Vulnerability and gender: is there a nexus?

Vulnerability is a central organizing principle to humanitarian responses, it defines the terms of what the population is vulnerable to and it subsequently determines measures to impede the endanger of human lives. Assessing refugees’ vulnerability and their access to resources is one of the key tasks that many organizations perform, using different methodologies and assessment tools. Since the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action in 1995, the commitment to incorporate gender perspectives in humanitarian response has been promoted to achieve proportionality and impartiality, defining the necessity of humanitarian aid as needs-driven action. Yet, de facto, the main problem in its practice is that it tends to attach vulnerability to a person, be a woman or a child, rather than to a specific context, threat and challenge that create vulnerability to an individual.

Gendered Vulnerability, Material Resources and Outcomes of Distribution

These gendered perceptions about who is vulnerable have important material effects on the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. According to the data of UNHCR’s Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon 2015, it is determined how vulnerability-definers factors (e.g. assets, expenditures, food consumption, dependency ratio, shelter, access to water and sanitation, etc.) suggests that, in terms of economic welfare, there is little identifiable difference in vulnerability as a result of the gender of the principle applicant. In particular, the statistics demonstrate that percentages of high and severe vulnerability are almost the same for both genders.

Yet, the humanitarian response has been structured according to the assumption that female-headed households are more economically vulnerable than male-headed households, and therefore in need of more financial support. As a direct consequence of that, many Syrian families, responding to the incentive structures created by the prioritization of female-headed households, have chosen to register separately with UNHCR. More clearly, they appear on paper to be a female-headed household and a single man, in order to increase the likelihood to receive more aid than the family would have obtained if it had registered as a complete unit.

This is just the top of the iceberg of discriminatory policies that overshadow men’s exposure to vulnerability in the current refugee crisis. To contribute, the entry policies implemented by Beirut’s authorities follow seven different legal categories determined on a scale of “extreme vulnerability”, where men figure as the last individuals to be granted legal acceptance in the Lebanese territories. This measure not only exemplifies the Lebanese state’s violation of the right to recognize as a refugee an individual fleeing war and prosecution, but it also shows the risk that Syrian men are exposed to from the very first entry to Lebanon. In fact, Amnesty International reports that male refugees in Lebanon are more likely to be refouled, repatriated by being handed to Syrian authorities, and to be coerced through prolonged and arbitrary detention in Lebanese prisons, as a deterrent mechanism to force ‘voluntary’ return.

With a similar intent, the Lebanese government has made it difficult for Syrian refugees to enter the formal job market. With a decree enforced in 2015, the Lebanese formal market require valid residency permit, a document to be renewed annually at the of $200, a prohibitively large sum for most, as 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon fall below the poverty line. Beirut sustains discriminatory employment policies that recall the kafala system, a mechanism that requires migrant workers to have a contract with their employee who, as in-country sponsor, guarantees for them a legal status and a legal permit to stay in the country. This practice excludes migrant workers from Lebanon’s labour law thus, for not being legally represented, it is strengthened the potential for abuse, exploitation, withholding of wages and denied them basic labour rights and privileges. Hence, it is created a sort of “modern system of slavery” administrated with the fear of statelessness.

As assessed by Human Rights Watch, the introduction of a fee caused fewer refugees to register, creating individuals’ invisibility to the system and concretising an increased insecurity and unease in refugee communities. In fact, an irregular status exposes Syrians to harassment, illegal detention and limited freedom of movement, triggering to a restricted access of public services such as health care and education. As in a vicious cycle, the fact that men are unregistered and cannot provide required documents (e.g. legal residence permit and wedding certifications) at the birth of their children, contribute to a growing ‘state-ness’ of individuals residing within Lebanese territories, resulting in the lack of rights from the very beginning of their existence.

The dangers of Syrian manhood

Women and children are ‘known’ to be ‘the most vulnerable’, as part of obvious and ethically-correct objections of humanitarian interventions, where the adult male lack a clear place. Male refugees are often regarded as a security threat by local communities, rather than people in need of humanitarian aid. Often Syrian men have been sexualized and vilified as part of a larger project aimed at blaming refugees for the social, political, security, and economic ills Lebanon suffers. As Bassem Chit and Mohamad Ali Nayel argue, the male Syrian refugee has become the scapegoat that deflects attention from longstanding structural problems inside Lebanon that existed long before the massive influx of refugees. When this blame is filtered into the intimate and sexual spheres of life, it elicits amplified reactions not only from Lebanese citizens, but also from security forces eager to prove they can maintain the socio-sexual order at a time of crisis, legitimizing the implementation of harsh measures as local curfews for all Syrians, which ban them from going out in the evening and early morning.

Unregistered Syrian men are more likely to avoid crossing checkpoints where the Lebanese military could detain them for being in the country illegally and they tend to avoid large gatherings, to lest attention and suspicion; yet, staying ‘under a radar’ has hampered their ability to build meaningful social support systems. This absence of strong ties with the local community and the lack of protection from local institutions also heightens male refugees’ risk of physical and sexual abuse, a topic that, as recent study by the Women’s Refugee Commission highlighted, is not often discussed due to the stigma around homosexuality and traditional notions of ‘manhood’. However, the fact that it is not discussed does not prevent from happening. As direct outcome, humanitarian organizations often direct their gender-based violence services at women, marginalizing the male victims, their abuses and the consequent heavy psychological toll. As Tarek Wheibi, a Beirut-based communications officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), affirmed “We tend to look at men as if they are not affected by the situation but this is so far from reality”. According to an International Rescue Committee (IRC), at least 60 percent of those surveyed by the IRC reported “feeling less of a man” since becoming refugees in Lebanon.

According to field interviews conducted by Lewis Turner, refugees, both male and female, in camp and non-camp settings, recognized an identifiable pattern of preference for programs addressed mostly to women and children. In fact, despite the large variety of projects implemented, many male refugees lamented the perception that the humanitarian sector seems uninterested in working with them. Offering services such as counselling, psychosocial support, community spaces and activities for adult male refugees is therefore not conceptualized as an important part of humanitarian assistance.

Yet, there is need to cover a gap as much as to broaden the understanding of the principle of ‘vulnerability’, as factor that determine material aid and humanitarian services that individuals at risk are able to access. Ultimately, a person is not vulnerable because of being a man or a woman, but because of what being a man or a woman means in a particular situation. The status of refugee is per se a synonym of vulnerability that render them equally vulnerable regardless of their gender, because they are all- men, women and refugee children- subject to conditions that create insecurities in hosting states, as the case of Lebanon exemplifies. Therefore, all of them are eligible to need and benefit from, albeit in potentially different ways, aid and services that the humanitarian sector can offer. The distribution of resources and support in this context should be based on need, whoever the needy might be.

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