Gendered (In)Securities: Refugee Camps in Southeastern Turkey

By Dr. Selin Akyüz* and Dr. Bezen Balamir Coşkun**


Academic literature on security and securitization has been criticized for neglecting the significance of gender as a dimension of security. Literature on security within international relations discipline, whether in the West or in Turkey, has been inadequately engaged in analyzing the pervasive insecurities of women during armed conflicts. Instead it penetrates statist discourses on armed conflict. We argue that an examination of gender-related human (in)security issues arising as a result of the armed conflicts would enrich the literature. Through such a mode of inquiry, this article examines the conditions of Syrian refugee camps in southeastern Turkey. Using primary data collected through in-depth and semi-structured interviews with experts and members of civil society, we question how refugee settlement procedures, networks and discourses reproduce women’s (in)securities in these camps. This is critical to understanding the gender-specific social, economic and cultural barriers that create insecurities for women refugees.

Key words: gender, human security, Syrian refugees, Turkey, women


The literature on security and securitization has been criticized for failing to include gender as a significant dimension through which to investigate security.[1] Whether in the West or in Turkey, mainstream academia has neglected to engage in the analyses of women’s and men’s unique, gendered experiences of (in)securities. Whereas identity shapes “individual and collective security needs,” gender is a critical dimension, revealing particularities and enabling the researcher to capture a multi-layered framework.[2] Tickner likewise expresses support for the “reconceptualization of security in multidimensional and multilevel terms,” enabling a shift from  state-centric to an individual-centric perspective that widens the parameters of both contextual and critical frameworks.[3] Analyzing security through gender enables a more comprehensive understanding and will contribute to productive analyses for studies on migration, in general, as well as the issue of refugees, in particular. When investigating the relations of power that affect the processes of migration, it is critical to consider gender within analyses of specific forms of insecurities and vulnerabilities both of which are experienced by men and women.

In this framework, this article seeks to explore the conditions of Syrian refugee camps in the Turkish cities of Kilis and Gaziantep with a focus on considerations of gender. It will question how bureaucratic procedures, networks and discourses reproduce gendered (in)securities in these camps. With the worsening of the Syrian civil war, and with approximately 800.000 registered refugees in Turkey, it is critical to understand the gender-specific social, economic and cultural barriers that produce insecurities for refugees. The political science and international relations literature on refugees offers very little on the gendered nature of representations of the refugee and its intersections with insecurities.[4] Especially, the literature underemphasizes the relationality of gender. For an analysis of gender, and also any inquiry that problematizes gender, it is not possible to understand categories of masculinity and femininity without reference to both genders. Yet there are few studies that highlight the relational dimension of gender.[5] Scholars who study migration and human security with a gender lens have often neglected masculinities and masculinized realms.

This study attempts to provide a broader picture of gendered insecurities. Existing gradients of gender inequality have predominantly affected women, as field reports have proven.[6]  However, a gendered analysis of human insecurities should not replicate existing readings of women as victims and men as violators. Johnson critically argues that although women and their victimized status within the cycle of migration have been added to the literature, it remains to capture the particularities experienced by women as women, which has been taken up as an undifferentiated category.[7] The insecurities of women were broadly defined in their performance of reproductive roles and domestic tasks. Johnson states that “the refugee is … imagined as a depoliticized victim emblemized by a third world woman and child.”[8] The parochial framing of gender in general, and women in particular, in such representations determines how we engage with them and denies the agency of women.

This article will also examine the discourses produced by experts on the conditions of refugee camps, the proliferation of a particular image of the refugee as well as the roles played by such representations within our understanding of state policies for dealing with refugees as they intersect with gendered identities. Experts from a diverse range of international, national and local agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Gaziantep, a city in southeast Turkey, were interviewed. An examination of how these experts approach gender is critical in tracking how the various structures of refugee camps and bureaucratic regimes are produced and reproduced. As this study examines gendered implications of refugees and the camps through the experts’ understanding, it only interviews those elites who have lead the process. A complementary study that analyzes refugees and their construction of gender identity through their own positioning would contribute to the literature and offer a more integrated picture. We hope that this study can be considered as a first step in an understanding of the dynamics of the field, offering the main outline of the research topic.

Responding to the growing numbers of refugees,[9] local branches of state agencies are diligently contributing to the day-to-day operations of the refugee camps. The Governorship in Gaziantep and the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency of the Government of Turkey (AFAD) are just two local governmental agencies whose staff were interviewed as a part of this study. Both share in the responsibilities for the daily operations of refugee camps in Turkey.

Besides the Governorship in Gaziantep and AFAD, many international NGOs are actively participating in the work being done in Gaziantep, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). No doubt the most widely recognized of all the organizations currently operating in Gaziantep, UNHCR established an office there to lead and coordinate international action aimed at the protection of refugees. In addition to the UNHCR, other humanitarian aid organizations operating in Gaziantep include Mercy Corps, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Norwegian Rescue Committee (NRC), the Irish Humanitarian Aid Agency (GOAL), and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Along with these international humanitarian aid agencies, several Turkish aid agencies have established offices in Gaziantep. The Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) is the most well-known of these organizations.

Extensive interviews were conducted with consenting staff from among the Gaziantep branches of state agencies and NGOs. To complement the data gathered from formal interviews with these experts, an additional interview was conducted with an academic consultant specializing in the Syrian refugee crisis and who was conducting trauma trainings for Syrian refugees. Within this framework, seven open ended in-depth interviews were conducted with leading experts working on the plight of Syrian refugees and who aim to apply a human security perspective to negotiate the challenges of migration flow and present a more nuanced image of the woman refugee.

This study first offers an analysis of the intersections of gender and human (in)securities. The second part discusses the refugee question in Turkey. The final part critically examines the data collected from in-depth and semi-structured interviews with experts from local units, as well as national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs and INGOs).

Security, Human Security and Gendering Insecurities

Defining security has never been an easy task. The answer to the question of what security is differs according to disciplines, theory, practices and geographies. Security can be defined in many different settings with quite disparate meanings. As the Syrian refugee issue is primarily considered one of international security by the international community, we present and critique a traditional definition of security that predominates within the sector.

Traditional approaches to international security place the state at the center of security apparatuses. These explanations of security focus on the accumulation of power by states for their own sake. Thus, this traditional security approach in international relations examines the issues from the perspective of state security and self-interest. This limited definition of security stems from a privileging of Cold War era concerns and has since been challenged with the collapse of orientations suggesting a bipolar balance of power. The post-Cold War era has brought with it new actors, challenges and issues to the international system. Ultimately, with the inclusion of the concerns of non-state actors and non-state security challenges, the definition of security has been broadened. New security sectors and security objects have been included in global security paradigms, such as environmental security, human security, economic security, societal security, energy security and cyber security. Within this context, individuals and societies have been framed as objects of the international security agenda.

The term human security emerged in the post-Cold War era to incorporate humanitarian, economic, and social issues as a part of the agenda of global security: to alleviate human suffering and promote/ensure the security of individuals. Human security emphasizes a people-centered approach to resolving inequities that affect security. Today, security is no longer simply about the security of nation-states; rather, the security of the individual is seen as directly impacting the security of the state, and vice versa.  Human security has received a particularly warm welcome from international agencies and academics. Among the international community, with the introduction of the human development index the United Nations (UN) has taken the initiative to introduce a human element within international security.

As opposed to the traditional security approach, which focuses on national security and/or state security, human security instead concentrates on the protection of people while promoting peace and assuring sustainable, continuous development. As stated by Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, in the Foreword to Human Security and the New Diplomacy (2001):

Today, we know that “security” means far more than the absence of conflict. We also have a greater appreciation for nonmilitary sources of conflict. We know that lasting peace requires a broader vision encompassing areas such as education and health, democracy and human rights, protection against environmental degradation, and the proliferation of deadly weapons. We know that we cannot be secure amidst starvation, that we cannot build peace without alleviating poverty, and that we cannot build freedom on foundations of injustice. These pillars of what we now understand as the people-centered concept of “human security” are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.[10]

Inaugurated by the announcement of its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the UN has attempted to codify the scope of human security. The United Nations Commission on Human Security defines three different types of freedoms in its aspiration to fulfill human security: the freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to take action on one’s own behalf. The Commission’s report underlines a number of key concerns, including: individuals experiencing violent conflict, refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs), integrated assistance in post-conflict situations, extreme poverty and sudden economic downturns, health care, basic education and public information.[11]At present, human security has entered the daily vocabulary of government officials, military and non-government personnel, humanitarian aid workers, and policymakers. Though the importance of protecting human beings for international security has ultimately been recognized, the manner in which such protections are to be implemented is proving difficult.

The inclusion of a humanitarian element within international security paradigms has led to raised questions regarding the lack of a gender element in security studies. Recent research by international policy experts argues that a community cannot achieve sustainable peace without placing women’s security at the center of its concerns as absolutely critical. International efforts to reduce terrorism and war have been blurred by a general neglect of the significant roles played by women in communities experiencing both violence and peace.  According to Leigh Cuen, conflicts in the Middle East cannot be resolved without the engagement of women and confronting sexual violence.[12] Cuen discusses Syria as a current example of the ways in which women are specifically targeted in war. The Women’s Media Center, which collects data on instances of violence against women in Syria, highlights the use of rape as a form of collective violence against men and women, as a weapon against detainees and prisoners, and at checkpoints. However, each of these cases was largely ignored in reports on the violence.[13]

It has further been argued that even an attention to human security neglects the dynamic of gender in its analysis. Feminist scholars, including Ann Tickner (1992), Spike Peterson (1998) and Lene Hansen (2000), development agencies, and the UN alike emphasize the need to include gender within current understandings of security. Many feminists including Tickner (1992) and Enloe (2000) argue that the neglect of gender by mainstream theories of international relations has resulted in a narrow conception of security while failing to account for the changing realities faced by international relations. Moreover, feminist scholars of international relations argue that “new threats to security demand new solutions quite at odds with the power politics prescriptions of traditional international relations theory.”[14] Realism, which continues to maintain its “state-centric, militaristic” definition of security, emanates from a masculine bias inherent in the theory.[15]

Feminist scholars have further argued that the masculine bias inherent in the theory prevents us from viewing the whole picture with respect to security, seeing only “a partial view of reality.”[16] Similarly, Hansen criticizes the “blank spots in the Copenhagen School’s speech act framework, which prevent the inclusion of gender.”[17] Hansen called these blank spots “security as silence” and “subsuming security” problems. According to Hansen, “security as silence occurs when insecurity cannot be voiced, when raising something as a security problem is impossible or might even aggravate the threat being faced,” while subsuming security “arises because gendered security problems often involve an intimate inter-linkage between the subject’s gendered identity and other aspects of the subject’s identity.”[18] In this regard, gender rarely produces collective, self-contained referential objects.

Gender considerations allow us to identify the vulnerabilities of both women and men. Hence gender, as a relational construct, is relevant to the security of both men and women. Research underlines the specific security threats that each gender group faces.[19] For instance, gender has been inconsistently incorporated into security analyses, threat and vulnerability assessments and consequent mitigation strategies within humanitarian and development organizations.[20]

As historical and existing gradients of gender inequality have predominantly affected women, human security policies and practices tend to stress the particular needs and vulnerabilities of women. More positively, the plight of women is receiving increasing attention and support from the international community. The UN Security Council, for example, adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000 on women, peace and security. This development represents a “high-level recognition of the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, called for effective institutional arrangements to guarantee their protection, and urged the adoption of a gender perspective in peace agreements and related actions.”[21]

Despite the alleged ordered nature of the state, women are often the targets of violence, which stems from “a gendered society in which male power dominates at all levels.”[22] Feminist theorists have revealed the failure of the traditional nation-state in serving as providers of security by “focusing on the consequences of what happens during wars rather than on their causes.”[23] This study picks the issue of refugees to discuss the lack of gender perspective in the politics of human security. In this study, it is argued that it is significant to add a gender lens to the analysis of different forms of insecurities and vulnerabilities for both men and women refugees.

Securing Refugees: Mainstreaming Gender as part of Refugee Protection

Ideally, national security and human security should be mutually constitutive, but over the last century countless individuals have lost their lives as a consequence of the actions of their own governments or rebel forces in civil wars. Acting in pursuit of national security, bureaucratic and governmental technologies and regimes pose profound threats to human security.

Furthermore, when the state is an actor in the conflict, the individual identified as an opponent is unable to receive any protection from the state. Thus, internal plight may provide little help. Cognizant of this failing of the state, millions of people seek protection abroad as refugees and asylum seekers.[24] According to the UNCHR data there were 10.4 million refugees at the beginning of 2013.[25] The number of Syrian refugees has risen quickly since the start of hostilities in 2011. In this regard, the plight of refugees and internally displaced people must be placed at the top of the international human security agenda.

Refugees fleeing from human insecurities as a result of state action become caught in a continuum of insecurity.[26] The figure of the refugee becomes compressed into bureaucratically determined categories of security/insecurity. Even though these categories are defined normatively by the UN and individual states, the discourse referring to the condition of being a refugee has been politically constructed. However, the intersection of refugee and security requires an approach that examines individual concerns: how does refugee, as an individual and not a category of persons, fit into a set of structural frameworks?

Refugee status has been applied to persons who are outside their country of origin due to armed conflict, violence, and political aggression and who, therefore, require international protection. For instance, within international law, refugees are given a special status in international law. Article 1A(2) of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as “a person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”[27]

Gender, however, is not included in the language provided by the international definition of a refugee as “a person with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group” by the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. From a position of considering human security, the issue of the refugee paved the way for international agencies to include gender as part of the politics of refugee regimes. Within this context, there exist policy recommendations in the relevant UN instruments by applying existing concepts, such as citizenship, nationality, refugee, displaced person, etc. with an attunement to gender.[28]

The ideal organization of refugee protection programs requires a consideration of gender. Moreover, gender neutrality should be taken into account as a means of mitigating the social differences occurring between men and women. Pursuing this line of thinking, some agencies actually demonstrate a clear preference for gender-neutral policies and procedures. However, in practice, refugee policies today emphasize the victimhood of women and children. In her article Click to Donate (2011), Heather Johnson analyses three shifts in the imagination of the refugee that have contributed to changing the policies and practices of the refugee regime: racialization, victimization and feminization. Tracing the history of the contemporary refugee regime through an analysis of the pictures and images of refugees, Johnson argues that “as the refugee has been racialized and victimized, she has also been feminized.”[29]

International organizations’ and governments’ emphasis on the victimhood of women refugees have also been reflected in NGO practices. To question the modes of governance employed by NGOs in the settlement of refugees, Alice Szczepanikova criticizes NGOs as becoming ‘subcontractors’ of states or the United Nations. She highlights the micro politics of NGO assistance to refugees in the Czech Republic, but also emphasizes the gendered character of refugee protection regimes. She concludes that public representations depoliticize refugees and foster unequal power relations. For Szczpanikova, such representations “lock refugees in a position of clients lacking political means of influencing their place in receiving society.”[30]

The problematic nature of the overwhelming need for protection of refugee women and children has brought the international community’s focus on women. Through images and its discourse, the international community has emphasized human security threats. For example stories of refugee and displaced women under threat of rape when searching for firewood or refugee women forced to provide sexual favors in exchange for obtaining food rations proliferate across academic papers and official reports. According to Johnson, the change in the representation of the figure of the refugee has been strategic, “to mobilize public support and concern for the plight of refugees within a humanitarian discourse and at the same time to manage the threat of instability and difference presented by the refugees condition of statelessness.”[31]The construction of the refugee as a victimized woman has depoliticized the refugee. In spite of works criticizing the denial of political agency within the refugee regime[32] and calls for a gendered analysis for more effective policy,[33]we have few studies on the gendered nature of refugee representation and what these representations produce.

The condition of refugeehood affects women and men, old and young, and changes the lives of these individuals dramatically. Not only are families and households dispersed and dismembered, the very social fabric of these communities faces irreparable damage. The experience of refugeehood presents not only a profound disruption of ordinary life, but also creates possibilities for the (re)construction and (re)negotiation of gender as a vital part of identity construction.[34] One of the problems with policies to support women refugees lies in the failure of the realization of gender sensitivity. Since the early 1990s, the UNHCR has identified refugee women as a policy priority. In spite of these efforts, the problematic construction of the discourse on women refugees remains intact. Hansen argues that those constrained in their ability to speak about their security/insecurity are prevented from becoming “subjects worthy of consideration and protection,”[35] which serves as the basis of a wider criticism of the ways in which the voice of women refugees is ignored. In this regard, Freedman argues:

[…] the NGOs and associations that make claims for gender-specific policies and legislation do soon behalf of refugee and asylum-seeking women, but these women themselves have little or no voice in the process. Speaking for women asylum seekers and refugees leads to representations and framings of them which rely heavily on pre-existing cultural norms, (…) which contain these women in their role of victims.[36]

To overcome these problems scholars and practitioners suggest the adoption of ‘gender mainstreaming’ as a principle to go beyond a mere focus on ‘vulnerable’ groups and to integrate a gendered understanding of the global processes that aim to protect refugees.[37] In the early 2000s, the UNHCR initiated bottom-up, community-based and participatory approaches in contrast to the previously top-down approach to refugees.[38] These policies were intended to improve the efficiency, quality and appropriateness of refugee protection by mainstreaming gender. However, mainstreaming is a contested concept and is difficult to implement in practical terms.[39]Jahan distinguishes two types of gender mainstreaming: integrative and transformative. Integrative mainstreaming simply incorporates gender into existing policy frameworks. Transformative mainstreaming, on the other hand, provides avenues through which to transform these frameworks and introduce new understandings.[40] Freedman evaluates the UNCHR’s approach as an ‘integrative’ one, “which has not fundamentally shifted understandings or representations of refugees and asylum seekers and, in particular, has not moved away from a discourse concerning the ‘vulnerability’ of women.”[41] Similarly, based on her ethnographic fieldwork in a Sudanese refugee camp, Grabska discusses the problems arising from the bottom-up approach of the UN in terms of mainstreaming gender in refugee camp conditions. She lists several obstacles that impede gender-mainstreaming programs:

  • The hierarchical power relations that define the camp settings made it highly challenging to introduce (gender) equality,
  • The simplified and homogenized view of (refugee) women as ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’ and men as ‘perpetrators’ and ‘violators’;
  • The inherent biases and personal value systems of humanitarian workers.[42]

Through this framework we can analyze refugee camps in Southeast Turkey and question gendered (in)securities.

Refugee Camps in Southeast Turkey: A Critical Analysis of Gendered (In)Securities

Though Turkey is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it holds a geographical limitation under Article 1(B). In accordance with this limitation, Turkey is not obligated to apply the Convention to refugees from outside Europe. Under the framework of the 1994 Asylum Regulation, amended in 2006 and supplemented by a government directive, Turkey began to provide non-European refugees with “temporary asylum-seeker status” and permission to remain in the country until such a time as the UNHCR would be able to present more lasting solutions for them elsewhere. Since 2005, the Turkish government has been building an asylum system in line with international standards.[43]

Since the initial outbreak of protests for democratic reforms, women, men and children have continued to flee from Syria. The numbers of such refugees have increased concurrently with the escalation of the civil war. Syrian refugees have fled in search of safety to the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. By early June 2011, thousands of Syrian refugees had already fled across the Turkish border and taken shelter in tent cities in Hatay – Yayladağı, Altınözü and Reyhanlı. Along with the worsening of the war, the number of tent and container cities of refugees have also been on the rise. By the end of June 2014, there were 16 tent cities and 6 container cities for approximately 220,000 out of the 820,000 Syrian refugees registered in Turkey. In 2012, over 100,000 Syrians received protection and assistance in camps managed directly by the Turkish government, which has adopted a temporary-protection regime for all Syrians in the country. The coordination of camps and many refugee-related issues are dealt with directly by the Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD). With local offices in each province, the AFAD bears primary responsibility for the day-to-day organization of refugee camps in Turkey. The UNHCR staff has also provided technical advice and support to the Turkish authorities in coping with the Syrian refugee crisis as experienced within its borders.

Since the beginning of the civil war, Turkey, which shares an 822 km-long border with Syria, has been among the most powerful critics of Assad’s regime and has directly felt the crisis. The Turkish government adopted an open door policy for refugees fleeing from the regime and referred to them as guests, rather than refugees. A guest, however, is not an internationally-recognized classification for refugee, thus creating gaps in legal arrangements and is a determining factor for a critical analysis of (in)securities as it refers to how the system interpellates them.

Legal status is very critical. Everything is organized according to their legal status. The open door policy of the Turkish government is a success. The ones who fled their country during the Gulf War did not face such a friendly attitude—the application is quite different towards Syrians.  According to the main point in refugee law, the door should be open to the ones who have fled their country. However, while they have opened the doors for Syrians they have closed them for NGOs, researchers, and media. They are not refugees, they are our guests is an empty expression in national and international law. Until a meeting in Geneva, the politicians used that expression, then, after that, they began to use “temporary protection.” Today, everyone uses different expressions, such as refugee, guest, and asylum seeker. This creates a legal gap.[44]

The initial and very critical problem for refugees, as illuminated by the above quote, is their unclear legal status and security. The classification of these individuals related with the problem of legal status creates the basis for the reproduction of insecurities—whereas one categorization can provide security and a guarantee, still another classification can strip them of any legal bearing. Such an ambiguous position and discourse refers to the state of being a ‘guest’ other than a refugee and, at various times, prevents official acknowledgment by either national or international law. This obscurity is the main determinant related to the insecure identity construction of refugees, as such, representations are a key component of how refugee identity and also policies are written, read and understood. Such a political procedure determines their undefined status and threatens their agency as subjects.

Another procedure that reproduces gendered insecurities is the lodging assignments within the camps. In addition to placements based on family status and efforts made to maintain family units, our interlocutors highlighted the problem of privacy within the camps. Refugees are assigned their places in the tent and container cities according to family status. Single refugees, for instance, are placed in a different part of the camps, as a local representative of a state agency noted. “The placements are also organized according to the principle of family unity. They are staying in tents suitable for 5-6 persons. Moreover, one of the policies followed by the AFAD is that the tents of extended families are joined.”[45]

The representative of the AFAD claims that the organization of tents and refugees is suitable, while the representatives of NGOs and various consultants have criticized the system. “Privacy is a huge problem in tents. Restrooms and bathrooms are not well designed. For instance, after having a shower, a woman should not walk around a man. It is shameful. Families and single ones are so close in tent cities. It is not good. That’s the main reason why girls are raped.”[46]

Another expert from an NGO working primarily on refugees in Turkey further criticized the proximity of the tents. According to this volunteer, “the tents are very close to each other. It is not appropriate for the privacy of families in Turkish culture, and especially in Syrian culture, which is much more conservative.”[47] The concern for individual privacy, especially for women and single girls, constitutes a threat to their security.

The view and imagination of women as victims and as vulnerable individuals create and compound barriers by framing them as cultural obstacles. The conservative structure of Syrian families and the existing vulnerability of women, especially girls, coupled with their disadvantaged positions, make the refugee experience for women far more precarious and contingent, in part due to the added insecurities produced by the very structures and organization of the refugee camps themselves. Refugee camps are meant to be idealized places of safe haven, of a joining together of people facing the same threats, except that women then also face insecurities in these zones as well.

The powerful, religious networks within the camps were extraordinarily influential in the lives of the camp refugees. According to the civil society volunteer who was interviewed “as it is a close and conservative society imams [leaders of the Muslim community] are very influential. They are advising or sometimes indoctrinating the refugees and they are really powerful.”[48] However, access to the imams was limited only to men. Each of the NGO workers and volunteers we interviewed pointed out how active men are in the religious and political life of the camps. “Men are very active. They are crossing the border and going to fight each day” argued an NGO volunteer.[49] Women, on the other hand, are generally performing within their traditional gender roles and carrying out their domestic labors. Such work, as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, prevent them from actively participating in any decision-making processes. Though promoting an active role for men, such division of labor obstructs women from exercising their agency as political subjects. In line with Baines’ argument, the isolation of women from the cycle of refugee movement reproduces “(…) refugee women as particularly vulnerable and in need, [the] female refugee has been depoliticized.”[50]

She has been further victimized due to her role as mother, by equating her solely in terms of her care for children. “Women are very busy with their domestic tasks, especially because there are so many children around. The main image of the camps for me is children. There are also orphans. Women are responsible for taking care of them. They do not have time for much else.”[51] Another NGO worker similarly added “life is very tough for women, which depends on her marital status and age. It also depends on the number of children and other relatives that she is charged with taking care of.”[52] This line of argument couples women with children in a traditional mothering role. For Johnson, “(…) [the] cliché of women and children serves to identify men as the norm”[53] and tends to ignore women’s agency.

Another powerful network that reproduces insecurities is that of refugees’ ideological positions and sectarian differences. “They do not trust each other. They feel such a threat”[54]. The refugees are afraid of being scrutinized about their position towards Assad’s regime. Although the majority of refugees are against the regime, they do not feel comfortable identifying themselves in either case.

They are generally against the regime. I asked them and [they] told me that we are against the regime. The ones who are not against do not dare declare themselves. Also, I heard that they did not trust each other long before the uprisings as well. Assad delegated civil police among neighbors, who acted as spies. So, Syrians, especially the ones in camps, in a vulnerable position, can hardly trust each other.[55]

In addition to this ideological segmentation that fosters unease among the refugees, another critical insecurity is reflected in sectarian differences. The most dramatic example took place in Antakya, where a car bombing in May 2013 killed more than fifty people and injured more than one hundred. “The problems are not same between Antakya and Gaziantep that have majority of camps. For instance in Antakya there are Alawites. Sectarian differences act in a negative way.”[56] The civil society volunteer highlighted the problem of sects as well. For him, “the most difficult case is that of Antakya. There are Alawites and when refugees are coming to the city, they felt threatened. It’s just because of sectarian differences.”[57] Therefore, the dynamics of relationships between religious sects also produces insecurity for refugees. Moreover, in line with the main concern of the article, from the perspective of gender, the experts who have touched upon the bombing incident during the interviews memorialized women and children with sorrow mentioning “innocent women and children died” [58] While men died as a result of this bombing as well, “the cliché of woman and children”[59] has reified itself in this discourse and victimized them.[60] Such understanding of victimizing women suffuses the discourses of elites and spontaneously reveals how the understanding of women refugees as emblemized victims of migration cycle is apparent. For instance, none of the pictures displayed on the UNHCR’s website contain women alone, but nearly all of the pictures include children or “cliché of women and children”[61]. It can be argued that these images are instructive in the development of a refugee image and in implementing policies. As Johnson states “to construct a representation is an act of power, representations are fundamentally political.”[62]

In this framework, gender operates on multiple spatial and social scales across terrains. The final determinant of gendered geographies of power lies in individuals’ “agency as initiators,” hence, the question of who controls the process is one that determines gendered geographies.[63] In this framework, it is crucial to consider gendered differences and to analyze individuals’ gendered agency. It is critical to surface the voice of women. The imagery of the experts is generally based on assumptions about women’s incidental needs, while their own voices should be available and present. What is essential is to locate women’s own positioning that embrace particularities and differences instead of the singular gender understanding of NGOs which is parochial.


With the inclusion of a gender perspective into concerns of traditional security, in general, and the human security perspective, in particular, “the danger of masking differences under the rubric of the term human” has been challenged.[64] Unmasking these differences has not only enabled the researchers to understand security, but also to capture its particularities. Analyzing refugee camps in Southeast Turkey through a gender lens has offered a framework to detect multidimensional gendered insecurities.

Taking the refugee as depoliticized, victimized or as an object of study, limits the boundaries of critical analysis and hinders the exploration of the multiple interactions that make up transnational processes. There is a need to go beyond the hierarchical and inherently homogenized view of the refugee, as argued by Grabska, and to transform the avenues in contrast to the silencing of gendered experiences.

Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation and Security (JCTS) Vol. 4 | No. 1-2

* Selin Akyüz completed her doctoral studies in May 2012 in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University, Turkey. She worked as an Assistant Professor at Zirve University, Turkey, until September 2014. Akyüz is currently conducting her research on gender and migration at University of Oxford, International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall. Her major research interests are critical studies on men and masculinities, gender studies, migration and contemporary social theory.

 **Bezen Balamir Coşkun is an Associate Professor at Zirve University, where she has been since 2009. She is also Research Fellow at the Turkey Institute, London. She teaches international relations and international security. Her current research interests are human security, refugee policy/refugee politics and forced migration.

[1] See Tickner, Gender in International Relations; Hansen, “The Little Mermaid’s Security Dilemma”.

[2] Hoogensen and Rottem, “Gender Identity”, 156.

[3] Tickner, Gender in International Relations, 128.

[4] Johnson, “Click to Donate”, 1016.

[5] Pessar and Mahler, “Transnational Migration”; Hondagneu-Sotelo P., “Gender Displays and Men’s Power”

[6] see United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA),  Human Security in Africa, 16.

[7] Johnson, “Click to Donate”, 1031.

[8] ibid., 1016.

[9] According to UNCHR data by August 2014 there are 822,500 registered Syrians in Turkey, 33.141 of them live in camps in and around Gaziantep. It is estimated that in Gaziantep there are 200.000 Syrians who do not live in camps.

[10] Annan, Foreword to Human Security and the New Diplomacy, xix.

[11] United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA),  Human Security in Africa.

[12] Cuen, The Most Dangerous Myths, (accessed 10 March 2013)

[13] ibid.

[14] Tickner, Gender in International Relations, 20.

[15] Hoogensen and Rottem, “Gender and Identity”.

[16] Tickner, Gender in International Relations.

[17] Hansen, “The Little Mermaid’s Security Dilemma”, 287.

[18] ibid.

[19] Gaul et al., “NGO Security”; Speers, “Gender and Aid Agency”; UNICEF, Analysis of Security Incidents.

[20] Gaul et al., “NGO Security”; Speers, “Gender and Aid Agency”.

[21] United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA),  Human Security in Africa, 16.

[22] Tickner, Gender in International Relations, 58.

[23] Tickner, Gendering Word Politics.

[24] Guild, Security and Migration.

[25] UNCHR, Refugee Figures,, accessed in August 7, 2014

[26] Bigot, “Detention of Foreigners”.

[27] United Nations, The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

[28] Martin, Women and Migration Report.

[29] Johnson, “Click to Donate”, 1016

[30] Szczepanikova, “Performing Refugeeness in Czech Republic”, 461

[31] Johnson, “Click to Donate”, 1016

[32] Edkins and Pin-Fat, “Life, Power and Resistance”; Bigot, “Detention of Foreigners”; Soguk, “Borders’ Capture”; Chimni “The Birth of a Discipline”.

[33] Hyndman, “The Feminist Politics of Refugee Migration”; Baines, Vulnerable Bodies

[34] Grabska, “Constructing Modern Gendered Civilized”.

[35] Hansen, “The Little Mermaid’s Security Dilemma”, 285

[36] Freedman, “Mainstreaming Gender”, 604.

[37] See Baines, “Vulnarable Bodies”; Freedman, “Mainstreaming Gender”; Grabska, “Constructing Modern, Gendered, Civilized”;  Sjoberg and Peet, “Another Dark Side of the Protection Racket”.

[38] UNHCR, Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls.

[39] Freedman, “Mainstreaming Gender”.

[40] Jahan, “The Elusive Agenda”

[41] Freedman, “Mainstreaming Gender”

[42] Grabska, “Constructing Modern Gendered Civilized”, 91-92.

[43] UNHCR, Country Operations Profile: Turkey.

[44] Director of an NGO, Gaziantep, 09 April 2013, personal interview

[45] Local representative of state agency (AFAD), Gaziantep, 09 April 2013, personal interview

[46] NGO volunteer, Gaziantep, 09 May 2013, personal interview

[47] NGO expert, Gaziantep, 03 March 2013, personal interview

[48] NGO volunteer, Gaziantep, 09 May 2013, personal interview

[49] NGO volunteer, Gaziantep, 09 May 2013, personal interview

[50] Baines, “Vulnerable Bodies”, viii.

[51] Academic consultant and trauma trainer, Gaziantep, 05 June 2013, personal interview

[52] NGO volunteer, Gaziantep, 09 May 2013, personal interview

[53] Johnson, “Click to Donate”, 1032.

[54] NGO director, Gaziantep, 09 April 2013, personal interview

[55] Academic consultant and trauma trainer, Gaziantep,  05 June 2013, personal interview

[56] NGO director, Gaziantep, 09 April 2013, personal interview

[57] NGO volunteer, Gaziantep, 09 May 2013, personal interview

[58] NGO director, Gaziantep, 09 April 2013, personal interview; NGO volunteer, Gaziantep, 09 May 2013, personal interview; Academic consultant and trauma trainer, Gaziantep, 05 June 2013, personal interview

[59] Johnson, “Click to Donate”.

[60] See Carpenter for a detailed analysis on the discursive rhetoric on innocent women and children. The writer offers a comprehensive analysis on the influence of gender norms on international regime protecting war affected çivilians.

[61] Johnson, “Click to Donate”.

[62] Johnson, “Click to Donate”, 1017.

[63] ibid., 816

[64] ibid.,157


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