Romantic relationships tend to be some of the most important relationships we form. They can bring stability, support, and great joy to our lives. However, the refugee experience can put them under significant strain. This is not to say that all refugee couples are condemned to collapse. Rather, it is simply a way of understanding refugees as humans, with complex social bonds and emotional needs.
And these really are needs, not wants- they provide us with essential stability, emotional support, acceptance, and love. Damage to these relationships can have very harmful effects, as we shall see.
As well as romantic relationships, in this article I also dedicate some focus to life in refugee camps. About 22% of the world’s refugee population live in refugee camps, and many pass through these camps on the way to their host countries. It is therefore surprising that so little attention is paid to them. I touch on the camp experience in this article, in an attempt to remedy this deficiency.
Most of my article is about heterosexual couples. This is partly due to lack of space to dedicate to other relationships, but also because conservatism among many refugee populations means that there are few openly non-heterosexual refugee couples. BizGees does have articles about LGBTQ+ refugees: for example, here and here.
In this article, I will explore how change and instability put strain on refugee couples. Then, I will expand specifically on the importance of status and gender roles in changing refugee relationships.
1. Change and instability
The instability of refugee life, both in camps and in host countries, can present a huge challenge to refugee relationships.
As we will go on to see, gender roles and social status undergo significant change when people become refugees. This creates tension between the members of a partnership. As a result, refugee couples tend to experience higher rates of divorce than they did in their host countries. For example, in Kanembwa camp, Tanzania, divorce and adultery were more common than in Burundi (where most of the refugees were from). The breakdown of relationships seriously undermines refugees’ support systems. Partners who were together in times of trauma, and who often have complex emotional needs, find themselves alone, and with the emotional burden of a broken marriage.
According to Janet Benson, high divorce rates can continue even after settling in a host country. For Southeast Asians in the US, the legal system, state benefit bureaucracy, and demographic imbalances all contribute to increased in divorce rates, mainly instigated by women. This may be a sign of positive change, as women who were unhappy in previous marriages now have the power to divorce unpleasant husbands. Certainly, the more liberal norms of host countries explain some of the increase in divorce and female-headed households. But there is also evidence that refugee couples face unique strains that can push partnerships to the brink.
Refugees often suffer from trauma, mental health problems, and addiction. Moreover, in camps, refugees experience the loss of social fabric due to war, and the loss of state protection. As a result, women can find themselves in vulnerable positions. This opens the way for abuse to begin. Vulnerability is even more of a risk considering the problems like alcoholism and resentment that we explored above.
In Kanembwa camp, Tanzania, one refugee woman reported that "there was no domestic violence in Burundi. Men had things to do in Burundi. Men have nothing to do in the camps but drink and so they beat their wives." It is unlikely that there was no abuse in Burundi. But her statement indicates the dramatic change that occurs within partnerships because of the instability of camp life.
2. Status loss
Refugees often experience a decline in status. This can lead to a collapse in confidence, creating tension within couples.
Many of the couples heading to Europe are middle-class. For example, many Indochinese refugees to the US in the 1970s were “professionals” from the middle or upper class. I spoke to a friend who had experience working in a camp in Greece, where refugees travelling from Turkey were waiting to be processed. She told me about the social background of some of these refugees. Back home in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, many of these people were doctors, teachers, and civil servants. These couples were middle class, and enjoyed high status in society.
There is a lot of contrast between these people's old lives, and their lives as refugees. Delays processing work visas, and difficulty finding jobs mean many refugees depend on the state. Many people end up “underemployed”, with jobs for which they are overqualified. This means they often end up earning less than they did in their home countries. Many qualifications abroad aren’t valid or important in host countries, which can leave refugees stuck in low-paid, low-status jobs.
All this can have important consequences for couples. For some couples, lower income means that women have to start working, which they might never have done before. This can be humiliating for some women, especially if they can only find jobs that they see as low status, like domestic work. In a survey of female Syrian refugees in Jordan, one participant reported that, “I was not used to having to work; I have never thought in my life that I would become a servant.” Another refugee woman agreed, saying, “Had I known that the end of my coming to Jordan would be raising the children of my neighbours, I would have preferred to stay in Syria, which is far more merciful.” Women might feel resentful that their partners can’t provide enough. They could show signs of disappointment that can cause their partners to feel ashamed; or they might feel ashamed themselves, causing them to become more closed.
This also has consequences for male partners whose wives start working. They may feel like failures, having been unable to fulfil the breadwinner role. For couples with more traditional views about gender, this can lead to resentment between the partners, as the man feels humiliated having to depend on his wife’s income.
Disappointment, shame, tension and resentment are a toxic cocktail for any relationship. They make you feel isolated from your partner, leading to a crumbling of the emotional support that romantic relationships give.
3. Changing gender roles
Loss of income, dependence on the government, and women entering the workforce can present a challenge to the masculinity of refugee men. This has consequences for the couple as a whole.
As Barbra Lukunka points out, the binary gender identities of “man” and “woman” are usually defined in relation to each other- the status of men is defined in comparison to the status of women. If women become more empowered (for example, they enter the workforce), this can present a threat to a male partner’s masculinity, provoking feelings of shame or resentment.
Good-natured efforts to help women by aid workers can create tensions within heterosexual partnerships. For example, in Kanembwa camp, Tanzania, camp administrators ran seminars that gave advice to women, suggesting that they could leave husbands who abused them. Although these seminars have obvious, very important benefits, they also created tension between men and women in the camp as men feared that their partners might leave them. This damaged their partnerships, breeding mistrust.
Male refugees often take up alcohol as a coping mechanism for their damaged masculinity and reduced pride. This has obvious and disastrous consequences for couples. Not only is alcoholism linked to domestic abuse, but it also creates problems unique to refugee couples. For example, in camps, the boredom of camp life can worsen the tendency towards alcoholism. In the camps, people are completely dependent on aid workers for food and medical aid. At the camp my friend worked in, refugees weren’t allowed to offer help in return with tasks like cooking, teaching, or admin. Only a few people could get jobs, working as translators. As a result, people were bored, aimless, and sometimes turned to alcohol. Alcoholism is a burden to both members of a partnership, contributing to mistrust, codependency, and even abuse.
Moreover, the sale of the couple’s food rations to buy alcohol is not uncommon. This can create huge tension between partners, especially if one partner is worried about being able to feed children or parents.
This can continue into host countries- substance abuse issues are often prevalent among refugee communities, ensuring that the tension this creates between partners continues.
We are all aware of the trauma that refugees experience. What we sometimes forget is the strain that this puts on partnerships, making it harder to cope with this trauma.
As we have seen, elements of the refugee experience inculcate feelings of shame, disappointment, isolation and joint trauma. Not only can these impair relationships, but their consequences (such as alcoholism and abuse) can create desperate situations for couples.
Part of seeing refugees as human means recognising the strain that their experiences put on key relationships in their lives. Partnerships are an important part of life, for everyone, which is why it is so important that we understand what refugees undergo.