Why prioritising women and children in the refugee crisis is a terrible idea

As the UK agrees to take in more Syrian refugees, there are calls to put "women and children first". But such prioritising won't help.

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As the tide starts to turn in favour of helping refugees instead of building taller fences, we are starting to see calls to prioritise “women and children”. But this is a terrible mistake.

You might think that, as a feminist, I’d be fine with prioritising women.  But instead my reaction is quite the opposite. Partly my reaction, I admit, is an emotional one:  I find myself wondering at what age my now ten-year-old son would count as no longer worth saving (16? 18? 21?); and knowing that my partner, brother and father would already be deemed so.  But not all the reasons for rejecting this idea are so emotional.

The “women and children first” idea has deep roots in the idea that women are, like children, in special need of protection because they are unable to fend for themselves. The country that brought us Jessica Ennis-Hill, who just won her second world championship at the Heptathlon a year after giving birth, should know better. More generally, the dismissal of women’s capacities makes no sense in the modern world.

There is, however, an enlightened reason to pay special attention to the needs of women along with children. Women may face particularly difficult barriers to resettlement in a new country. In many countries, including some of those producing large numbers of refugees, women less likely to be able to acquire much in the way of language skills and employment experience, and this means they may be more in need of certain sorts of assistance than men.  But this is all the more reason not to separate them from their husbands, brothers and fathers.  If someone is in extra need of support, the very last thing you should do is deprive them of their existing support system.

To fully understand the desire to prioritise women and children among refugees, I suspect, we also need to acknowledge that, for some, this has its roots in suspicion of foreigners, especially Muslim ones. The willingness to make exceptions to this suspicion is better than the refusal to do so. But the idea that women and children are innocent and therefore exceptions is not only patronising to women, but appalling in its attitude toward men. To cast the men under this cloud of suspicion is to deny their humanity and their equal right to a life free from terrible persecution.

This attitude is especially shocking, it seems to me, in its casual willingness to destroy families – to say “we will help your wives and children, but leave you to see if you can make a life under Isis”.  When discussing domestic matters, politicians always strive to affirm their family values, and there is particular contempt reserved for fathers who abandon their families. Is it really right to demand such abandonment from fathers in circumstances more desperate than we can imagine?

And this brings me, finally, to Kindertransport. There are now calls for a new Kindertransport. This massive humanitarian effort is often thought of as the pinnacle of British compassion, and it would indeed be far better than the current situation were we to institute it for the crisis taking place now. But there is a horrific fact that is too often forgotten: nearly all the family members of the children saved died in the Holocaust.

We can do better than this today: it is not enough to only save the children, or even the children and the women. We must stop trying to choose the groups of refugees deserving enough of our help. There is a reason the Declaration of Human Rights uses the term “human”.  These are rights we all have.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.