Editor’s Note: The following article is published as a background guide to GPI’s 2023 Think-a-Thon. To learn and register, we invite you to click here.
To understand gender and racial disparities among refugee populations one can easily turn to the ongoing Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine. Since the onset of the Russian invasion, European countries including Poland, Germany and Czechia, to name a few, have welcomed a high volume of Ukrainian refugees into their borders. As of Oct. 2022, across the European Union (EU) approx 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees have registered for temporary protection and or other national refugee programs. Among EU countries, Poland hosts the most Ukrainian refugees—about 1.4 million (Karasapan, 2022). Rightfully, Ukrainian refugees were welcomed with open arms. In Poland, border guards handed out sandwiches and citizens offered refreshments and toys. Yet, the warm welcome experienced by Ukrainian refugees is in stark contrast to refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In early 2021, EU states had taken in about 1 million Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, with Germany taking in more than half in the 10 years since the war in Syria erupted—this is substantially less than the 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe in the 6 months since Russia invaded (Hankir and Rabat, 2022). Another important feature of the EU’s response to Syrian refugees was the 2016 deal struck between the EU and Turkey to reduce the pressure on EU borders and dissuade future asylum seekers and economic migrants from making the journey—which has had rippling effects on EU migration policy and put non-EU migrants at risk and raises questions for the future (Terry, 2021).
To this point, one can look to the recent EU-Belarus border crisis and be disturbed by the use of migrants as bargaining chips that such border diplomacy has created (Thornell, 2021). Like Syrian refugees, refugees from the African continent have also been thwarted from entry into the EU with the EU focusing its efforts less on allowing entry and providing economic and social resources and more on attempting to ensure that more migrants do not seek entry (Carina Grün, 2022). Why the disparity? In looking to the Polish border, the simple answer is racism but more politically correct responses include cultural ties and fears of terrorism which warrant further inquiry. Framings of Ukrainians as civilized Europeans that other EU countries and citizens can identify with evoke a friendly and familiar sentiment that contrasts quick assumptions of Black and Arab migrants (Wamsley, 2022). The sandwiches and toys received by Ukrainian refugees fleeing for their lives in Poland were not the denials and hostilities faced by African students fleeing the same violence (Langfitt and Beardsley, 2022). The only difference was where they came from and specifically the color of their skin. Outside of Europe, the same goes for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. (Amnesty International, 2022; Zara et al., 2021)—with COVID-19 playing a significant role in recent migrant discrimination.
Gender disparities among refugee populations are not any better. Of the 100 million people that have been forcefully displaced between 2010-2019 over half are women and girls (UNHR, 2019). Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse, exploitation and trafficking and limited economic opportunities—issues that have come to light once more due to war in Ukrainine (Relief Web, 2022). However, caution has been raised in the hyperfixation on “vulnerability” (i.e. what of autonomy and agency or resilience?) that can be both gendered and racialized and what is ignored when a vulnerability focuses only on women and girls (what about men and boys?) (Freedman, 2018; Turner, 2016). Notwithstanding, vulnerabilities still exist on the journey and when they arrive at their asylum location (Murphy, 2022). Gender analyses of refugee populations warrant intersectional assessments among women and girls but also among boys and men as displacement reshapes gender dynamics and subsequently educational and financial prospects (Shwayli, n.d.). In exploring this topic further, keep in mind existing frameworks, laws and policies must adapt to ensure equity in treatment and protections for refugee populations. Also aim to acknowledge the racial and gender disparities that exist and ensure that responses are rights-based and nuanced.