Warehousing All the Young Men

Young refugee men at Choucha transit camp in Tunisia

[Warehousing = The long-term encampment of refugees in violation of their rights according to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. Also known as protraction.]

When I first started studying the refugee experience I assumed that young men had it easiest. After all, young men typically incite a lot of the violence that causes refugee crises. They have more physical strength than women and are at much lower risk of attack. They often have more education, more rights in their community, and better language skills than their female counterparts.

But because they seem to have a better situation, they often get overlooked. Micro-loan organizations tend to single out women who are high-risk. Resettlement programs give special consideration to mothers and children with health or security concerns. Aid groups offer women’s education and human rights activists preach how important women are in combating poverty.

Those good and true programs do not need to cancel out our concern for young men, and yet rarely do we hear of a poor, single guy in his mid-twenties struggling as a refugee for 5, 10, 15 years.

Young men encamped for the long-term face unique problems. Prevented from working, they experience the depression that comes from unemployment, times ten. Not only are they skilled and capable, but the society in which they’re living might even have needs to address – it’s just that refugees aren’t allowed to address them.

Warehoused refugees aren’t permitted to leave their camps or engage in commerce. They have no freedom of movement, and thus spend most days incredibly bored. They will study, but over time even education depresses them. “They feel like, ‘Once I do schooling here, I can’t access the colleges. I’m stuck,'” says Danielle Bolks of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). “‘I can work as hard as I want. I can get a scholarship, but then I’m done. Where’s this all going?'”

To add insult to injury, many warehoused refugees come from cultures that define masculinity in terms of providing for one’s family and being a leader. In a camp situation, both roles no longer exist. You are not only forcefully unemployed, but an overseeing organization determines your every action.

“They have the feeling of not being a man, a feeling of hopelessness and lack of control over their life,” says Bolks.

In the midst of this repression, it should come as no surprise that many young men turn to violence or clash with other refugees. They tend to congregate in gangs according to their homelands, and while many such groups can be completely peaceful, some don’t always get along.

“(We’ve brought) so many complaints to the UNHCR officials…that when nothing was done we had no choice but to protest,” says one young man in Tunisia about violence in his camp between refugee groups and the local population in May 2011.

Unfortunately, that delinquent behavior validates many local residents’ belief that refugee men are dangerous and incapable of successfully integrating into their new host country. The cycle recreates itself: Refugees arrive and aren’t welcomed; they act up; the locals get scared and become unwelcoming. Repeat.

In all our very noble talk about the value of the young refugee woman, let us not forget the value of the young refugee man. After all, if they are the ones so prone to violence, they are also in the best position to stop it.

(Photo by Mohamed Ali Mhenni)

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  1. […] not a big fan of refugee camps as a long-term solution – a process known as warehousing, which violates […]

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