Syrian Men as Vulnerable: Rethinking Refugee Categorization

“Strike of Dignity” by Jaber AlAzmeh.

by Rochelle Davis

This article is from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ Newsmagazine, Fall/Winter 2017, available here.

This article is based on research conducted between 2013 and 2015 in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, including more than 150 qualitative interviews. Syrian men and women living as refugees in neighboring countries recalled stories from their own families’ experiences fleeing Syria. These accounts shed light on the particular vulnerability of men in conflict, the role of conscription in forced migration, and the personal choices people make to not pick up arms.

Refugees and War

President Trump’s executive directive on January 27, 2017 enacted a temporary halt to refugee admission to the United States. According to Pew Research, admissions will resume after “security procedures are reviewed,” but “separately, admission of Syrian refugees will be suspended pending a revision of security screening measures.” While at present the ban has been blocked in the federal courts, such measures would be catastrophic to the families who have passed the rigorous and expensive two-year vetting process to be resettled in the United States. Long before the executive order, however, an unspoken ban has been in place for several years across many countries in the Middle East, Europe, and North America toward a specific demographic of Syrians: young Syrian men fleeing the conflict.

The last five plus years of fighting in Syria raises questions regarding how we think about gender—and particularly men—during conflict. The media and non-governmental associations repeatedly report that 75% of Syrian refugees are women and children. What they fail to do, however, is examine the statistics. Just over 50% of the refugees are children, and thus slightly less than 50% are adults. The statistics also show, with variations among host countries, that about half of the adults are women and half are men; thus indeed, some 75% of the refugees are women and children. But equally so, 75% of the refugees are men and children. Yet that statistic is never cited as significant, nor is it used in efforts to stir empathy for refugees or create policy or programming.

“We are coming for you.” This is from Jaber Al Azmeh’s collection entitled “The Resurrection,” which subverts Syrian government censorship and curtailment of freedom of speech by asking Syrians to write their own thoughts and messages about the revolution on one of the Syrian government’s most prominent symbols, the Ba’ath Party newspaper.

Why are we so unwilling to describe Syrian refugee men as vulnerable or in need of protection? One answer is that the vast majority of those engaged in the fighting are men—whether on the side of the Syrian regime or among the myriad of armed opposition movements—and thus the very people causing the violence. However, there are more adult men fleeing the conflict than there are women or children, and the vast majority of civilian deaths are of adult men—more than 70% according to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria. In Syria, men are more likely to be hit by sniper fire, to be injured during bombings, to be maimed, starved, tortured, and/or to die. By any reasonable definition, men are the most vulnerable. And yet, they are not considered vulnerable. Our collective notions of Arabness, of Muslim-ness (even though they aren’t all Muslim), of patriarchy and masculinity, allow only for conceptions of manhood that fit the fighter and defender role, and do not allow for conceptions of men as vulnerable or able to choose not to fight. But we must acknowledge their own sense of masculinity and patriarchy that would have them protect their families better by fleeing conflict, rather than partaking in it.

Fleeing Conflict

The violent response by the Syrian regime to the uprising that began in March 2011 caused many men to reconsider service in the Syrian military. Following the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in late July 2011, the FSA and other militarized opposition groups’ ranks soon filled with men wanting to fight against the regime—some joining the FSA after they deserted from the Syrian military, and others joining before they were conscripted into military service or after having completed their service. In addition, the swelling numbers of the internally displaced persons and refugees are filled with men who have fled into the areas of Syria that the regime does not control or into other countries, particularly as the regime’s violence has spread and intensified. Statistics show that since mid-2012, men are not staying behind in large numbers to fight, but rather fleeing in numbers nearly equal to or more than women of the same age groups.

According to international law, non-combatant men are civilians, just as are the women, children, and elderly who have fled the fighting. And yet in the last five years we have seen governments prevent men from crossing into their countries legally out of fear that this male demographic brings the conflict with them. Some of this fear is of men unanchored from families. In Jordan, it has become a de facto policy that single men cannot legally enter the country alone, thus forcing them either to cross with family members or to attempt illegal crossings, with all of the dangers that such journeys bring. This demographic characterization means that even if a man does not have weapons and is not engaged in fighting, he is assumed at the very least to be willing or able to fight. He is therefore seen either as an asset or a threat—to the regime, the opposition movements, or the governments of host countries—and is defined by his demographic characteristics rather than being able to define himself according to his actions and beliefs as a civilian.

A Syrian named Bashar said, “I came to Raba’a Al Sarhan [a village north of Mafraq], but I was sent back because I was alone, so I went back home and took my mother with me and tried again. We arrived yesterday. But she wants to go back now; my little brother and sister are still in Syria. I just needed her to come with me so I can get in. I can’t go back to Syria with her because I refused to serve in the army.”

By Syrian cartoonist Juan Zero

Men of military-age living inside the regime-controlled areas of Syria face mandatory conscription into the Syrian military, beginning at age 18, with the potential to be called for reserve duty until the age of 42 or so. The political ideologies of those interviewed were mixed, but many of them were clear about being unwilling to join the fighting because they did not believe in what the regime was doing, they saw it as a personal death sentence, or they did not want to pick up arms for anyone. A 24-year old man from the village of Jasim now living in Irbid, Jordan said, “I left Syria because I wouldn’t go into the army after I saw them occupying the cities and killing people.  Of course, military service is mandatory, and currently the army is controlling cities, towns and villages, and basically occupying them.  I wasn’t in the army, and nor was I involved with the FSA—nothing, other than peaceful protests.  In this situation, the security [apparatus] would come and make me a conscript of the army.”

Others interviewed were college students whose military exemption had ended, and a few spoke of friends and neighbors whose sons went into hiding or faked abduction or death so as to avoid conscription. For most men of military age, the consideration to stay in Syria meant either taking up arms to fight or trying to avoid the military through legal and illegal means, subterfuge, and living life on the run. If caught, those avoiding military service face prolonged detention, torture, and even execution. Thus, many either choose (or their families force them) to flee to neighboring countries or the non-regime-controlled areas or to hide within Syria, explaining why there is a larger percentage of men between the ages of 18-59 who are refugees (25.5%), as compared to women of the same age (23.8%).

Vulnerable And Unprotected—Possible Changes?

The decisions made by Syrian men to flee the fighting involve complex moral choices about who they are as Syrians, as men, and as members of families; as people who hold jobs, own land, and have businesses; and as people with dreams and ambitions, who love their country. If they are only intermittently being allowed to flee Syria and enter host countries, are such policies encouraging men to stay and thus get embroiled in the conflict? Is the humanitarian aid community, by virtue of not seeing men as vulnerable or as civilians, participating in prolonging the conflict? By seeing value in the choices that men make not to fight, those who see themselves playing a role as humanitarian actors can help to develop structures that provide men with more options to remove themselves from the fighting and thus play some role in limiting conflict.

Specifically, humanitarian and other aid programming could work with host country governments to develop programs for men, such as psychosocial and community support, vocational training, and accredited education opportunities in neighboring countries, and to provide training for security personnel at border posts to make sure unaccompanied men and boys can flee Syria. Most importantly, the international community needs to prevent the current lack of targeted programming from exacerbating vulnerabilities and creating a situation that leaves men of fighting age vulnerable to becoming embroiled in the fighting in Syria. Instead, it should ensure opportunities for them to contribute to the country’s future in ways that lie beyond the conflict. Ultimately, we need to remember the long-term benefits of ending the conflict and subsequent displacement of people across borders.

Rochelle Davis is Associate Professor at CCAS.

This article is a shortened version of a paper published by the London School of Economics. The full-length version is available at See “Gender, conscription and protection, and the war in Syria” (Forced Migration Review 47, Sept. 2014) by Davis, Taylor and Murphy for more accounts.