Are Syrian Men Vulnerable Too? Gendering the Syria Refugee Response


Syrian refugees in Jordan, 2016

Lewis Turner writes about Syrian refugees in Jordan, He argues that ‘a person is not vulnerable because they are a man or a woman, but because of what being a man or a woman means in particular situations. A refugee response that automatically assumes that women and children are the most vulnerable will do a disservice to the community it seeks to serve.

(This article was first posted by the London Middle East Institute here: .)

Many humanitarian actors in the Syria refugee response assume that households headed by Syrian women are economically more vulnerable than households headed by Syrian men. Yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (U.N.H.C.R.) data belie this claim. The 2015 Vulnerability Assessment Framework Baseline Survey[1] for Jordan shows that a male-headed household is just as likely to be living in poverty as a female headed-household. This example is just one part of a broader trend. Syrian women and children are consistently assumed to be ‘the most vulnerable,’ and therefore become the focus of humanitarian attention in the refugee response. This assumption is so widespread that it is rarely deemed to require justification, and therefore typically goes unchallenged.

This essay examines the place of Syrian men in the refugee response, with a focus on the situation in Jordan. It questions the prevailing understandings of vulnerability, and outlines how the assumption that women and children are ‘the most vulnerable’ affects the distribution of aid and services. The essay demonstrates that, contrary to the perceptions of many in the humanitarian sector, work with refugee men is not only necessary, but can be extremely successful. Syrian men can be vulnerable too.

The Search for ‘The Most Vulnerable’

‘Vulnerability’ is a central organizing principle of the refugee response. Agencies want to work with, and be seen to work with, ‘the most vulnerable.’ Assessing refugees’ vulnerability (and therefore access to resources) is one of the key tasks that many organizations perform. There are different assessment tools and frameworks, and a host of factors may be taken into consideration when assessing vulnerability. Yet through a year of research in Jordan I encountered a near consensus that refugee women and children are ‘the most vulnerable’.

This description tends to attach vulnerability to the person (the woman or child) rather than describing threats, challenges or situations as the creators of vulnerabilities that a person faces. When vulnerability is understood to be created by circumstances, it is clear that men, women and children can all be vulnerable, because they can all be in situations that render them vulnerable. Refugee women face particular conditions and social relations that create vulnerabilities and insecurities for them, including physical assault, exploitation and sexual harassment.[2] Refugee men similarly face specific threats and circumstances that leave them vulnerable. Men are significantly more likely than women or children to be refouled to Syria for alleged security reasons, to suffer from particular forms of police harassment, and to be forcibly encamped (or otherwise punished) by Jordanian authorities for labor market violations.[3] In addition to these threats, many refugee men (like women and children) have evidently experienced severe psychological damage as a result of the crisis. In particular, field workers believe, this results from the loss of their gendered identity as the primary provider for the family.[4]

The vision of women and children as ‘the most vulnerable’ is replicated in visual form. In U.N.H.C.R.’s Vulnerability Assessment Framework Baseline Survey mentioned above,[5]there are photographs of twenty people. Only one is an adult male, an elderly man lying under a blanket. There are eleven women and teenage girls pictured, and the rest are young children (mostly girls). These portrayals are not accidental. Jared Kohler, who was contracted to U.N.H.C.R. Jordan as a photographer in 2014 (and whose photographs were used in the document), explained that “I was told at times that really we need pictures of women and children, and as a photographer you learn to shoot what is wanted … so you learned to not even really in most cases bother to shoot lots of stuff of men … because you knew it wasn’t going to be used.”[6]

Gendered Vulnerability and Material Assistance

These gendered perceptions about who is vulnerable have important material effects on the lives of Syrian refugees. This is particularly the case when it comes to ‘female-headed households,’ which are believed to be about one third of Syrian families in Jordan.[7] Despite U.N.H.C.R.’s Vulnerability Assessment Framework Baseline Surveystating that “in terms of economic welfare, there is little identifiable difference in vulnerability as a result of the gender of the principal applicant” [i.e., head of household],[8] many organizations work on the assumption that female-headed households are more economically vulnerable than male-headed households, and therefore in need of more financial support.[9]

Many Syrian families, responding to the incentive structures created by the prioritization of female-headed households, have chosen to register separately with U.N.H.C.R. even if they arrived in Jordan together (or to not merge their case files when they are reunited after having arrived at different times). On paper, they appear to be a female-headed household and a single man, and this ‘female-headed household’ is very likely to receive more aid than the family would have done if it had registered as a complete unit.[10]Donors are often particularly interested in knowing what proportion of refugees an organization has worked with are from female-headed households, which further reinforces a focus on this subset of families.[11]

More generally, in households with both an adult male and an adult female, it is typically Syrian women who register their families with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs). Among both field workers and Syrians in Jordan, women are widely acknowledged to generate more sympathy than men when requesting aid.[12] Although working legally in Jordan has been extremely difficult for Syrians, even considering recent changes,[13] those distributing aid will “often still have in the back of their minds that Arab men can work easily.”[14] While making it difficult for refugee men to access much needed aid, these dynamics also encourage performances of helplessness and victimhood among refugee women.

The rest of this splendid article, and the references, can be found  on the Middle East Institute website,, at


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