Are the Syrian Refugees All ‘Young, Strong Men’?

6 minute read

At a number of events this week, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeated claims that the Syrian refugees the U.S. is taking in are strong young men as part of his fear that those seeking asylum could carry out terrorist attacks.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Trump said:

“But if they’re here, they have to go back, because we cannot take a chance. You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.”

Speaking to Fox’s Sean Hannity, he said:

“It’s a total disaster. The people are going to come in. I talked to you about this two weeks ago, where we talked about the migration, how so many of the people in the migration were strong young men. You look at them. I’m saying, Where are the women? Where are the children? We’re taking in people we have no idea who they are. They have no identification. They have no papers. They’re creating papers. They’re making up papers…So you have people coming in, and I heard as of this morning they’re already missing one or two people. They came in and they’re gone. They’re missing. So I think it’s a way — you know, it could very well be the ultimate Trojan horse. We’re going to have to see. Hopefully not. But thousands are coming in.”

And during a speech at an event in Worcester, Massachusetts, he said:

“This could be the great Trojan horse of all time. Because you look at the migration, study it, look at it. Now they’ll start infiltrating with women and children. but you look at that migration—and I’m the first one to bring it up—three weeks ago I’m sitting and I’m saying, ‘isn’t that a shame?’ And then I said to myself, ‘Wow. They’re all men.’ You look at it. There are so few women and there are so few children. And not only are they men, they’re young men. And they’re strong as can be—they’re tough looking cookies. I say, what’s going on here?”

Trump is not alone among Republicans in calling into question whether the U.S. should admit Syrian refugees, but his claim that those seeking admission here are almost all “young, strong men” is somewhat unique. It’s also not entirely true.

The United Nations has registered over 4.2 million Syrian refugees, a step in seeking asylum from other countries, and has a demographic snapshot of about half of them. Of the 2.1 million registered in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon there’s a pretty even split in gender: about 50.5% are women and 49.7% are men. For men and women, the bulk of refugees (a little under a quarter each) are between the age of 18 and 59.

In Europe, over 800,000 migrants have traveled to Europe by sea in 2015, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and a little over half have come from Syria. About 62% of all migrants that have traveled to Europe this year, however, are men. A little under a quarter, 22%, are children and only 16% are women. The New York Times reported in October the mass exodus of men to parts of Europe could cause problems in both the countries they leave and the countries they enter. The head of the International Organization for Migration in Turkey told the Times: “We know on the positive side that migration can boost economies and trade and lead to cultural exchange … But if it is mismanaged, it becomes a problem for both the receiving states and the countries left behind.”

In the U.S. alone, a little over 2,000 Syrian refugees that have been admitted to the U.S. since 2001, though the U.S. has plans to resettle 10,000 refugees by next year. Throughout this week, the Obama administration has defended the process for screening refugees, a process it says is stringent and prioritizes the most vulnerable. On a background press call this week, a senior State Department official gave the following breakdown of exactly who has been let in:

Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children; and [2.5%] are adults over 60. And I think you will have heard that only 2 percent are single males of combat age. So we – there’s slightly more – it’s roughly 50/50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not – not a lot more men. So this is normal that as you’re – as we set a priority of bringing the most vulnerable people, we’re going to have female-headed households with a lot of children, and we’re going to have extended families that are maybe missing the person who used to be the top breadwinner but have several generations – grandparents, a widowed mother, and children.

Trump isn’t exactly wrong—many of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe are indeed young men. But as the TIME’s Karl Vick wrote in September, many of the men are fleeing the same enemy nations across the world find themselves up against.

Placed one atop the other on a map, the number of people moving to join Syria’s civil war would appear as a barely visible black thread in the wide, wide arrow pointing out from the country: 20,000 people going in against 4-million headed out. And while most of the foreign fighters are young men, the same is true of those fleeing the fighting. Many doubtless areescaping conscription into the Syrian armed forces, which President Bashar Assad in a July speech admitted faces major manpower shortages. Almost all are a vanguard for families waiting to follow them. You don’t send a mother or a grandfather to scout a route to a new home. You send the hardiest and least vulnerable—males in their late teens to middle age.

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