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Gender, Islamophobia, and refugee exceptionalism

Karla M. McKanders


Muslim men are perceived as opponents to Western democracy and social progress, and have become symbolic of a rigid gender oppressing regime.1 This chapter critically analyzes how gender interfaces with xenophobic and Islamophobic bias to exclude young males from Muslim-majority countries from third country refugee resettlement programs under the 1951 Refugee Convention (Convention). The power of the Refugee Convention has been tested over the past few years as signatories have invoked their power as sovereigns to implement the Convention consistent with their countries’ national security interests. Over the years, sovereignty and security arguments have been increasingly evoked to curtail legitimate refugee resettlement. This trend has caused the application of the Refugee Convention to become an immigration control mechanism that undermines the ability to obtain the durable solution of third country resettlement for refugees.2

Throughout history, and specifically during times of war and conflict, there is a tension between the admission of refugees and the fear that individuals from oppositional countries will exploit refugee protections to harm the host country. The contemporary example of this issue is the exclusion of young males from Muslim-majority countries from Convention protection—that is, third country resettlement.''' Instead of warranting Convention protection, this demographic is stereotyped as threatening terrorists from whom countries need protection. Furthermore, single males from Muslim-majority countries are further stigmatized as individuals who are a threat to a country’s national security without evaluating the person’s individual circumstances to assess his qualifications as either a Convention refugee and/or a danger to the country. This results in the fungibility of individuals from Muslim-majority countries which, as scholar Leti Volpp states, “make[s] it impossible to screen individually loyal citizens from enemy aliens.”4

This chapter explores how the narratives around Islamophobia, masculinity, and gender norms affect if a person is classified as vulnerable and in need of third country refugee resettlement. Most scholarship has focused on refugee women’s and Muslim women’s experiences of subordination and discrimination— this chapter fills this gap. Increasingly, young single men from Muslim-majority

Gender, Islamophobia, & refugee exceptionalism 127 countries are portrayed as perpetrators of violence who are not worthy of protection, whereas women, children, and sexual minorities, including gay males, are portrayed as victims in need of protection. In this chapter, I argue that the exclusion of males from Muslim-majority countries is constructed through narratives which facilitate the development of policies and the legally constructed priority categories of vulnerability that conform to gendered norms, which results in the exclusion of this population from Convention protections.

This chapter contains three sections. Section “Refugee convention as migration control” defines the contemporary issues and the narratives that have been disseminated in which single males from Muslim-majority countries have been stereotyped and preemptively excluded from third country resettlement. Section “Constructing refugee vulnerability” provides the historical and legal backdrop necessary to understand that state’s interests are intertwined in the “refugee” definition and how vulnerability is legally conceptualized. To accomplish this goal, this section describes the history of religious sanctuary in contrast to the pre-Nansen refugee construct and state-centric conceptions of refugees (from which the present-day concepts of refugee vulnerability arc derived). To place the comparison in context, this section examines how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Germany, Canada, and the United States have constructed priority categories based on vulnerability for third country resettlement. These countries are relevant because they have played prominent roles in contemporary international debates over the resettlement of young males from Muslim-majority countries.

Section “Gender, Islamophobia, and refugee vulnerability” analyzes how single male refugees from Muslim-majority countries have been denied refugee resettlement based on their inability to establish eligibility for the priority categories, which are based on vulnerability, because they are portrayed as (1) terrorist threats to the state and (2) threats to Muslim women, who resettling states need to protect. This section demonstrates how gender interfaces with xenophobic and Islamophobic bias in the application of the Convention and how narratives develop which result in the discriminatory application of the Convention.5 The conclusion offers an analysis of how the exclusion of young single males from Muslim-majority countries highlights how Islamophobic and gender narratives are deeply intertwined in informing policy decisions on which populations are prioritized in obtaining Convention protection.

Refugee convention as migration control

There is often a dichotomy between the deserving and undeserving immigrants that influences the depiction of refugees and affects the application of priority categories, which are based on vulnerability assessments. This dichotomy highlights the tension of a Kantian perspective of refugee rights as universal rights and obligations6 in contrast to a utilitarian, pragmatic model which considers both the rights of refugees and the rights of states.7 Within the vulnerability construct, assumptions about who is perceived as vulnerable often determines the choice of charity afforded to individuals within a country’s legal and immigration systems.8 The deserving immigrant is a victim of his circumstances, whereas the undeserving immigrant is one who is perceived as actively transgressing societal norms and is not worthy of Convention protection.9 Media, presidents, legislatures, and politicians create the narratives that impact policies towards different immigrant populations, thus furthering the dichotomy of deserving and undeserving immigrants.10 The narratives undermine the Convention’s goal of ensuring recognition of the human right to seek refuge when there is a fundamental break in the relationship between the state and the individual that could result in persecution.11

In 2015, the world experienced an unprecedented increase in refugee flows from the Middle East and North African regions. The increase was a result of the height of the Civil War in Syria and the proliferation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL” or, in Arabic, “Daesh”). The Syrian conflict caused the displacement of more than 11 million refugees.12 Prior to the conflict, Syria had an open borders policy that permitted Iraqi refugees to resettle there.13 In 2010, UNHCR reported that, of the 1.3 million refugees in Syria, 1 million were from Iraq.14

In September 2, 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish descent, made global headlines after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Canada had allegedly denied the Kurdi family’s asylum application, which forced them to flee by sea.15 Contrastingly, in 2015, Germany responded to the refugee crisis by opening its borders to asylum seekers. In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel became an advocate for refugees, urging other European Union members to similarly welcome asylum seekers.16

In the wake of Germany’s acceptance of asylum seekers and the graphic images of fleeing refugees, on Friday, November 13, 2015, a series of terrorist attacks occurred in Paris, France, and the city’s northern suburb, Saint-Denis. Next to the body of one of the assailants was a Syrian passport.17 These attacks sparked a worldwide debate regarding the security risks around acceptance of asylum seekers and the resettlement of refugees.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, on November 23, 2015, the Canadian government stated that it would “accept only whole families, lone women or children in its mass resettlement of Syrian refugees while unaccompanied men—considered a security risk—will be turned away.”18 However, on November 24, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian government stated that single gay men—a group often targeted by the Islamic state militant group ISIS—would still be welcomed.19

In 2015, President Obama experienced extreme pushback to his declaration to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees for the fiscal year 2016.20 In December 2015, Texas sued the Obama administration over the resettlement of refugees. In an attempt to terminate refugee resettlement to the state, Texas filed the lawsuit under the United States Refugee Act of 1980.21 The complaint alleged that the United States government failed to consult Texas in placing resettled refugees in

Gender, Islamophobia, & refugee exceptionalism 129 the state.22 Simultaneously, thirty U.S. governors issued statements in opposition to refugee resettlement.23

In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”24 As the presidential candidate, Donald Trump repeated claims that the Syrian refugees the United States was accepting were “strong young men” who would carry out terrorist attacks.25 He stated,

  • • ... You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.26
  • • ... I’m saying, Where are the women? Where are the children? We’re taking in people we have no idea who they are ...,27
  • • This could be the great Trojan horse of all time ... I said to myself, “Wow. They’re all men.” You look at it. There are so few women and there are so few children. And not only are they men, they’re young men. And they’re strong as can be—they’re tough-looking cookies. I say, “What’s going on here?”28

In furtherance of his campaign promise, at the beginning of 2017, President Trump issued multiple executive orders halting the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, citing national security reasons.29

In September 2017, the President issued a proclamation titled “Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats” (Proclamation).30 Section 2 of the Proclamation suspended the entry of certain nationals from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Somalia based on the perceived threat posed by each country and the measures used to prevent the spread of terrorism from these countries.31 On June 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the travel ban finding Trump’s campaign and contemporaneous statements vowing to ban Muslims irrelevant to his purported national security justifications.32 The Court stated that a sovereign state’s ability to control immigration and protect its country warranted a deferential review.33

In the summer of 2018, the image of Merkel as creating the ideal safe haven for refugees also began to crumble as allegations surfaced of widespread fraud in Germany’s system for processing asylum seekers.34 Specifically, a German asylum officer faced allegations that she granted asylum to some 1,200 migrants in exchange for bribes, between 2013 and 2016.‘‘’5 These allegations tainted Germany’s reputation as the prototype for resettling refugees and processing asylum seekers.

The narratives promulgated by legislatures, media, prime ministers, and presidents impact the application of the Convention. Refugee populations who fit within the stereotypes of these narratives are perceived as security threats undeserving of resettlement. The manner in which resettlement programs are implemented fails to fully assess whether an individual should be classified asvulnerable and in need of third country resettlement based on the fungibility of all members of a particular group—single males from Muslim-majority countries.36 Through these narratives, individual nations set policies and states make decisions on how to apply the Refugee Convention.

There is extensive scholarly literature depicting “refugees and asylum seekers as innocent victims and, simultaneously, as invaders and threat [sic] to the physical, economic, and cultural well-being of the respective host country.”37 This dichotomy has been exacerbated in recent narratives, depicting all single males from Muslim-majority countries as a threat to the countries in which they are placed.38 The narratives are so pervasive that they impede the ability to engage in a comprehensive assessment about whether an individual is in need of resettlement (i.e., vulnerable) or is an actual security risk to the host country.

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