top of page
  • Rory O'Keeffe

Men at refugee camps: overlooked and under-served

The following is a note about a topic on which the author of this review has written at length, on a number of different occasions, for a number of different organisations.

While it may for some of you be of only passing interest, whether just for now, or for ever, it is here in the hope that it reaches and influences.

It’s about men. More accurately, unaccompanied boys and single men in refugee responses.

Before we get to the ‘point’, some background.

As we noted here on Thursday 23 November, ‘In 2015, almost 90,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Europe. In 2016, a further 63,000 did so. Of those, 89 per cent are boys.

‘From 1 January 2016, to 15 November this year, 9,920 unaccompanied minors have been registered in Greece, of whom 9,264 (93 per cent) are boys, and 656 (seven per cent) are girls. (it is worth noting here that there are some reasons to believe that girls are less likely to be registered – some good, including that girls are more often ‘cared for’ by family groups, but others far less good. Even accounting for this, however, it is not unreasonable to conclude that at least four times more unaccompanied children who have entered Greece in the last 22.5 months are boys, than girls. Perhaps even nine times as many).

‘In Greece, where 4,579 referrals have been made in the first ten months of 2017 alone, there are 3,250 registered unaccompanied minors (and the number not registered may well be as much as twice as many), of whom 2,121 are on the waiting list for appropriate shelter (only 1,151 places in appropriate shelter exist), meaning that two thirds of unaccompanied children – most of whom are boys – are forced to sleep in police stations or adult accommodation, where they are vulnerable to attack of all kinds.

‘Yet boys are rarely the focus of policy discussions, either at ngo or governmental levels, and are often left out of gender violence prevention and response efforts.’

The problem is that while women and children are specifically catered-for by aid organisations (which is certainly a positive and necessary thing), men as a group really are not.

Because of this, combined with understandable but not necessarily always fair, concerns about male behaviour, men and boys’ experiences as refugees can be overlooked, meaning that they do not receive the care or attention that many of them urgently need.

In some cases, particularly when it comes to shelter and community living, they are also almost entirely excluded.

While we can all understand the necessary concerns surrounding single men and vulnerable women, and fears that single men might behave inappropriately and/or violently, it is also true that it is against the fundamental human rights of men to be deliberately and completely segregated from all other groups of society, as does happen far too often in Greece (at Katsikas, for example, planning sessions repeatedly referred to it as a ‘family camp’. Which is nice, but there is not a location on Earth where ‘families’ live in isolation from other people who live alone, or with a partner).

Nor can we seriously suggest that keeping single men apart from everyone of a different age, marital status or sex can be either good for them – or for that matter for any society they may become part of when allowed to leave the refugee process.

Equally, the (non-deliberate) exclusion of men from service provision and from assistance and social activities can – and regularly does – result in mental health degeneration, including in increased rates of violence by men against one another, and against women and children.

This is not to attempt to ‘excuse’ this, it is to attempt to prevent it from happening due to neglect, so that if it happens due to other reasons, we can deal with it in an appropriate fashion.

It’s being mentioned here, now, because Care International has just issued a report ‘Men and boys in displacement’, which aims to better understand the effect on unaccompanied boys and single men of displacement, and how refugee responses can better meet their needs.

Based on studies in Turkey, Greece, Jordan and Lebanon, it builds on reports including ‘We Keep It In Our Heart’, a UNHCR report which has found that sexual violence and abuse against men in and around the Syria conflict has been far more widespread than previously estimated, and that immediate action is necessary to help support those who have been affected, and 'Sexual exploitation of unaccompanied migrant and refugee boys in Greece: Approaches to prevention', by Julie Freccero, Dan Biswas, Audrey Whiting, Khaled Alrabe, and Kim Thuy Seelinger.

The report should be read in full by anyone who is serious about working in refugee responses, but in short, it finds that among the issues faced by single men and unaccompanied boys in this context include:

  • Challenges in daily mobility including the risk of harassment and hostility from security forces. Being an unaccompanied adolescent boy also generates greater risks of detention.

  • Child labour is common, particularly for adolescent boys. Unaccompanied male refugees are often under pressure to send remittances to their relatives, and the difficulty of earning an income does not just affect men’s ability to meet their own basic needs but also affects their sense of self-worth.

  • Single unaccompanied men and adolescent boys can find it hard to access shared accommodation and are often forced to live in poor quality, insecure housing and face threats of extortion and sexual exploitation.

  • Unaccompanied boys and men can become socially marginalised and this can lead to reliance on and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Sex work and criminal activities, such as pickpocketing or drug dealing, are other harmful coping strategies. In Greece, transactional or ‘survival sex’ involving minors and young men is a prevalent reality, long ignored.

  • Suffering and psychological distress, sometimes leading to mental health disorders, is widely reported. Adult men feel dispossessed of control over their life and their future: lack of proper documentation, complex and slow re-location schemes, restricted mobility, lack of work and income, all contribute to a sense of helplessness, high amounts of anxiety, stress, frustration, and anger. Severe psychological damage also results from the loss of their gendered identity as the primary financial provider and protector for their families.

  • Some organisations find it hard to provide services for boys and men. Their emotions can remain ‘locked inside’ due to the prevailing view that being a real man is about being tough and not showing fear or sadness. Where men do seek help, it is more likely to be from peers, but an informal support network may not be readily available to lone male refugees.

  • Male refugees, especially single adult males, often lack a clear place within humanitarian response frameworks. Among humanitarian actors, donors and government agencies, there is a common perception that men are best able to look after themselves and negotiate the complexities of displacement unaided. Their specific vulnerabilities are often overlooked.

  • When setting their priorities, organisations seeking funds for humanitarian responses are often influenced by their understanding of what is likely to attract funding.

The report also sets out some advice.

For international and national humanitarian implementing agencies:

1. Ensure responses are based on evidence, not assumptions.

2. Ensure that coordination mechanisms have a clear focus on addressing distinct gender needs in emergencies which include measures to combat violence against women and girls but also reflect other gendered risks.

3. Acknowledge and address refugee women’s and men’s anxieties and fears about changing gender roles.

4. Target support to boys and men, particularly those who are unaccompanied.

For donors:

1. Provide funding support for projects that address the needs of unaccompanied refugee boys and men.

2. Insist that partners integrate a gender and diversity perspective into all interventions, in order to identify and respond to the specific needs of all groups, including unaccompanied boys and men.

For refugee-hosting governments:

1. Implement strategies to counter the exclusion and marginalisation that all refugees, including lone male refugees, can face.

2. Uphold refugees’ right to work and enforce safeguards against harassment and exploitation.

3. Provide safe and appropriate shelter provision for unaccompanied minors and single male refugees.

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon
bottom of page