Single Male Refugees
On any given night in Athens, Greece, if you were to venture into Omonia or Victoria squares or the port of Patras in the wee hours of the night, you might encounter Rando Wagner and fellow volunteers distributing food, drink, coats, or sleeping bags to refugees and homeless individuals. Rando is an independent volunteer who has been providing this type of aid in Greece for a couple of years now. He’s helped countless people in countless ways. Through his late-night distributions, he began meeting and assisting more and more young single male refugees. They had a hard time finding aid and legal assistance and would end up on the street. When I wanted to dig a little deeper into this topic, he was kind enough to pass on his knowledge about why single men get left out in the cold and how to help them. Here’s what I learned:
First, when it comes to aid distribution, single men often fall behind women and children in priority. Make no mistake here. Ensuring the wellbeing of families is vital and important work, and it’s true that about half of those who flee the Levant are women and children. The problem is that charity organizations on the ground may not have specific programs in place to help single men. When they’re last in line, sometimes there are no resources left for them. The housing protocols that existed in the Greek transit camps back when the borders were still open exemplify this. Women and children got priority for sleeping accommodations. Single men had to wait until all other women, children, and families were housed to request shelter. If all housing units were full by that time, the men had to sleep outside.
Another driver relates to cultural norms. A common scenario with refugees is people being temporarily “housed” in shared accommodation. Families end up taking shelter in close quarters with complete strangers. Think about how hard it would be for a single guy to find a spot to settle in that parents of small children would feel comfortable with.
A third factor is the ever-present myth that refugees are all ne’er-do-wells looking to shrug off military service, rape women, and hoard jobs and public funds. As with most widely-adopted myths, it contains some shreds of truth. Yes, there was a time when many men came ahead to prepare a safe place for their families. Yes, some were avoiding being forced to fight in a war with no side they could morally support. Over time, the truths have been twisted beyond recognition and used to promote nationalist and anti-immigrant agendas worldwide. The result is a hostile landscape where young male immigrants are feared and unwelcome. Many landlords refuse to rent accommodations to refugees, or even to aid workers trying to provide housing.
Most importantly, there’s a tendency to forget these are young guys, some not yet adults. We expect them to suddenly grow up, fend for themselves, and navigate a complicated asylum application process in a foreign land with no local support. I think we could all agree that many seventeen to twenty-year-old’s still need some level of guidance from an adult. It’s no wonder that some fall through the cracks and end up in the streets, in jail, or in abandoned buildings, doing who knows what to survive. On the other hand, when they get a bit of support, many do well. With donor funds, Rando was able to rent a couple of flats to house his most urgent cases, and he’s been amazed at how responsible and respectful the young men living there have been.
(Rando and some of the guys in Athens.)
Although half of the refugees fleeing to Europe are still women and children, there are still a number of single men coming to Greece. As such, it would seem that the next layer of the onion to peel back is: Why are there so many, and why are they so young? For many of the young men Rando has helped, it depends on nationality, but it boils down to a few major themes: escaping war, escaping persecution, seeking education, or trying to earn a living wage.
For Syrians, the most common reasons for flight are conscription, safety, or pursuing education. In Syria, men are required to serve the Syrian army upon reaching the age of 18. Aside from forced service to the State, they also have to deal with ISIS and a number of other groups trying to recruit them. In a country embroiled in a complicated web of conflict – both civil and international, it’s not hard to understand why conscientious young men would go to extremes to avoid being forced to fight. Another big group, which has diminished over the last two years, is young fathers going ahead to try to establish residency in Europe. The goal here is to find a safe country, gain employment and legal residency, and then bring the family. Some also come in search of education opportunities, which are non-existent for many in Syria due to the war.
For young single Afghan and Iraqi men, the reasons for coming to Europe are similar: safety, education, and job opportunities. There is also a percentage of young men fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Afghanistan has experienced some level of conflict continuously for the last 40 years, and both terrorist activity and civilian casualties have risen dramatically in recent years. Similarly, in Iraq, instability and violent terrorist activity has caused many single men AND families to flee. Protracted conflict has taken its toll on both nations’ economies, and when a family can only afford to send only one member to pursue a better life, the candidate will almost always be the young adult male. As Rando astutely pointed out, “Who’s going to send their young daughter off to traverse the continent with smugglers and human traffickers? Nobody’s going to do that.”
The story can be a bit different for young Pakistani men. While, yes, some are fleeing prosecution or terrorism, some are also coming to earn a better living. Now, I want to be careful on this one, because of the false narratives around “economic migrants.” The men that Rando most often encounters aren’t freeloaders. Far from it, they are hard-working and honest men providing for their families. One young Pakistani man he knows works at a restaurant in Athens for €12 per day (about $15 US). He lives above the restaurant for free, and he sends €11 home to Pakistan, keeping only €1 for himself. In Pakistan, his family of six lives comfortably on his wages. This type of economic migration isn’t about gaining wealth or easy money. It’s about survival.
Now that we’ve answered some of the who’s and the why’s, the next layer has to be: How do we help? To address immediate needs, such as food and shelter, supporting an independent volunteer with a solid reputation is one way to get your donation dollars to underserved demographics (but do some research!). Large organizations have more funding, but must adhere to prescribed programs, which usually place a priority on women and children. On the other hand, what independent volunteers can do with modest amounts of cash is nothing short of amazing. Through his One Human Race campaign, Rando distributes food and basic needs, provides meal vouchers, and as mentioned, he has begun providing housing in Athens. If you have the time and budget, you can also volunteer. There are many volunteer opportunities in Athens and other parts of Greece – both long and short term, and there are many Facebook groups dedicated to helping people find volunteer opportunities.
The most important thing that can be done for these single men is to provide employment opportunities. They all want to work, but Greece’s economic woes make finding employment nearly impossible. This is why most of the single guys in Greece have their sights set on making it over the border to go elsewhere in Europe. Aside from the economics, finding employment is critical to their survival. Otherwise, they have little to do other than sleep and play video games. This leads to depression and increases the potential that they’ll be targeted online by criminal and terrorist groups. There are other groups focused on creating employment opportunities and job training for refugees in Greece. Forge for Humanity, Do Your Part, and Khora are a few organizations who operate in this space, but much help is needed.
These young men sacrificed greatly because they want to be lawful and productive citizens. Let’s help them stay on that path, shall we?
By: Nicole Cook
No Place Like Home for Refugees, Inc.