Migrant Crisis: Why Are There So Few Women Refugees?

  1. Home
  2. World
By Harry Phibbs | 4:13 am, October 20, 2016

“Women and children first,” is the traditional cry when a ship is being abandoned and the available places on lifeboats are limited. It does not seem to have applied to refugees.

Thirty-nine “children” arrived in the UK this week from the refugee camp in Calais. They are all supposed to be aged between 14 and 17, though many looked over 18. For understandable reasons they often have no documentation to prove their age.

As the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said, it is “very worrying” that “older migrants are reported to be pushing children out of the way”. Another Conservative MP, David Davies, suggested dental checks to establish they were under 18. The Home Office responded that this would be “inappropriate”.

But do they not recognise it as rather more “inappropriate” that people are being admitted to the country who are not entitled to be here? In any case – why isn’t priority being given to younger children with relatives in the UK?

Then there is the extraordinary gender imbalance. Why is it that there are so many more males than females? The UN Refugee Agency says that over a million refugees and migrants reached Europe last year after a hazardous journey in dinghies and unseaworthy boats. They add that 28% were children, 54% men and only 18% women.

It is not that Syrian women have any greater enthusiasm than Syrian men for the brutal Assad regime and the violence and deprivation associated with it. It is true that there is a particular urgency for men facing conscription to escape. But in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon the UN estimates are a pretty even mix. They record that there are 4.8 million people – 51.4% men, 48.6% women.

The difference is that it is young men who tend to be the ones who are more likely to undertake and survive the treacherous trip to Europe. Family members might pool their resources to pay the fees of the people smugglers. If they can only afford to send one person as the pioneer to find a new home for the family it would be natural to choose the strongest.

Let us hope that one day the war ends in Syria and some at least tolerably stable and civilised Government emerges. The refugees in the camps near the country would surely be only too pleased to return. But what of the young men who have started a new life in Europe? They could represent a missing demographic – and one that is vital to a country that will need to rebuild its economy.

Of course many others who stayed in Syria will have been killed, making the challenge all the worse.

Ernest Hemingway spoke of the “lost generation” of those who came of age during the First World War.

Nearly a million British men were killed in combat while over a million Frenchmen nearly two million Germans died. Even after the conflict Syria faces the prospect of a lost generation, and our refugee policy should not exacerbate this.

For the host countries there are concerns as well. Compassion is mixed with anxiety that extremist elements who wish us ill may take advantage of the chaos to seek entry. Amidst the chaos of those arriving in Europe without papers to prove who they are, it is hard for the authorities to offer much reassurance.

The preference being given to settling refugees who reach Europe is a disaster.

They should be taken back to the camps they came from, thus giving the clear message that people smuggling is futile – rather than a terrifying but calculated risk.

That would also end the sexist nature of the asylum problem that it is the men who are allowed to stay.

Instead, those we can accommodate should come from the UN camps where there is some semblance of order. The priority should go to the most vulnerable.

That is the approach of the United States. “We’re going to have female-headed households with a lot of children, maybe missing the person who used to be the top breadwinner,” says a State Department spokesman.

So the morally right priority for refugees should be “women and children first”.

Giving preference to those who have already reached Europe means the opposite happens. Nothing could be more damaging in undermining goodwill.