I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the wider ramifications of Europe's* current crisis with mostly Syrian refugees and Europe's general longer-standing crisis with migrants and refugees. The numbers in the long-run are not manageable, the short-term situation is utterly devastating for the refugees and the real solutions are either politically unfeasible or pie-in-the-sky (stop the war in Syria, make Eritrea and Libya into safe places, reduce income differences between Africa and Europe).
I'm not going to write more about the humanitarian catastrophes or who is most at fault for creating them, because I have nothing useful to say about that, or at least nothing that you couldn't read elsewhere. Neither am I going to write about the horrible plight of the refugees and migrants because I have nothing extra to say about that, either, except to agree that the situation is horrible and that aid (both places of safety and much more money) is urgently needed, and that Greece, in particular, needs help in its attempt to cope with refugees.
Instead, I am going to write about why young men seem to be the largest group of refugees and migrants currently seeking asylum in Europe.
That's because this is a blog writing about gender issues, and because my Internet surfing showed me that many comments sections asked why the refugees and/or economic migrants** seem to consist of a majority of young men traveling on their own. Some more right-wing commentators ask why those men are not fighting ISIS (or Assad?), why they look so healthy and well-fed, what they are escaping from if it was safe enough to leave the women, children and the elderly behind and so on.
To understand the gender-and-age makeup of refugees and migrants, it's useful to know what the data on asylum applicants in Europe looked like before 2015.
Who are they?
The vast majority of asylum applicants are men ages 18 to 34, but the proportion of minors grew significantly during 2014.
In more detail:
Nearly four in every five (79 %) asylum seekers in the EU-28 in 2014 were aged less than 35 (see Table 3); those aged 18–34 accounted for slightly more than half (54 %) of the total number of applicants, while minors aged less than 18 accounted for one quarter (26 %).
The distribution of asylum applicants by sex shows that men were more likely than women to seek asylum. Across the EU-28, the gender distribution was most balanced for asylum applicants aged less than 14, where boys accounted for 53 % of the total number of applications in 2014. There was a greater degree of gender inequality for asylum applicants aged 14–17 or 18–34, where around three quarters of applicants were male. Female applicants outnumbered male applicants for asylum seekers aged 65 and over, although this group was relatively small, accounting for just 0.8 % of the total number of applications in 2014.Though it's difficult to tell from pictures alone, it's probably the case that the proportion of families-with-children in the current refugee flows is now higher, but younger single men still look to be the majority.
The gender difference was even more apparent when considering unaccompanied minors, as 86 % of asylum applicants in the EU-28 in 2014 that were unaccompanied minors were male, compared with 54 % for accompanied minors.
Thus, when people ask why young men appear to be over-represented among the refugees and migrants, the answer cannot be based solely on events in, say, Syria (such as the suggestion I read that it's men fleeing conscription into Assad's army, though some most likely do exactly that), but must incorporate these older statistics: Migrating and asylum-seeking clearly are something that young men do more frequently than other population groups.
One reason for that is the risks of illegal traveling across continents. Those risks are higher for unaccompanied women because of the additional risks of sexual violence they might face. Another reason may arise from traditional gender roles*** in many of the source areas for asylum-seekers: Women are not encouraged to take off on their own and might not have access to the funds needed to buy the services of a smuggler, say.
It's also important to note that men traveling alone to Europe are not necessarily single but may have the expectation of bringing their families in later, after receiving asylum.
My point in writing about the gender-and-age makeup of the refugees and migrants is not to argue that young men wouldn't need asylum as much as anyone else, but to ask, whether it wouldn't be better for the recipients of asylum to be picked in a way which does not privilege those who are young enough, healthy enough and strong enough to make the hazardous trip to Europe, not to mention the possibility that the smuggling system also privileges those most able to pay for the trip.
Moving the asylum application processes to the Syrian refugee camps in Syria and the neighboring countries (and to Libya, say) would seem superior in that sense. This approach would also minimize the numbers of refugees who drown in the Mediterranean by decreasing the importance of physically getting to a European country where to make the application.
Whether such a move is at all practical is an open question, but currently Europe has a system which in an odd way privileges the physically strongest among the refugees.
* It's Europe's crisis in the sense that Europe is the goal of the refugees and the migrants. In a different sense, the crisis is global and the UN, to take one example, seems not to be doing its job about it. Neither are the oil-rich Gulf states, Russia and most developed Asian countries. The US? You judge for yourself.
** The difference between refugees and other migrants has been heatedly debated at various places on the net. The definition I use in this post is based on the legal definition of a refugee:
A person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.The current flow of refugees into Europe comes mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, with Syrians as the largest group. But recent data still shows considerable percentages of economic migrants from such countries as Albania and Kosovo. For example:
According to figures from the German Migration Office, more than 40 percent of all asylum applications during the first six months of 2015 came not from Afghanistan, the Middle East or North Africa, but from the Balkans — nearly 18 percent from Kosovo, almost 14 percent from Albania, about 6 percent from Serbia and nearly 3 percent from Macedonia.It's important to note that economic migrants may well be escaping real hardship, and extreme poverty, such as in the case of Gambia. But the international laws differentiate between refugees and economic migrants.
So the Germans want to add Albania and Kosovo to the list of safe countries, which currently includes Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia, on the principle that any country on the path to joining the European Union itself cannot be considered unsafe to live.
In practice an asylum-seeker could be both a refugee and an economic migrant, of course. Still, his or her ability to be granted asylum depends on the legal distinction between the two terms.
*** The preponderance of traditional gender roles in some of the source countries deserve more attention in the European debate (does it exist?) about the kind of information all immigrants need to be provided with in order for assimilation to work.