Refugee situation affects the image of unaccompanied minors

2016-04-18 18:00

That non-white men are portrayed as perpetrators from patriarchal cultures is old news. The phenomenon of sexualising racialised men is colonial in origin. But why was the focus turned to unaccompanied minors this particular winter and how does the debate affect the refugee boys?

That non-white men are portrayed as perpetrators from patriarchal cultures is old news. The phenomenon of sexualising racialised men is colonial in origin. But why was the focus turned to unaccompanied minors this particular winter and how does the debate affect the refugee boys?

The recent public debate has focused on the ongoing refugee situation and not least the unaccompanied refugee boys. They have been accused of sexually harassing girls and women in the public space and have been portrayed as perpetrators. So what do the boys themselves think of all this?

Paula Aracena is one of the researchers from the Department of Social Work at Malmö University who for a period of two years are following 25 unaccompanied minors. She notes that the public view of this group has changed dramatically in the last year. Today, they are subject to a much more racism than in the past.

foto_184x260_paula_aracena‘They used to be considered victims suffering from posttraumatic stress. But this has changed. Today they are viewed with suspicion and have become ”typical immigrant men” in the eyes of the public,’ she says.

She feels that the debate has made the situation more difficult for the group. Many of them avoid telling people that they are unaccompanied or that they are from Afghanistan.

‘In the past, they didn’t need to hide their story and that they managed to get to Europe alone. Today these are things they’d rather not reveal,’ Aracena continues.

She says that the interviewees are working hard to prove that they can adapt and contribute to Swedish society. A key goal is to be ‘normal’ and not be identified as a norm violator.

‘They spend a lot of time thinking about how society views them and other vulnerable groups in Sweden. Many of these adolescents wanted to participate in our project in order to give another view of themselves than the one often portrayed in the media.’

Woman’s body becomes metaphor for territories

That racism and sexism go hand-in-hand is nothing new, and the primary victims in Sweden are non-white women.

The phenomenon of sexualising racified men gained momentum in Swedish media in the mid-1990s but is of colonial origin, according to Irene Molina, professor of human geography at Uppsala University. Non-white men have historically been portrayed as ‘the other’, a subject with an uncontrollable desire for the body of the white woman. Molina draws parallels to the rhetoric of the colonial period, when the female body was used as a metaphor for the territory that was to be conquered and defended. Today it is our nation, Mother Svea – the female personification and patriotic emblem of Sweden, that must be defended against the ‘immigrant threat’.

Irene Molina

‘This used to be something abstract, but now the racists have found a way to concretise the threat – through the unaccompanied adolescent boys. ‘The Muslims’ used to be the biggest concern; today the unaccompanied minors are defined as posing the greatest danger. This fits well into the racist structure and is an effective argument for closing the borders and stopping people from coming to Sweden.

Molina says that the sexist allegations really took off in Sweden following a rape in Rissne, a Stockholm suburb, in the 1990s. The media pointed out certain suburbs and neighbourhoods as particularly dangerous for white women, and there were clear links between boys, sexism and racism.

‘In the wake of this, journalists from Sweden’s largest newspaper visited schools in these suburbs and asked the boys what kind of girl they would prefer to rape. We write about this in our report Miljonprogram och media,’ she says.

Unaccompanied minors not a separate phenomenon

In Sweden, the refugee situation was cemented into the public consciousness in the spring of 2015 following non-stop media coverage of overcrowded boats, dead bodies and refugees stuck at European national borders. Then came a new migration policy that made it more difficult to enter Sweden as well.

Maja Sager

‘I don’t see the public debate about unaccompanied minors as a separate phenomenon. It’s connected to the refugee situation and Swedish migration policy. Increased border controls and repressive thinking about migrants are part of the same package,’ says Maja Sager, postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at Lund University with a particular interest in issues related to migration, asylum rights, borders and gender.

One opinion often heard in the debate is that too many male refugees are coming to Sweden. Sager says that the questioning of why there are not more women coming to Sweden can somewhat simplified be divided into two camps. The first is represented by racist groups that are asking the question only to demonise the men and in all honesty really do not care about the situation of female migrants. The other camp is more mainstream and is performing a type of one-dimensional gender equality analysis.

‘This issue is so much bigger than just the gender aspect. It is the Swedish migration policy that determines who makes it into Sweden. Right now there are no legal ways to get here; instead their only choice is to embark on a risky journey through Europe. This has led to a situation where the young men leave first, with a plan for the rest of their families to follow later.’

She says that the temporary residence permits have made it harder for the families to reunite in the new country. The Swedish government has also introduced a stricter so-called financial support requirement, which means that a migrant must have a job and an income before other family members are welcome to apply for entry into the country.

‘Of course there are also some gendered aspects behind people’s decisions about who gets to go first, but since we know how much the legislation regarding migration and border controls affects all migrants, regardless of gender, it appears a bit strange when people only look at the situation through a gender equality lens and wonder why there aren’t more women in the boats,’ says Sager.

Author Ida Måwe, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo press pictures, from the top: Paula Aracena, Irene Molina and Maja Sager
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