Stereotypes, realities and responsibilities: Single Syrian men and Canada's government

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It is official: single Syrian men are too risky for our country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government confirmed reports that Canada will screen out single men in its bid to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees over the next few months. Reports on this decision began to circulate in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Though never confirmed, the link between the attacks in Paris and this Canadian decision spoke to security fears within Canadian society of the risk posed by Syrian refugees.

The decision has been greeted as a compromise by some refugee advocates and security proponents, especially as the first wave of refugees arrived in Canada last week.

However, it is worth unpacking, especially since Canadian officials, and the public, present our outreach to Syrian refugees as a defining moment in our evolving national identity post-Harper.

Single Syrian men are really Syrian young men. More particularly, once we take into account our welcome for religious minorities, single Syrian men are most likely Syrian young Sunni Muslim men.

The unspoken claim behind the call to screen out single Syrian men in the name of security -- our security -- is that Muslim young males are risky by definition: you never know which one could turn out to be a terrorist so it might be best to keep them all out.


Let us note that "single Syrian men" is not necessarily a self-evident category. It is a social group we have created through the decision to screen them out. What characteristics do these men share to come together as a group? Similar religious upbringing? Similar educational or socio-economic status? Similar political engagement?

To consider as an official category single Syrian men creates the group as a recognizable one with a profile of sorts, even though that profile is never spelled out by those who use the phrase.

Making the decision to screen out single Syrian men suggests that they are susceptible to criminality and terrorism, or at the very least radicalization.

At the ugly extreme, this decision conjures single Syrian men as a risk-laden group, a diseased genetic pool, an evolutionary abnormality: simply by being a) Syrian, b) single, and c) male, a person carries a defective gene that may well erupt in the explosive body of a would-be suicide bomber or through the machine gun of a would-be assassin.

Putting aside the troubling implications of this decision and our tacit acceptance of its characterization of what surely is a diverse and unknowable demographic and ethnic group, the government's decision may be faulty on the grounds of its own logic of offering refuge to the most vulnerable.


Single Syrian men are probably among the most vulnerable of Syrians today. More so than "women and children" -- the go-to group for definitions of vulnerability in times of war -- single Syrian men are more likely to be detained, disappeared, tortured, and killed.

"While few civilians have been left unscathed by the continuing brutality of the Syrian war, it is civilian men who make up the largest community of victims. Civilian men perceived to be of fighting age have been targeted by warring parties during ground attacks. They are also the primary civilian victims of enforced disappearance, torture and unlawful killing," according to the United Nations Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published on September 3 2015.

In this case, screening out Syrian males from refuge and escape appears not only misguided but cruel. Syria's youth are a diverse group: many are urbanized and educated, technologically savvy, socially and politically engaged.

Some of them, like some Muslim young men and women anywhere these days, may well be attracted to fundamentalist jihadi ideas and may well believe that terrorism is a personal and collective mission to right the wrongs of the world. Some therefore may be a security risk. Some may already live in Canada. Some are born and bred European citizens who can enter our country easily and freely.

Our strategy to reduce the risk to our societies by keeping out a certain demographic is haplessly ineffective. And for those most vulnerable of Syrians, the young men who are daily fresh meat for the torturers and killers of government forces and ISIS alike, our strategy may well mean the difference between life and death.


The government has a grave responsibility to its own citizens in assuring that our country remains as safe as possible and that everything is done to mitigate the risks of today's world.

Also, in bringing in refugees from war-torn places, it is incumbent on the government to provide help to those most need.

The question to answer is whether it is right and effective to keep out an entire demographic, identified on the basis of incredibly broad associations in order to do so.

We expect our policy makers to work overtime to ensure the proper safeguards are in place, knowing full well that it is impossible for them to stamp out risk completely.

Are the safeguards already established by the United Nations vetting processes not enough? On what basis, statistical or otherwise, have we decided that the safeguards set by international law are not enough?

Some might make the argument that the government's decision, though seemingly unfair, is a temporary measure necessitated by the urgency and the time crunch of bringing in so many refugees into the country at once.

However, a precedent is being set with implications not only for Canada but the world. Refugees tend to be caught in humanitarian crises and crises are by definition urgent.

Will European countries follow suit? Will Germany be able to say that it will let in Syrian refugees except for single men? Will single Syrian men see more and more borders go up in their faces?

We could view these young men as terrorists-in-waiting, bodies that will one day explode among us in criminal acts of terror.

We could also see them as active would-be citizens, contributing to the welfare and advancement of their own families and this country down the road, with as much propensity to commit crime as the next Canadian. What are the odds?


Maisaa Youssef has a PhD in English. Her research and writing are in the areas of contemporary political theory and biopolitics.

Update: An earlier version of this piece did not attribute the United Nations Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

Photo: flickr/ Petr Dosek

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