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Jennifer O’Connell: Why is the Government perpetuating tropes about single male asylum seekers?

The ‘military-age men’ idea is a well-worn trope of right-wing rhetoric, and our politicians have fallen into the dangerous trap of reinforcing it

Why is the far right – a movement overwhelmingly dominated by young and youngish men – so obsessed with the threat posed by “single, unvetted, military-age men”?

This irony is just one of many in messaging riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and logical fallacies. They want to “protect childhood” when it comes to sex education, but not while they’re protesting outside children’s bedroom windows. They claim to be fearful that women could be harassed by these “single, unvetted, military-age” men, but have no qualms about verbally abusing women themselves, particularly women migrants, politicians, journalists or counter-protesters. They talk about law and order as their followers make threats to burn accommodation centres. They bang on about being patriots and share information with former British soldiers and neo-Nazi groups organising protests in England.

So the question isn’t why a movement dominated by men is so keen to perpetuate damaging stereotypes about men. The “military-age men” thing is a well-worn trope of right-wing rhetoric. It is meant to conjure up images of male asylum seekers as people who should be at home fighting for their country. Or who might be potential terrorists. Or might even be sexual predators. The far right is adept at finding targets for nebulous local frustrations.

The question, then, isn’t why the far right is doing this. It is why the Government itself has fallen into the trap of reinforcing that messaging.


In communications that are presumably designed to provide reassurance to communities, the Government stumbles headfirst into promoting these tropes. A statement this week about the opening of a new accommodation centre in Lismore led with the gender of the residents. The second point in a fact-sheet prepared for TDs states it is for women and families. The third bullet point reiterates, in case there was any doubt: “This will not be a centre for single males.” In December, the same messaging was used about a centre in Fermoy. “Not a centre for single males.” This week it was also used about a centre planned for Leixlip.

At a time when the pressure from extremists is ramping up to frightening levels, and nearly 20,000 people are seeking international protection in the country, the unspoken inference that migrant men may be especially problematic is unfortunate – particularly when it comes from the department responsible for integrating them.

What must men who came here as migrants, or are the Irish-born sons of migrants, feel to see other people in their situation regarded with additional layers of suspicion and fear?

To be clear, this is not doing away with segregated accommodation. Accommodation that is sensitive to the needs of families and vulnerable residents is a good idea. Migrant women will have been disproportionately vulnerable to sexual violation and exploitation while in transit. In crowded settings, where residents are sharing bathrooms and dormitories, offering them as much privacy and room for respite as possible makes sense.

It is about why this notion that men – #notallmen, but #possiblylotsofnonIrishmen – may pose some additional, ill-defined threat is being allowed to go unchallenged. What must men who came here as migrants, or are the Irish-born sons of migrants, feel to see other people in their situation regarded with additional layers of suspicion and fear? It doesn’t take long for the fallout from this to make itself felt at local level. In Lismore this week, a man from southeast Asia who has been living there for many years, working in healthcare, quietly raising his family and contributing to the community, was reportedly abused on the street.

The facts about male violence

You could make the argument that the fears about men in direct provision are rooted in greater awareness generally of male violence against women, which is something I’ve been arguing for in this column and elsewhere. Greater awareness is, of course, a good thing. But the “stranger danger” trope – the idea that the most significant threat to women comes from men they don’t know, strangers lurking in dark alleys – isn’t borne out by the facts. Of the women murdered in Ireland since 1996 and resolved through the courts, over half were killed by a current or former partner, and only 13 per cent by a stranger.

In Ireland, the vast majority of male violence against white men is perpetrated by other white men. The vast majority of sexual violence and domestic violence and against women is perpetrated by men already in their lives – partners, husbands, former partners, other relatives.

In reality, migrant men are far more likely to be victims or vulnerable themselves than to pose a threat to anyone else

There is no data to back up the insidious notion that migrant men pose a particular threat to women. As Sarah Benson, chief executive of Women’s Aid, points out, “there is this idea that the ‘other’ man is a danger. But the fact is that the vast majority of sexual violence and abuse is perpetrated by somebody known to the victim, and very often by someone in their own family group, or an intimate partner. It is a deflection exercise which has a distinctly racist undertone to it.”

Yet the notion that migrant men are a threat has become so pervasive online that gardaí felt the need to clarify that the person of interest in the investigation into an alleged sexual assault in Finglas is a “white Irishman”. There was “a significant volume of misinformation and disinformation in circulation”.

In reality, migrant men are far more likely to be victims or vulnerable themselves than to pose a threat to anyone else. Men all over the world experience persecution for their political beliefs, their religious beliefs, their sexuality. They may be subject to extraordinary hardship, poverty, violence – for some this includes sexual violence. In many cases, that is why they undertake arduous journeys fraught with risk to faraway places to seek asylum.

The focus on the gender of the asylum seekers is a distraction from the real issues. We have had a deeply flawed direct provision system for 20 years and the Government has yet to figure out how to communicate with the communities who are expected to integrate new arrivals. The far right has a well-established playbook. But where is the Government’s?