From Tragic Little Boys to Unwanted Young Men

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By Veronica Strong-Boag

Canadians are easily sentimental about babies and toddlers. Look at the ready adoption of global infants or September 2015’s outpouring of grief for the three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi. Once victims of poverty, exploitation, and conflict reach adolescence and beyond, however, sympathy frequently evaporates.

Refugees are a case in point and gender consorts with age to matter. Girls and women suffer recurring abuse and stigmatization (Dauvergne, Angeles & Huang) but boys and men have a special place in the hierarchy of the demonized. Males beyond childhood are only too readily branded rapists, drug-dealers and addicts, thieves, lay-abouts, and, increasingly, terrorists. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that male teenagers and twenty somethings are somehow less worthy. The image of one drowned little boy cannot redeem his elder brothers.

The racial or ethnic origins of asylum-seekers are not incidental to this reception. Much like the recurring stigmatization of the Catholic Irish in the mid- 19th century, the Indians from the subcontinent a few decades later and the Italians later again, negative labels readily affix to suspect communities. Special targets have been anyone other than Stephen Harper’s ‘old stock’ Canadians whose sons can expect extended dependence and second chances to smooth their path to survival and dominance. For others, childhood is likely to be far shorter and less protected.

Observers of the current refugee tragedy readily forget the historical lessons of forced migration. For centuries, this has regularly first tossed young men on the road as part of family or community strategies. Sons are often presumed better equipped to deal with pervasive violence and more likely to find better-paid work than daughters. Their future earnings can help save those left behind.

The make-up of today’s refugee stream also reflects traditional relations that regularly leave girls and women heavily absorbed with the on-going, if often invisible, labour of preserving kin in troubled homelands. When Canadians glimpse mounting numbers of female refugees they should remember that such reluctant travelers, like the Jews escaping fascism in the 1930s (Troper and Abella) or the Mennonite girls and women who fled rape and violence after the Second World War (Epp), face situations that are no longer even minimally tolerable.

The emergence of refugee camps as feminized charitable environments designed to discipline residents, even as most endure years or lifetimes of insecurity, provides a further gendered counterpart to the threatening masculinized world of independent and unregulated movement across borders (Hyndman and Giles). Much like the girls and women left behind (or dying en route like Alan Kurdi’s mother), the “good and proper” refugees (Diop) housed in camps effectively often disappear from public attention. Unlike traveling men, residents of these feminized (perceived as dependent, deferential, lacking waged work) spaces are rarely presented as threatening the global relations of inequality. No wonder the 2010 Conservative Bill C-49, the Act Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System (rolled into the omnibus 2012 Bill C-31, “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act”) favours (although with few concrete results) refugee ‘campers’.

With 9/11 and the subsequent wave of conservative xenophobia, Canadian governments have increased turned their backs on refugees on the move. Such so-called queue-jumpers, so often synonymous with the young male Syrians, Iraqis, and others captured on today’s newscasts, loom as simultaneously undeserving and threatening.

As the long incarceration in Guantanamo of Omar Khadr likewise reminds us, boys and young men struggle to receive fair hearings. Without grunt-heavy wars or shovel-ready jobs stoking demand, evidence of male brawn and initiative readily generates fear. Imprisonment in Canada’s refugee detention centres or rejection beyond our borders, however, only extend the catastrophe glimpsed in one small body lying on the shores of the Mediterranean. No less than Alan Kurdi, today’s older male refugees merit a life-line from safer shores. To treat them otherwise is to diminish prospects for good men.

Veronica Strong-Boag is a Professor Emerita in the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice/Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia.



Dauvergne, C., Leonora C. Angeles and Agnes Huang. Gendering Canada’s Refugee Process. Ottawa: Status of Women Canada (July 2006).

Diop, Petra Molnar. “The ‘Bogus’ Refugee: Roma Asylum Claimants and Discourses of Fraud in Canada’s Bill C-31.” Refuge 30:1 (2014): 67-80.

Epp, Marlene. Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Troper, Harold and Irving Abella. None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1983.

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3 thoughts on “From Tragic Little Boys to Unwanted Young Men

  1. Franca Iacovetta

    “From Tragic Boys to Unwanted Young Men” (Strong-Boag) indeed. Alan Kurdi had barely tasted boyhood, and Omar Khadr, though tortured as a boy, never got to have a childhood for he was catapulted by the Harper Conservatives into a fully-blown Muslim man and terrorist. As Strong-Boag notes, lone migrant and refugee men on the move, once again so easily demonized as sub-human brutes or dangerous foreigners, though so often they are men with families, when to acknowledge their mothers, sisters, and grandmothers – themselves beyond-resourceful women risking health and life to tend to kin at home – and their efforts to carry out a family strategy of survival, would humanize them. The current refugee crisis, on-going “war on terror,” and Harper race-mongering offer too many teachable moments, but teach them we must, even when it seems overwhelming. As I teach my Immigration and Race Relations in Canadian history course amid this madness, my students, too, see the striking and alarming parallels. A committed feminist and mother of young men, Strong-Boag reminds us, too, that feminists must denounce, and denounce loudly, every injustice, including those perpetrated against boys and young men.

    Franca Iacovetta, Professor of History University of Toronto

  2. Christo Aivalis

    A very interesting piece, and one that has an even deeper pertinence given Justin Trudeau’s decision to largely exclude single men from the refugee pool.

  3. Isabel Campbell

    Great article. Glad to see historians of gender address this demonization. I’m waiting to see if the Trudeau govt will accept the applications of a 20 year old son, and a 18 year old daughter, who are associated with a Syrian family refugee application. It required three separate linked applications for this one family to apply to be accepted in Canada. The son already almost drowned in the Med, thinking that his presence was only holding up his family’s progress in the refugee line-up…

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