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The invisible migrant man: questioning gender privileges

Gendered approaches to migration often emphasise the experiences of female migrants, at times privileging their assumed vulnerability, as a necessary counter to the ‘privileged’ status of men within contexts of migration and beyond. To whom is this approach beneficial?

Migration is often depicted and perceived as a “quintessentially masculine” activity, “imbued with masculine attributes, including risk, adventure and courage”. More negative images of male migrants and asylum seekers are also fairly common, portrayed in mainstream media either as ‘dangerous and undesirable’, ‘criminals’ and sometimes even as ‘rapists’. All in all, the figure of the ‘threatening young (migrant) male’ is one that is relatively well known within British society and one which tends to lie in contrast, and even in opposition to, the almost universally victimised female migrant.

By focusing on female migrants, in particular on their vulnerabilities, most feminist and gender analyses of migration tend to overlook the diverse experiences of migrant men, for instance as fathers, marriage migrants, immigration detainees, LGBT asylum seekers, and sex workers to name but a few. It is this particular insight that inspired ‘The Invisible (Migrant) Man’ workshop held at Middlesex University earlier this year, which aimed to highlight the ways in which the needs and perspectives of male migrants are often marginalised – if not outright excluded – from legal and policy discourse surrounding migration and asylum., Presentations at the workshop identified the fact that men’s “affective ties and needs and their vulnerabilities are rarely fore-grounded”, while addressing the myriad ways “immigration systems often operate to marginalise men”. The larger point that was reinforced for me throughout this conference, is the value of stepping outside of understandings of ‘gender’ that continually equate ‘women’ with emotionality, vulnerability and passivity; while assumptions of privilege, aggression and oppression are perpetually tied to ‘men’. Such approaches sustain unhelpful gender stereotypes which are ultimately detrimental to both male and female migrants – as well as to men and women more generally.

“Love is of a man’s life a thing apart/ Tis woman’s whole existence”. Opening her presentation with this quote from Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Helena Wray, traced the marginalisation of men’s emotional lives and capacities within British immigration law, noting the sustained perception towards male migrants as being exclusively ‘economic agents’. According to Wray, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 marked a turning point in UK immigration policy imposing immigration controls on (non-white) Commonwealth citizens as a means of limiting the influx of Commonwealth migrants and non-European political refugees. This piece of legislation effectively ended circular labour migration from Britain’s former colonies. The subsequent rise in family migration as an alternative immigration channel was also hastily regulated by the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act which introduced, among other restrictions, the ‘Primary Purpose Rule’ (abolished in 1997) requiring that men show that the primary reason for marriage was not immigration. Within this context of increased suspicion towards family migration that the perception of the ‘bad (male) family migrant’ untrustworthy and whose emotional lives should be viewed with cynicism merged.

Wray indicated that “in family migration, men are regarded as having less invested in affective relationships, as more prone to engage in manipulation or abuse and to act primarily as economic agents”, and that “men who do succeed in the family migration category often have some other characteristic of vulnerability that marks them out as different to the mainstream” usually assessed against a high standard of proportionality, exceptionality and/or the ‘insurmountable obstacles’ test. The stringency of these standards, however, should not be underestimated as shown in the case of LH (Truly Exceptional – Ekinci applied) Jamaica [2006] UKAIT 00019 UR The case involved a husband and father of two children, one of whom was severely disabled, and who had overstayed his visa. Notwithstanding the extensive evidence presented of the appellant’s central role in the care of his severely disabled child, especially significant in light of his wife’s depression, the case failed on the grounds that his familial situation was insufficiently ‘exceptional’. In this regard, Wray suggests that the father’s involvement in the care of family was “reduced to its practical elements”, while “emotional aspects were entirely disregarded”.

In addition to restricting male migrants’ ability to make and sustain a credible claim under Article 8, this depiction of the ‘bad male migrant’ as the norm has also serves to eclipse vulnerabilities faced by migrant men in their respective host communities. One such example that is as stark as it is perhaps controversial is that of a number of Pakistani and Turkish male marriage migrants in Britain and Denmark respectively. Conventionally, much of the attention paid to transnational marriages has focused on (Muslim) brides, honing in on questions of forced marriage and honour killings in particular. Keenly wary of promoting an evaluation of relative suffering between female and male marriage migrants, Katherine Charsley’s presentation on her work in progress (co-authored with Anika Liversage) shed light on the parallel hardships faced by a number of Muslim male marriage migrants revealing their weak(er) position in domestic structures of power in relation to both their in-laws as well as their wives.

In her earlier work, Charsley commented on the use of the term ghardamad by her Pakistani informants in Bristol and in Pakistan to refer to male marriage migrants. Not unlike the “the conventional daughter-in-law”, the appellation connotes of being “dependent on and subservient to the in-laws”, thus an undesirable position, especially – Charsley suggests – for Pakistani men. A rarer phenomenon as marriage migrants are predominantly women, the process of male migration effectively creates new domestic, and asymmetrical, power relationships. In most cases this is manifested in a constant sense of “belittling”, while in more extreme cases, in domestic abuse. These men are, furthermore, generally unable to give voice to their difficulties either within or outside their communities for fear of undermining “cultural logics of masculine honour”.

Social, economic, and cultural pressures emanating from migration were identified as the primary source of male migrants’ dependence on their in-laws. Additionally, however, the research also points to the potential impact of immigration laws and residency requirements in particular, which further limit their autonomy and restrict possible sources of exit, at least until citizenship is acquired, at which point some are able to file for divorce. Yet, by doing so Pakistani marriage migrants contribute to widespread perceptions of ‘bogus’ transnational marriages, that is, that South East Asian men “trick’ local (British) Asian families into allowing them to marry their daughters, only to divorce them immediately after their acquire citizenship”. Moreover, in doing so, Pakistani divorced male marriage migrants interviewed by Charsley recounted some of the challenges they faced in relation to homogenised constructions of Muslim men within legal institutions. One of her informants described feeling like “an American movies villain”. Overall, by revealing the potentially vulnerable position of Muslim male marriage migrants, these findings destabilise stereotypical portrayals of Muslim husbands and fathers as universally oppressive, but also serve to complicate assumptions of ‘bogus’ transnational marriages within the British Pakistani population especially.

Another ‘group’ of (predominantly) male migrants whose vulnerabilities are continually silenced both by their invisibility and negative stereotyping as epitomes of ‘bad’ migrants, are immigration detainees and failed asylum seekers. Exploring the tensions in representations of immigration detainees and failed asylum seekers, Melanie Griffiths highlighted the “complex, emotional and gendered” experiences of failed asylum seeking men in Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre in Oxford. In particular, she drew attention to the tensions in their being “demonised as criminal, deceptive and too dangerous for British society”, while simultaneously facing “emasculation and infantilisation as a result of forced idleness, dependence and a lack of self-determination”. A number of Griffiths’ interviewees resisted being labelled as ‘criminals’ distancing themselves from ‘real’ criminals, and almost desperately seeking to affirm their identity as, for instance, a ‘good father’ and ‘hard worker’. This point is well captured by the following quote from one interviewee, a Sri Lanka detainee, who stated: “I’m not being convicted of committing a crime, I’m not a danger to the public, I’m a well-educated person, I can speak several languages including Tamil, Sinhalese, Urdu, Japanese”. In essence, Griffiths’ work has uncovered at least two ways in which male refused asylum seekers and those placed in detention face particular vulnerabilities. The first is through their not having a full legal identity; and the second, “counter-intuitively” she notes, emerges from “gendered assumptions regarding privileged patriarchy, including an expectation that men can cope with destitution, detention and the loss of family”.

The question that was raised during one of the discussion sessions and then thread through much of the research presented was the question of gender privileges. ‘Men’, taken as a holistic category, are often assumed to be the privileged sex – socially, economically, politically and legally owing to the ‘patriarchal dividend’. Writing the foreword for The Boundaries of International Law, a seminal publication within feminist international legal scholarship, Elizabeth Evatt observed that “the law has not always served women well”, and that “for centuries, the legal system, shaped and enforced exclusively by men, denied women the attributed of citizenship and personhood, and subordinated them to the decisions of men”. What is clear from this overview of diverse experiences of male migrants, however, is that ‘the law’ does not always serve men well either. A paradoxical yet prevalent perception within migration and asylum law especially is that ‘women’ are often seen as ‘privileged’ over male migrants and asylum seekers by virtue of their presumed ‘vulnerability’, a notion which is in fact sometime strategically drawn upon by legal actors and female asylum seekers themselves.

The effectiveness of this strategy is not necessarily sustained empirically given that rates of refusal for male and female asylum seekers were almost equal in 2010 and 2011, averaging at around 72% and 74% respectively. Beyond such pragmatic considerations, the (perceived) privileging of female vulnerability and victimhood bears a certain cost for women as well as men. As I have suggested elsewhere, this trend functions to portray migrant as defenceless victims of their ‘culture’ (or religion) and elides the various ways through which women express their agency. Equally, however, and less often acknowledged, such gender stereotypes concomitantly serve to eclipse vulnerabilities and hardships faced by men as migrants, husbands, fathers, (refused) asylum seekers, detainees, and quite possibly, as all of these at once.








About the author

Chloé Lewis is a DPhil candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford where her research focuses on responses to sexual violence in the DRC. She was a Policy Research Fellow with the Working Group on Women, Peace and Security in 2013-2014 and a researcher for the Human Rights Center Sexual Violence Program at the University of California, Berkeley. Chloé is a member of the Missing Peace Young Scholars Network.

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