Men, masculinity and migration

The single male migrant has become one of the most maligned groups of people in Western popular thought. In fact, even in ‘pro-migrant’ arguments, empathy tends to extend to women and children but stops when it comes to men, especially when they are Black and Brown men. 

Racialised men have been associated with violence. In a post-9/11 world, they have continuously been painted as ‘terrorists’ or inherently violent. For men on the move, this means that often their reasons for migrating are often downplayed or ignored on the basis that they could not possibly face persecution or experience other forms of hardship or violence that would push them to move. This violence is replicated throughout many migrant journeys whether that is at the hands of border guards, dangerous boat crossings or in state detention. The rampant violence on migration routes is often why men predominately move first before sending for their relatives later. 

The experiences of men in the immigration system are largely overlooked. As part of our Who is Welcome: Gender, queerness and migration campaign, we are looking at how racialised stereotypes of masculinity and migration intersect to shape immigration systems and the experiences of men of Colour in Europe, specifically the UK. As part of this work, we are conducting interviews with asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation in our Network on an ongoing basis. 

Masculinity is a social construct

Masculinity is based on stereotypes, gender norms and binaries. Ideas of gender vary throughout history and by culture, in order to understand how constructs of masculinity and racialised men negatively impact male migrants, we must unpack how Western notions of gender stereotypes intersect with race. In fact, White supremacy is foundational to the enforcement of the gender binary.

Perhaps the most dominant construction of masculinity is the idea of the ‘macho’ man. This concept consists largely of emotional suppression, physical strength, toughness and being dominant. These gender stereotypes place expectations on men in society, including the asylum system, which results in many feeling like they cannot or should not ask for help- namely practical or mental support.

I am a man, I have to be strong. Going to the hospital to speak to a stranger about your problems is seen as a sign of weakness.

Interview respondent, aged 27, Sudanese.

Patriarchal ideas of ‘manliness’ imposed on men have devastating impacts, including on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of men. The infamous ‘man up” attitude causes many men and boys to repress their emotions and can result in long-term mental health issues and, in an increasing number of cases of death by suicide.

Men are supposed to be strong no matter the circumstances. Going through the asylum process is very challenging and it really messes with your mental health. Despite going through this rough patch, I am determined to keep my chin up and suck it up like a man.

Interview respondent, aged 27.

Imaginary threats

The patriarchal gender stereotype of ‘manliness’ intersects with racist (and often Islamophobic) ideas of the Global South. Orientalist stereotypes of men (specifically men of Colour and Muslim men) paint them as violent, threatening and backward, as well as oppressive towards women and girls, who become representative of the false idea the Western nation state is under perpetual threat. This pervasive misconception benefits the West, namely its foreign policies, ongoing interventions and expansion of militarised borders. 

Fuelling the racist idea that Global Majority migrant men present a threat, particularly to women, is a tactic that has been repeatedly utilised over the last 100 years. For example, the Nazis produced Antisemitic propaganda which depicted racist imagery of Jewish men preying on White German women to sow hatred against Jewish communities. Male migrants are frequently characterised in similar ways – a recent example being far-right misinformation about asylum seekers harassing girls in Knowsley which led to far-right riots outside Home Office accommodation. 

This is called ‘femonationalism’ – the process where states appropriate feminist movements and the fight for gender liberation in order to justify racist, and xenophobic positions- such as, arguing that Global Majority migrants are sexist and the West is some kind of equitable utopia. 

Content warning- depictions of lynching

We must link the demonisation of Brown men to the historic and contemporary demonisation of Black men as a “threat” in order to understand the way racialised migrant men in the UK are constructed as a “threat”. This is an “ongoing legacy of colonialism”. In the UK today, White women are seen to be in need of “being saved” from racialised migrant men. 

This is connected to femonationalist invasions and was also central to the colonising mission. Central to British colonialism was the idea of Brown women needing to be saved- “White men saving Brown women from Brown men”, whilst one idea central to the West’s modern invasions in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, was also the idea of “saving Brown women” from Brown men and their so-called “oppressive” cultures. Whether it is White or Brown women seen to be under threat, the racialised status of the man doing the “threatening” remains constant. 

Femonationalist ideas have been echoed by British politicians. In 2017, Sarah Champion MP wrote an article in which she said “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls. There. I said it. Does that make me a racist? Or am I just prepared to call out this horrifying problem for what it is?”

Similarly, in 2023, former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, said in a Sky News interview that “What’s clear is that what we’ve seen is a practice whereby vulnerable white English girls, sometimes in care, sometimes who are in challenging circumstances, being pursued and raped and drugged and harmed by gangs of British Pakistani men who’ve worked in child abuse rings or networks.” Not only has this misinformation about the prevalence of South Asian grooming gangs been debunked by the Government’s own statistics which show that group-based Child Sexual Exploitation offenders are most commonly White, it exposes something more insidious. 

These remarks are a direct result of ingrained racist and Orientalist stereotypes that penalise racialised men for their false “failure” to integrate, and as a result paint them as a threat to the “vulnerable” woman from the Global South who needs to be saved or rescued. This imagery is part of a long history of racialised men as a threat to women (specifically White women). These stem from colonial systems of knowledge and have been weaponised by the State to justify harsh, discriminatory measures against racialised communities. 

As men, we are seen as monsters: Criminals, paedophiles, but trust me I am just here to live my life.

Interview respondent, aged 17, Lebanese.

Implications in immigration systems

Fear of racialised migrant men has real-world repercussions for people on the move. In Europe, manufactured stereotypes of men from the Global South are weaponised by states and politicians to introduce and ‘justify’ increasingly militarised borders and violent immigration systems. In 2023, Jill Mortimer MP stood up in the House of Commons and made racist statements in which she stated her constituency office was “besieged by asylum seekers” and that her staff were “intimidated by young men” before calling for them to be expelled from the UK.

In asylum systems, these ideas translate into feeding the pervasive disbelief culture around migrants, including asylum seekers. Men are seen as ‘less vulnerable’ than women and their claims are not seen as ‘genuine’. Numerous British politicians including Boris Johnson, Robert Jenrick and Priti Patel have said that high asylum figures are made up of men who are not “genuine asylum seekers” and young men are “paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.” This arguably has an impact on the success rate of asylum cases according to gender. Of asylum claims of male main applicants aged 18–29, 73% were successful (they resulted in a grant of asylum or other permission to stay). This is eight percentage points lower than female applicants of the same age. Therefore, the not ‘genuine’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker is largely always associated with racialised men because concepts of masculinity are at odds with ideas of vulnerability, which are largely associated with femininity.  Racialised men are also denied access to protection under international refugee as a result of being constructed as a “threat”. 

In early 2023, the UK Government announced it would be moving away from relying on hotels for asylum accommodation, and instead utilising barges and disused military bases. In the Home Office factsheets relating to each chosen site, it states that these would be solely used to accommodate “single adult male asylum seekers”. This move mirrors the gender makeup of immigration detention centres which overwhelmingly accommodate men

Women should be treated with respect and dignity. Of course men also need the same treatment in situations like these, we are all people fleeing all sorts of persecutions and deserve to be treated the same way.

Interview respondent, aged 25, Nigerian.

Inherent suspicion and harsh treatment of men is part of a global trend. For example, in Belgium, the Government has introduced a ban on providing shelter for single male asylum seekers and is prioritising families, women and children first. 

While we wish to draw attention to how racialised men are harmed by immigration systems and the colonial prejudices they are built on, it is vital to acknowledge women and Gender Non-Conforming people experience unique barriers in immigration systems and beyond as a result of patriarchal, oppressive systems across different cultures. 

Misogyny, queerphobia and transphobia are on the rise. Gender norms and borders go hand in hand. If we are to dismantle oppressive border regimes and immigration systems, we must understand the violent and divisive ideas that underpin them.

Scroll to Top