This essay series explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays explore the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies have hampered the responses to them. See more ...

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 Survey stating 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.

Syrian Men and Humanitarian Programming

This gendered approach to the refugee response affects not only access to material resources, but also to services provided by humanitarian actors. A number of organizations have been increasing the range of work they undertake with refugee men as the Syria crisis has continued into its fourth, fifth and sixth years. In particular, there is a growing interest in Jordan in ‘engaging men and boys’ to be allies in the fight against violence against women, reflecting a global trend.[15] Yet while it is important to acknowledge that work with refugee men is increasing and diversifying, troubling patterns nonetheless remain clear.

The inclusion of men within sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) prevention and response work has, for example, been a source of strong contention. Several agencies in Jordan objected to attempts to change the definition of SGBV to include a specific reference to men and boys as potential victims, claiming that men cannot, by definition, be victims of gender-based violence.[16] One GBV Specialist explained that she has encountered numerous colleagues and fellow gender specialists disputing the importance of cases and work involving male victims of SGBV. She described how humanitarian workers have at times been dismissive of male victims of SGBV by claiming that the number of cases was too low or sporadic to be significant, or by explaining away the violence as a cultural practice. In her experience, these were the same arguments that she used to hear very regularly when people attempted to silence women’s experiences of violence; “you really would like to refresh the memory of some people,” she lamented.[17]

More generally, many organizations target important parts of their work, which could apply to and benefit all demographics, exclusively or primarily at women and children. In particular this happens for services such as psychosocial support, counseling, and the provision of community spaces and activities. The focus on providing these services to women and children is often justified by the same straightforward statements discussed above: that women and children are the most vulnerable. Sometimes this work is understood to be a part of a ‘women’s empowerment’ agenda, or part of a service for (female) victims of SGBV. Numerous Syrians I spoke with, both male and female, in camp and non-camp settings, recognized this as an identifiable pattern, with many refugee men reporting that they feel the humanitarian sector is simply uninterested in working with them.[18] Even when these services are open to men, there is not always the necessary effort or commitment within organizations to actively reach out effectively to male refugees.[19]

Practitioners and program managers, when explaining their relative lack of work with refugee men, very regularly cited the practical difficulties they experience when they do try to recruit men to their programs: men are too busy, not interested, or not emotionally open enough to discuss difficult issues.[20] However authentic the reporting of these experience is, it is notable that these justifications shift the focus, one might even argue the ‘blame,’ onto refugee men themselves. Rather than questioning how the program timing, content and outreach could be made more relevant and accessible to refugee men, discussions tend to revolve around the ways in which refugee men fail to fit in with, or respond to, pre-existing frameworks (which have often been designed with women and children in mind, implicitly or explicitly). The view of the potential ‘beneficiaries’ looks somewhat different: as one young Syrian man living in Za’tari Camp exclaimed “these people who say the men are hard to work with, I would like to ask them something. I would like to ask them if any one of them has tried.”[21]

“He looks like a threat, not like a beneficiary”[22]

There is another aspect of the explanation for this phenomenon to consider. If women and children are ‘known’ to be ‘the most vulnerable’ then they become the obvious and ethically-correct objects of humanitarian interventions. Adult male refugees lack a clear place within this framework. Offering services such as counseling, psychosocial support, and community spaces and activities for adult male refugees is therefore not conceptualized, by many in the humanitarian sector, as an important part of their work, or even part of their work at all. For example, in response to hearing about my research (in a social setting), one United Nations employee, with slight incredulity, asked what psychosocial support for refugee men would even mean: “getting them to play basketball or something?”[23]

Several interlocutors, especially those with extensive experience working with adult males in Jordan and the wider region, argued that the relative absence of adult males from the refugee response is connected to the perception that these individuals are (potentially) threatening. According to Curt Rhodes, International Director of Questscope, which has decades of experience working with young men in Jordan and the region, for many humanitarian workers a young Syrian man “with gelled hair and turned-up fake leather collar … looks like a threat, not like a beneficiary.”[24] Because humanitarian workers would not, or could not, “choose to be against [refugee men],” he argued, they simply do not occupy a place in the humanitarian imaginary.

Despite all of these barriers and perceptions, when psychosocial programs, counseling work or work to engage men in SGBV prevention does take place, it is generally very successful, often to the surprise of those managing or implementing the programs.[25] Providing ‘safe spaces’ for men to discuss some of the complex and sensitive challenges they are facing proves incredibly valuable, with many men reporting that they had never previously had an opportunity to discuss these issues.[26] Indeed, according to one gender consultant, working with refugee men on gender issues was not only extremely productive and rewarding, but provoked less resistance than working with the staff of humanitarian agencies.[27]


This essay does not seek to promote a comparison of whether Syrian men are ‘worse off’ than Syrian women or children, nor does it seek to undermine or question the value of humanitarian work with women and children. The information and analysis presented here demonstrates, however, that it is necessary to question and debate the understandings of vulnerability that operate in the humanitarian sector. Whether a Syrian refugee is understood to be vulnerable or not has a tremendous impact on the material aid and humanitarian services that they are able to access. Ultimately, 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 person is made vulnerable by the circumstances, challenges and threats they face.

Refugee men, like refugee women and refugee children, are subject to conditions that create vulnerabilities and insecurities for them in host states. They are liable to need and benefit from, albeit potentially in different ways, the aid and services that the refugee response can offer. The distribution of scarce resources in this context should therefore be based on need, whomever the needy might be. 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.


[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), Vulnerability Assessment Framework Baseline Survey (Amman: U.N.H.C.R., 2015).

[2] U.N.H.C.R., Woman Alone: The Fight for Survival by Syria’s Refugee Women (2014), accessed October 25, 2016,; Amnesty International, “Female refugees face physical assault, exploitation and sexual harassment on their journey to Europe,” Amnesty International, January 18, 2016, accessed November 5, 2016,….

[3] Resettlement Officer, Women’s Protection Officer, NGO Director. Interviews with author. Amman. March–May 2016.

[4] Areej Sumreen, Clinical Psychologist. Interview with author. Amman. June 2016.

[5] U.N.H.C.R., Vulnerability Assessment Framework.

[6] Jared Kohler, Photographer formerly contracted to U.N.H.C.R. Jordan. Interview with author. Amman. March 2016.

[7] U.N.H.C.R., Living in the Shadows: Jordan Home Visits Report (Amman: UNHCR, 2014).

[8] U.N.H.C.R., Vulnerability Assessment Framework, 16.

[9] Protection and Livelihoods Officers. Interviews with author. Amman. June 2016.

[10] Livelihoods Specialist. Interview with author. Amman. June 2016.

[11] Fieldnotes. Visits to refugee community centres. Jordan. September 2015 and June 2016.

[12] Dr. Lina Darras, Psychosocial Support Manager. Interview with author. Amman. June 2016; Syrian Refugees (male and female). Interviews with author. Irbid and Karak, Jordan. April–June 2016.

[13] As a result of the agreement at the London Donors Conference of February 2016, Jordan has begun to open up its formal labor market to Syrians, and Syrians have been issued around 30,000 work permits since. The scheme, however, has already run into several difficulties. See Merza Noghai, “29,000 Syrians Issued Work Permits This Year,” Jordan Times, October 10, 2016, accessed November 7, 2016,…; and Alisa Reznick, “Syrian Worker Programme Faces Hurdles in Jordan,” Al Jazeera, September 23, 2016, accessed October 20, 2016,….

[14] Consultant working with LGBT Refugees in Jordan. Interview with author. Amman. June 2016.

[15] See Dean Peacock and Gary Barker, “Working with Men and Boys to Prevent Gender-based Violence: Principles, Lessons Learned, and Ways Forward,” Men and Masculinities 17, 5 (2014): 578-599; Handicap International, Equal Access Monitor November 2015 (Amman: Handicap International, 2015).

[16] Gender Consultant and GBV Specialist. Interviews with author. Amman. April–May 2016.

[17] GBV Specialist. Interview with author. Amman. July 2016.

[18] Syrian refugees (male and female). Interviews with author. Amman, Irbid, Karak, Za’tari Refugee Camp. March-August 2016.

[19] Women’s Protection Officer. Interview with author. Amman. March 2016.

[20] Psychosocial Counselors, Gender Consultants. Interviews with author. Amman. December 2015–June 2016.

[21] Syrian adult male refugee. Interview with author. Za’tari Refugee Camp, Jordan. July 2016.

[22] Dr. Curt Rhodes, International Director of Questscope. Interview with author. Amman. May 2016.

[23] Fieldnotes. Amman. May 17, 2016.

[24] Dr. Curt Rhodes, International Director of Questscope. Interview with author. Amman. May 2016.

[25] Dr. Lina Darras, Psychosocial Support Manager. Interview with author. Amman. June 2016; Syrian Refugees (male and female). Interviews with author. Irbid and Karak, Jordan. April–June 2016.  

[26] Areej Sumreen, Clinical Psychologist. Interview with author. Amman. June 2016.

[27] Gender Consultant and GBV Specialist. Interviews with author. Amman. April–May 2016.



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