February 25, 2020

The real victims of Syrian migrants

We’ve all heard the fear mongering about how Syrian refugees are mostly men — which somehow makes them more susceptible to becoming terrorists, and therefore dangerous to the West.

“You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men,” Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump told Yahoo last November. “We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.” 

Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump further conveyed his distrust of his gender: “Where are the women? Where are the children? We’re taking in people we have no idea who they are. … So I think … you know, it could very well be the ultimate Trojan horse.”

This sort of talk got some people very excited, to the point where the State Department had to address the issue during a November briefing on refugee screening and admissions. At that briefing, Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse asked for a demographic breakdown of all Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S. 

“Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children, and a quarter are adults over 60,” a senior administration official responded. The official continued, rather deliberately: “And I think you will have heard that only two percent are single males of combat age. So … there’s slightly more [men] … it’s roughly 50-50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not — not a lot more men.”

But if we look at Europe, where perhaps the larger population of migrants is more representative, we would see the gender disparity that politicians were talking about. Of the roughly 1 million refugees who arrived in Europe by sea in 2015 — mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and a handful of other “refugee-producing countries” — about 25 percent were children, 17 percent women and 58 percent men, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I never thought I’d say this, but, in this one area, it seems Trump got his facts right. 

However, I part company with the calculus behind The Hair in this: So far, the most urgent threat Syrian migrant men pose is to their own women.

Based on interviews with dozens of migrant women at refugee shelters in Germany, The New York Times reported that the perils of the already hazardous refugee flight “are amplified for women.” 

When one husband ran out of money to pay the smugglers transporting his family, he offered his 30-year-old wife, a mother of four, as payment instead. “For three months, she was raped almost daily to earn her family’s onward journey,” the Times reported. Another woman, Samar, who said she had worked for the Syrian Finance Ministry, said, “Everybody knows there are two ways of paying the smugglers – [w]ith money or with your body.”

Another woman interviewed said she stopped washing during her journey and began dressing as a boy in order to fend off unwanted attention and aggression. Even in Europe, within the relative safety of refugee shelters, many women still find themselves feeling vulnerable or in danger; several reported pushing cupboards in front of their bedroom doors at night.

Sexual assault among migrants is an under-reported phenomenon, and it isn’t happening only among those fleeing the Middle East. In 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the widespread problem of sexual assault among female Mexican migrants while crossing the border into the United States. Again, here, women often were forced to pay smugglers with their bodies, and some wound up captives, sex slaves or prostitutes. Sexual assault is so prevalent among female migrants entering the U.S., many women actually expect to be raped or assaulted en route, and come prepared for the journey with birth control and condoms to at least minimize the risks of pregnancy and the spread of disease.

“When a woman is raped in remote stretches of the border region, it almost always goes unpunished,” NPR reported. The same could be said of the Syrian migrants in Europe — so many are in transition, living in temporary shelters, not knowing the local language and often unaware of civil protections. What recourse do women in these positions really have?

It is also worth asking: Do men who feel at ease abusing their wives or assaulting other women and girls become more likely to commit other types of violent crime? I like to think one of the best measures of a healthy society is how it treats its women.

But when society fails, Hollywood sometimes offers a good alternative. 

In the movie “Ex Machina,” about a tech billionaire who uses his fortune to create artificial intelligence, we meet Ava, a dream-droid who lives under the lock-and-key of her brilliant but demented creator. Alone in his remote, wooded compound, the god-like Nathan decides to sexualize his femme-bots — both so that he can “use” them, and so that they can elicit feelings from humans beings — a sign, Nathan believes, of their true power and intelligence. 

But as it turns out, female dream-droids are not very docile. The beautiful bot Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, whose performance could earn her a Golden Globe on Sunday, tires of the male-run prison in which she is tightly controlled and terribly confined. Her “intelligence” demands her autonomy. Ava soon outsmarts the men holding her captive, killing one and entrapping another, because she knows the unequal origins of her existence will always restrict her. She doesn’t want rescue; she wants liberation.

“Almost all men in the world are bad,” is the sad conclusion of the Syrian refugee and mother, Samar. 

It is also the conclusion of “Ex Machina.” Yet Ava is a heroine who needs no prince to save her. From slavery to self-determination, she saves herself. 

Welcome to the female liberation story of the future.