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Who counts as a refugee?
Who counts as a refugee?

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4.2 Feminist perspectives: who counts as a refugee?

The UN Convention has a very narrow definition of a ‘refugee’, which does not ‘accommodate those people who are forced to leave their country of origin because of economic and/or social disruption caused by environmental, political or economic turmoil or war. These are precisely the reasons that propel most refugees from the underdeveloped South’ (Lewis, 2003, p. 327). If we examine this definition further through a feminist theoretical perspective, we can see how social policy operating at a national or international level makes assumptions that create the boundaries of a gendered personal.

Activity 2

Look again at Extracts 1 to 3 in Section 2.

  • In what ways were the experiences of the four people structured through gender?

  • To what extent did class also play a role?


Both gender and class helped to construct the experiences of the people concerned. Wolja was allowed to enter the UK to seek work, but only because he was professionally qualified and had ‘cultural capital’ to bring with him. Lotte was persecuted as a ‘Jew’, not as a woman; but, as a woman, a ‘domestic permit’ offered her the (only) way out of Nazi Germany. By contrast, Françoise was persecuted within her family because she was a woman.

It is easier to recognise the ways in which Lotte's and Françoise's experiences were constructed in part through gender, because Wolja's and Victor's experiences are normalised. That is, their experiences as male refugees are taken as the norm for all refugees. The ways in which women and men live their lives in relation to one another are so taken for granted in everyday practices, that it is harder to see that male experiences are gendered. Similarly, we find implicit gender assumptions within social policies and practices which have contradictory implications for both women and men. On the one hand, in both historical moments men have been viewed as the principal asylum applicant in applications from couples and/or families. In addition, in the late twentieth century ‘permission to work’, when granted, was usually only given to the (male) principal applicant. This dependence on their husbands is problematic for women, who may lose all their rights if the marriage ends. Women on the receiving end of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable. On the other hand, there is evidence that men have more to lose than women in terms of status, and are less able to adjust emotionally to a changed status, particularly if they are unable to work and act as a ‘breadwinner’. Indeed, for some women, becoming a refugee may be the first time they experience an independent status and an opportunity of new roles within the community (Sales, 2002).

The concept of domestic service, which offered Lotte her escape route, is itself one constructed through both class and gender. The UK was the only country offering a ‘specific scheme of rescue for the Jews through domestic service’ (Kushner, 1994, p. 112). Many of the women refugees were recognised not to be of ‘the domestic class’ by the Home Office, which accepted that such women would probably want to take up another occupation. However, by keeping them in domestic service for a few years the ‘“large unsatisfied demand” for servants in Britain’ could be satisfied (Kushner, 1994, p. 97; Holden, 2004). Kushner suggests that:

the predomination of class factors in Britain worked to the overall advantage of those trying to escape from Nazism. The desire to maintain the lifestyle associated with the employment of servants, as well as a genuine determination to help the Jews, enabled a scheme of rescue without parallel to be implemented at that time. The 20,000 Jewish women were treated in a variety of ways, including the extremes of sympathy and naked exploitation.

(Kushner, 1994, p. 114)

More generally, it has been argued that: ‘The 1951 UN Convention … and the 1967 Protocol … [have been] interpreted through a framework of male experiences during the process of asylum determination in the UK’ (Refugee Women's Legal Group, 1998, p. 1), thus denying women effective protection under international law. Women and children constitute the majority of the world's refugees, albeit as a minority of the asylum seekers in Europe (Kofman and Sales, 2001). However, the original Convention does not include the kind of ‘gender-specific’ persecution that Françoise experienced. Women have to claim that their persecution as women resulted from their membership of a recognised social group. Canada, the USA and Australia have all produced gender guidelines which recognise these difficulties, but no agreed gender guidelines exist within the EU, even though the European Parliament called in 1985 for women to be recognised as a ‘social group’ in the terms of the Convention (Kofman and Sales, 2001).

The Refugee Women's Legal Group argues that:

women suffer the same deprivation and harm that is common to all refugees … [but] The experiences of women in their country of origin often differ significantly from those of men because women's political protest, activism and resistance may manifest itself in different ways. For example:

  • Women may hide people, pass messages or provide community services, food, clothing and medical care;

  • Women who do not conform to the moral or ethical standards imposed on them may suffer cruel or inhuman treatment;

  • Women may be targeted because they are particularly vulnerable …

  • … [or] persecuted by members of their family and/or community.

(Refugee Women's Legal Group, 1998, p. 1)

Similar difficulties in having their claims for asylum recognised under international law face women and men who are persecuted on the ground of their sexuality as lesbians or gay men, and transgender people (Saiz, 2002).