International Feminist Journal of Politics


Caring for Syrian Refugee Men

By: Lewis Turner

Since the start of the so-called ‘refugee crisis,’ ideas about Syrian men have circulated far and wide. The depictions have rarely been positive. In political discourse and in the media, Syrian men have regularly been portrayed as a threat – to ‘western’ states in general, and to ‘western’ women in particular. On twitter, under the hashtag #refugeesnotwelcome, users depict Syrian men as terrorists and/or cowards who have abandoned the fight.

What we hear much less about, however, is what humanitarian workers think about Syrian men. This reflects the fact that refugee men and masculinities have only recently begun to gain more widespread attention in academic circles. In my article in IFJP, I analyse how humanitarian workers relate to Syrian men as objects of care, through an analysis of the Syria refugee response in Jordan, with Za‘tari Refugee Camp the primary field site. I draw on interviews with both Jordanian and ‘international’ humanitarian workers, ranging from NGO Directors to field staff, and focus on what is sometimes called the ‘softer side’ of humanitarian work, such as psychosocial support, ‘empowerment’ programmes, community work, as well as gender work. I wanted to find out whether humanitarians think of refugee men, as they typically do refugee women and children, as uncontroversial objects of care? And whether it matters that these refugee men are Syrian men? How do ideas about Arab men and masculinities shape the ways that Syrian refugee men are seen?

A view across Za’tari Refugee Camp, 27 July 2016. Photo by Lewis Turner.

A view across Za’tari Refugee Camp, 27 July 2016. Photo by Lewis Turner.

These issues, I found, are riven with ambiguities, uncertainties, and silences. Indeed, humanitarian workers would often be surprised, taken aback even, to be asked questions about the Syrian men they (at times) worked with. Nonetheless, their responses to my research project were often also very enthusiastic. Syrian men themselves would similarly be surprised, and sometimes intrigued, to encounter a researcher focusing specifically on this topic.

In order to dig deeper into these questions, I analyse Syrian men’s position as objects of humanitarian care by exploring humanitarian thinking on three themes: refugeehood, gender work, and power and politics. In each of these areas, I find, Syrian refugee men occupy an uncertain position as objects of humanitarian care, a position that is produced through constructions of gender, race, and ‘Arabness.’ I demonstrate this through discussing a range of aspects of humanitarian work, including ‘empowerment’ programmes, responses to sexual violence, and psychosocial support.

Firstly, as critical feminist scholars have explored at length, the vision of the refugee in the ‘Global South’ is of a passive, feminised, and depoliticised subject position.

This idea of refugeehood renders questionable and uncertain Syrian men’s status within the category of people whom humanitarians understand they are there to care for. Or, to put it another way, many humanitarians simply did not seem to understand providing care for refugee men to be part of their job.

Secondly, humanitarian work with Syrian refugees in Jordan perpetuated the conflation of “women” and “gender.” Humanitarians knew that their grant proposals should include language about meeting the distinct needs of “women, girls, boys and men.” But in practice refugee men were only rarely considered as people who were themselves living through gendered experiences of displacement, or who could be survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

UNHCR and Jordanian flags stand at the entrance to Base Camp, the centre of humanitarian operations in Za’tari, 3 March 2016. Photo by Lewis Turner

UNHCR and Jordanian flags stand at the entrance to Base Camp, the centre of humanitarian operations in Za’tari, 3 March 2016. Photo by Lewis Turner

Thirdly, while Syrian refugee women were assumed to need ‘empowering’ (as envisioned by humanitarians), Syrian refugee men were thought to be irrelevant to the ‘empowerment’ agenda. They were assumed to be independent, agential, and to be able to rely on their participation in the labour market to provide for themselves. These ideas, which were based on assumptions about ‘Arab men’ and the division of labour in ‘Arab households,’ reproduced the anti-feminist idea that men are political actors operating in the public sphere, and that women are operating in the humanitarian - that is, non-political - realm.

In examining how humanitarian ideas about refugee men and women are interconnected, the analysis in my article demonstrates that refugee women’s and men’s circumstances and needs should not be put into competition with each other. Rather, humanitarian relationships with refugee men and women are part of a structure that disempowers, in different ways, refugees of all genders. While humanitarians often appear to assume that refugee men are already powerful enough, the most powerful actors in these contexts are often the humanitarians themselves.

Read the full article here: Syrian refugee men as objects of humanitarian care

Turner Photo Profile.jpg

Lewis Turner is a Senior Researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Germany. His research focuses on the humanitarian response for Syrian refugees in the Middle East, particularly Jordan. His work has been awarded multiple prizes, including the 2019 Michael Nicholson Thesis Prize from the British International Studies Association.

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