts 400 child refugees in the spotlight to distract the attention from the almost 13,000 others that live in similar squalid conditions.

Unfortunately, we have landed ourselves in a time where official politics are not guided by cherished and shared institutions like the refugee convention, which stipulates that people fleeing from war are entitled to be heard in an asylum procedure and, while the procedure is pending, received in dignified circumstances. Instead, policies seem cynically oriented towards one goal only: deterrence. The underlying idea of policy comes across as something along the lines of “[l]et 13,000 people suffer in front of as many cameras as possible so that desperate people will refrain from crossing the Mediterranean to seek shelter and asylum in the affluent countries of Europe”.

While 13,000 people suffer, the gaze of Europe singles out several hundred children for our solidarity. The distinction between these children and the other refugees rests on two equally weak arguments.

Firstly, it is implied that children are more vulnerable than other refugees. Whereas this is true in some respects, the level of despair and hopelessness experienced by all people in Moria is shocking. During my visit to Lesbos last year, aid workers told me that many refugees in Moria—children, adolescents and adults—suffer from a triple trauma. The first one was caused by the violence that triggered their escape, the second by the long passage to Europe and the crossing of the sea, and, finally, new trauma arising from the dismal conditions in the camp, the permanent state of insecurity, and the lack of future prospects. A vast majority of the people in Moria qualify to be seriously considered in asylum procedures because they fled from the violence of war and are extremely vulnerable.

Secondly, the focus on children leans on an idea of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ refugees. Children cannot be blamed for their situation and are presumed innocent. The same applies to women in the eyes of most people. Adult men, and especially single (young) men, on the other hand, are looked at with a multitude of suspicions. Men are associated with violence and often suspected to be culprits rather than victims of war. They are also distrusted as they may be associated with sexual violence against women that is indeed widespread, but certainly does not hold true for all men. Finally, they don’t solicit feelings of sympathy because they are considered strong and capable of managing their own survival. Or worse, they are considered fortune seekers instead of bare survivors of war.

However, it is a myth that men should not deserve our sympathy! In situations of war, men are more likely than women to be exposed to violence – killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced subscription in a regular or rebel army. Traumatized and destitute, they find themselves in a situation where they do not qualify for many of the aid programmes that are based on the same gender biases and reserve their resources for women and children. Quite a lot of young men see no other option than to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

Singling out unaccompanied children therefore is delusional. It seems to be designed to placate the large numbers of Europeans who want to act in solidarity with refugees. Our politicians keep telling us that social support for refugees has dried up, but while they listen in fear to right-wing populists, they are blind to the wish of equally large constituencies that want to welcome refugees.

As we are left in anger and shame, let us not step into the false dichotomy of deserving/undeserving refugees. Policy should be guided by legislation, not by false distinctions that are based on and reinforce popular sentiments. All refugees in Moria, irrespective of their gender or age, should be able to tell their story while being sheltered in dignity. All these stories need to be heard in proper asylum procedures—without prejudice.

End impunity! Reducing conflict-related sexual violence to a problem of law

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In our recent article, End impunity! Reducing conflict-related sexual violence to a problem of law, we question the taken-for-granted center-stage position of international criminal justice in international policy responses to conflict-related sexual violence. We address how central policy and advocacy actors explain such violence and its consequences for targeted individuals in order to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. With the help of apt analytical tools provided by framing theory, we show how the UN Security Council and Human Rights Watch construct a simplistic understanding of conflict-related sexual violence in order to get their message and call for action across to wider audiences and constituencies – including a clear and short causal chain, and checkbox-solutions. The narrowing down of complexity serves important purposes, in that it brings with it opportunities for action in a field within which ‘the urge to do something’ has gained a particular stronghold.

However, by framing conflict-related sexual violence as first and foremost a criminal – and individualized – act, the multilayered, complex, social, and collective phenomenon of harm that it also is, is increasingly peeled away from understandings of the problem. This narrative about conflict-related sexual violence and its solution resonates and gains support because of its simplicity. It reduces sexual violence into clear-cut categories of rational, individual and evil perpetrators and powerless, broken victims – ideal causality on the one hand, massive suffering in need of legal catharsis on the other; in short, to a problem against which something can be done. Individualization of guilt corresponds poorly, however, to the collective crime and structural explanations that academic theories about conflict-related sexual violence underscore. Thus, the cost of the simplistic narrative is that the phenomenological understanding gets separated from its enabling social structures, including the collective out of which the phenomenon arises. Moreover, the deterrence rationale upon which the call for criminal prosecutions is based carries limited empirical weight.

We therefore ask for a more precise recognition of what criminal law can and cannot do with conflict-related sexual violence, and hold that the problem with the focus on ending impunity is not that it is an irrelevant task, but that it is not the solution its proponents claim it to be. Paralleling criticism of carceral feminism domestically, we see a need for greater attention to the political, economic and gendered inequalities and structures within which sexual violence take place. Conflict-related sexual violence is indeed part of a repertoire of illegitimate warfare, and a reaction to the chaotic, desperate and demoralizing experiences that war brings with it, but it is also the result of gendered hierarchies, subordination, and poverty, and a continuum of violence that transgresses war and peace.

It is important to recognize the narrative processes at work that keep favoring criminal law – and to question whose voices and what stories matter, what reality “fits,” and what complexities are lost. This is important not because criminal law is inherently bad – but because conflict-related sexual violence is not a problem that can be exclusively solved in the court room.

This post first appeared on the blog of Law & Society Review