Where are all the women refugees?

Photo from UNHCR website

Photo from UNHCR website

A version of this column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine in September 2015

One of the strange realizations of being on the Channel 4 series It Was Alright In the 1970s was, when they showed me clips, how much I’d blanked from my memory. Star Maidens? I LOVED that TV show. Two burly blokes – one a French born German TV star (Pierre Brice), one a big-bellied Brit and future member of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas) – escape slavery from Medusa – a crazed Middle East-in-reverse planet ruled by women. Women in polyester jumpsuits with big circles cut out in sexy places. Naturally the men seek asylum on Earth where sanity rules and Englishmen are in charge. I’d entirely forgotten the episodes set on Earth where jihad-crazed suburban housewives attempt to create a Medusan-style feminist state.

The series was an Anglo-German co-production and seemed part of a wider cultural realignment along with the Eurovision song contest and It’s a Knock Out! 70s children of the EEC-decimal currency age started seeing Germans, not only as the Nazis of old war films, but this reborn tribe of modern integrated Europeans. People like us making equally terrible SF.

In the 1970s German was widely taught in schools. We saw West German politics regularly explained on the news. The decline of that reporting and that study has left us ill equipped to fully understand Germany’s leading role in the current migrant & Syrian refugee crisis.

We probably do appreciate the most basic reason why a right-of centre German Chancellor is taking in 800 thousand refugees this year; a plain acknowledgement of Germany’s historic moral debt for the genocide of the Third Reich. (Although since this column was originally written, the government has quickly backtracked and suspended its Schengen zone open border in the south, because of the numbers of migrants that were apparently encouraged as a result to head their way. )

But Germany, as I found in the time I’ve worked and travelled there over 30 years, is full of contradictions. A country where huge numbers of Turkish Gastarbeiter were needed but not encouraged to feel they belonged. Where strange racial stereotypes endured in popular culture decades after they become obsolete in Britain. Where far right racial violence felt much more organized and murderous. Where only 5 years ago Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the failure of multiculturalism. 

A prominent political claim being made on social media against Merkel’s action is that Germany is looking for cheap immigrant labour to support an ageing population.

But importantly Germany’s undergone its own internal refugee and migrant crisis, too, as East German-raised Merkel knows only too well. In the summer of 1989 a tide of East German families started seeking asylum via the West German consulate in Hungary. As an interrailing student I found myself sharing a train from Vienna with some of them, making an almost identical journey to many Syrians today. When the Wall came down a few months later, East Germans were widely regarded in West Germany as an economic and social burden. Many “Ossies” continued to regard themselves as victims, and never really made a reckoning with their collaboration both under the Stasi and the Nazis before them.

One of the most intriguing anecdotal demographic phenomena of the 1990s was what happened to East Germany’s young women; how many upped sticks and headed West in search of opportunity. It was, Germans told me, overwhelmingly men who stayed put when their obsolete industrial jobs disappeared, and in some cases nursed a grievance against foreigners. The rise of far right extremists in the East seemed correlated with that demographic change.

Polling here shows a large number of Britons, the majority even, are at best cautious about taking in refugees from Syria, because of the fear of conservative Islamic attitudes. Some readers might want to dismiss this as a cover for racism, just as in the 1930s the Daily Mail, warned of the “threat” of so many Jews coming from Hitler’s Germany. But just as in East Germany, looking at gender opens up a legitimate question about how you build a strong and stable society. Where are all the women refugees? According to the latest UNHCR figures 72% of the numbers arriving in Western Europe so far in 2015 are men, 15% children and only 13% women (as of date of writing mid-Sept 2015). A BBC World Service reporter a few days ago described on air the unease he and female colleagues felt when they tried to interview women refugees only to be uniformly refused permission by their men.

So where ARE the women refugees? Some men will have planned to establish themselves and then bring their families over safely. But talking to lawyers dealing with the big influx of young male Afghan migrants here a decade earlier it seems in many cases families spend the money on the people they value most. And that’s not the women.

When we talk of compassion in these humanitarian crises and doing the right thing, perhaps we ignore gender at our peril.

Sources and further reading

East German refugees escape via Hungary (1989) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8209639.stm

UNHCR gender demographics: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.html

Salafists trying to recruit young male migrants arriving in Germany (Suddeutsche Zeitung Sep 10 2015)

Lingering alienation between East and West Germans (Der Spiegel)

 

 

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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