Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

It’s raining men, hallelujah! On migration and sex ratios

In a recent article in Politico Magazine, professor in political sciences Valerie Hudson (Texas A&M University) addresses an often neglected consequence of the current migration crisis. As most of the one million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa that arrived in Europe in 2015 are young men, recent mass migration potentially disrupts the gender balance in European countries with liberal migration policies. Although The Economist notices that for big countries, like Germany, the effect of recent immigration on the already existing gender imbalance is negligible, changes in sex ratio might indeed be considerable in countries with less than 10 million citizens, like Sweden, Hungary, Austria and Norway.

Hudson discusses the example of Sweden, where 71 percent of all migrants who arrived in 2015 are male. Besides, 21 percent of all last year’s migrants are unaccompanied minors among which more than 90 percent is, again, male. This leads to imbalances in numbers of males and females in certain age cohorts. Hudson figures that for every 100 16- and 17-year-old girls in Sweden there are now 123 boys of the same age.

One interesting justice-related question is whether the potential imbalance in sex ratio is sufficient as a moral consideration to change the migration policy of European countries. If so, one option is to limit the amount of male newcomers. Then the question is the following: is it justifiable for small countries to discriminate based on sex when they decide which migrants (as Julia Hermann explains, we should consider both economic migrants and refugees) are permitted to stay in their country? Unlike Hudson, who clearly answers affirmatively, I unfortunately have no clear-cut answer to this question.

Obviously, the sex ratio is a relevant moral consideration. An overly imbalanced sex ratio is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it generates a sexually frustrated generation of men without any perspective to start a family. As Hudson’s research shows, a troubling sex ratio correlates with more violence, crimes, rapes, sexual harassment and demand for prostitution. Clearly, a government should protect its citizens from such predictable infringements of their rights and liberties. Besides, Hudson also points out that there is a danger for more anti-government movements in countries with many unattached young men. This is especially problematic for a country like Sweden, as many consider it to be an example of a well-functioning liberal welfare state.

Nevertheless, the standard arguments against discrimination and in favour of a liberal migration policy still apply. We have a basic duty not to discriminate based on sex. It is disrespectful and unfair to justify a migration policy by reference to differences in sex. What is even more problematic with a discriminatory migration policy based on Hudson’s considerations, is that the newcomers, in general, haven’t breached any law. They haven’t proved to be a rapist, criminal or revolutionist yet. Wouldn’t it be wrong to sanction them for potential future wrongdoings most probably done by other men (migrants and natives)?

Also, it seems unfair for a government to refuse persons a permission to stay and, supposedly, to send them back to where they came from or to burden other European countries, because of the protection of one’s own citizens’ chances to enjoy a family life. Hudson thinks a skewed sex ratio as a consequence of migration would mean a tragedy for European men. But isn’t it a matter of brute luck whether one is born in Europe, where men can enjoy economic, political and social stability, including a family life, or in a country suffering from economical and/or political injustices, where a stable family life is jeopardized by external factors? The moral ground for any policy based on our current system of ‘magical borders’, like a policy that favours one’s own male citizens over those of other countries, seems therefore shaky at least.

Like I said, I don’t really know whether a skewed sex ratio can ever be a good enough reason to limit the amount of male newcomers. There are reasonable arguments for both positions and a lot, probably, hinges on empirical knowledge of the precise effects. Nevertheless, the danger for social and political stability that bad sex ratios generate points to two less drastic and plausible policy conclusions. Firstly, this danger might provide an extra argument to stimulate family reunification. The easier it is for men to invite their partners (and potentially other relatives) to join them in Europe tomorrow, the less problematic it is that so many men are arriving alone today. Secondly, it seems reasonable to accept the consequences of male migration on the sex ratio as a relevant element in any plan that wants to relocate migrants. The European Union has recently presented such a plan, but many European countries have similar plans for the relocation of migrants within their borders. The balance between males and females within certain countries or regions should partly inform this policy. As the consequences for bigger countries and cities are less threatening than for small countries and local towns, the former should be expected to accept more young males than the latter. These two policy proposals constitute a pragmatic position, taking into account the arguments for both a non-discriminatory liberal migration policy and the threat for stability that imbalanced sex ratios generate.

I am a PhD student in Political Theory and junior assistant in Political Sciences at Ghent University. My main research interest is the study of liberal and libertarian theories of justice and equality. Among other things, I wonder what, if anything, liberals can learn from libertarians.


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  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Kasper. I wondered how much the answer to the question of whether these considerations are sufficient reason to change migration policy depend on the kinds of change, particularly in terms of whether they are used as arguments for making policy more restrictive (as in the option you mention of “limiting the amount of male newcomers”) as distinct from making it more liberal (such as the solution you propose of making family reunification easier). I guess that another response is to apply ‘relaxed’ criteria for female migrants. If that policy resulted in an increase in the number, it might dispel the concerns you mention without rejecting migrants who have breached no laws and without raising the same issue about brute luck. It might be thought discriminatory in some sense, but perhaps it would be acceptable in the same way as affirmative action (on which Tom has a post some time ago: http://justice-everywhere.org/old-blog/defending-quotas/). If this policy seems acceptable, it leads me to wonder whether responding to the issues you mention raises problems only if the solutions we consider involve making policy more restrictive?

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrew.
      Indeed, I first ask whether the considerations raised by prof. Hudson could be sufficient reason to change one’s migration policy. To this I answer positively, as I propose some changes myself. Then I ask whether a certain option, i.e. limiting male migration, could ever be justified. I partly agree with your considerations on this. Supposedly it is no coincidence that I have a problem with an illiberal policy, and suggest some liberal alternatives. Nevertheless, depending on empirical knowledge, I suppose there might be grave cases in which limiting male migration is justified. The graver the consequences of an imbalance in sex ratio, the more likely it seems that such a limiting policy will be legitimate.
      I’ve been wondering about the ‘positive discrimination’ analogy as well. But it seems that a discriminatory migration policy, based on gender, that is more welcoming to women than to men is different from standard positive discrimination cases. Positive discrimination, in general, aims to redress past or present injustices that follow from inequalities between men and women. In this case, at least in the country of arrival, there is no past or present injustice towards the newcomers based on gender. So it seems strange if, say, Sweden, Belgium or any other small country would implement a positive discrimination policy. What do you think about this Andrew?
      One last consideration: maybe some affirmative action is justified because of considerations Lisa raises in her comment (see below). It seems that men and women have no equal opportunity to leave their home country. If this is true, maybe our migration policy can rectify some of this unfairness by way of affirmative action. Nevertheless, it is all but obvious that such a policy would be an effective way to improve the opportunities to leave of women in those countries.

  2. Thanks for the post Kasper! Do you think the same problems would arise if the disproportionate male population arises through procreation rather than immigration. Suppose for some reason a population gives birth disproportionately to male newborns (there is another scenario which raises more complications, where a technology allows a population to choose the gender of their offspring and parents end up choosing to have male children- but set that aside). It might be interesting to consider what responses are appropriate in such a scenario and use them to judge the case of migrants. ( I should elaborate on this more; but I need to be somewhere just now!)

    • Thanks Siba! That’s a good one. Well, I suppose that Hudson’s conclusions will still be the same. Such a society will still lead to sexually frustrated men, more crimes, rapes and anti-government movements (although Hudson speaks of correlation, not causation). So for that reason a policy that addresses these problems might be appropriate. Do you have any policy suggestions? Again, I suppose a lot depends on empirics. If the problems related to an imbalanced sex ratio are really grave, supposedly the policies could be quite intrusive (e.g. medical manipulation of the sex of newborns?).

  3. Jesper L Pedersen

    Hi Kasper, thanks for a really good read. Am I right in assuming that both you and Valerie Hudson more or less assume that these people are here to stay for good? Supposing that the war in Syria will eventually end (probably not any time soon, I know), is there a chance that enough of these “excess” young men will return to their homeland that the problem will, to some extent, go away? If not, do you think it would be reasonable for European governments to offer resettlement grants for people who choose to return to Syria? Could these be targeted specifically at men?

    • Hi Jesper. Thanks for your comment.
      You make a good point. It’s true that Hudson and I both assume that these young men are here to stay, at least for a sufficient amount of time to potentially destabilize society. You’re right to question whether part of the problem might just disappear when some form of peace is found in Syria. This might certainly be the case for countries, like Belgium, that provide only a temporary permission to asylum seekers. Nevertheless, it is not obvious that this will entirely solve the problems Hudson points to.
      The resettlement grants are an interesting option to consider. At first sight it seems to me that resettlement grants that are only targeted at men unfairly discriminate against women. Men who want to go back could then make a new start in there home countries much easier than women who share the same aim. One idea is that this is problematic because we can suppose that those men, in general, haven’t been unfairly disadvantaged compared to women with the same background.
      Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there could also be an argument in favour of such discriminatory resettlement grants, as one could argue that men who arrived in, for example, Sweden are to some extent disadvantaged compared to women in the same situation, as they arrive in a society with less likelihood to find a partner and start a family. To compensate those men for this disadvantage, one might argue that such resettlement grants are justified.

  4. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Kasper, thanks for this post. I agree with your general line, I think, but I have been wondering whether we can address the problem as one that arises only once migration has taken place, or whether we could/should contextualize it more with regard to gender relations in the countries of origin. There are certainly various reasons for why so many more men than women decide to leave (not least the difficulties of the journey – which could be overcome if migrants could apply for asylum at the embassies of host countries in Turkey or other neighboring countries). But these might also include that women are seen as weaker, or might be given less voice in families, or are expected to marry and have children at a young age. So it would be great if in designing a policy, one could also help empower women in Syria (or in the refugee camps in the region) – somehow sending a signal that in the host countries, men and women are seen as equal. Or would that be too paternalistic for your taste ?

    • Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment.
      I think your definitely right that there are multiple reasons, among which are reasons that follow from unjust institutions and practices, that can explain the men-women imbalance in the group of migrants. I (purposefully) didn’t address and discuss these reasons in the blog post. A lot of new problems arise with regards to that issue. But I’m not sure how a migration policy that is concerned with the question who can stay and who should leave, can incorporate the aim to improve the situation of women in, for example, Syria. Do you have any suggestions?
      Nevertheless, off course host countries should develop policies that treat men and women as equals, and the more these policies send a signal to the migrants’ home countries that host countries consider men and women as equals, the better. In principle I also have no problem with European policies that empower women in the migrants’ home countries. But “sending signals” seems insufficient to “empower”, doesn’t it? So I’m not really sure about what you have in mind.

      • Lisa Herzog

        Hi Kasper, you are right – it’s not so clear how to design policies that would do this. What I had in mind was something like allowing women (or both spouses together) to apply for asylum for the whole family at the embassies of host countries in the region – but I guess it would actually be quite hard to verify whether the women have not been pressured by their families into doing it. But it could still send a signal that in the host countries family issues cannot be decided by men alone…

  5. Very timely and useful post, thank you Kasper! I assume the main reason why most people are concerned with gender dis-balances – in the present European context – is not the gender balances as such. Rather, it’s the fact that such dis-balances aggravate the consequences of sexist, and even misogynist, norms that some/many migrants are likely to bring with them from their home countries. I believe this is a real concern, and wonder if we can have a useful discussion if we side-line it. (I see a political reason to avoid the discussion: recent events have been pitching, against each other, feminists and anti-racists. But I think this is a bad reason.)

    So maybe you want to bracket the question of the sexism/misogyny because you want to separate, analytically, the question of whether gender dis-balance is *as such* a reason to worry. But can we ever know whether gender dis-balance is as such a possible source of social problems, without looking at the norms that regulate people’s behaviour? I doubt it: if monogamy wasn’t a powerful social norm, 123 men for every 100 women wouldn’t have to be a problem.

  6. Your ideas are very good Kasper,on the dangers of unequal sex ratios. This is a major problem to sort out. But, no mention has been made by anyone about the serious violence and sex assaults on EU women by male migrants . The obvious example is the Cologne assaults on New Year’s Eve 2015-16 when around 1000 women were assaulted, and many of the males were not prosecuted but remain at large. This is only one incident and there are many more occurring now as we speak in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway in particular. Check it out online. Little is being done to tackle this issue and people seem more worried about whether it’s racist to say nasty things about migrants. What about the nasty things being done to women? The EU is meant to fight for women’s equality and rights. Policy makers should consider potential violence and sexist attitudes of income r’s, toward women as one criteria in selection, when deciding on who to admit to a country. Is not this more important than sex ratios ?

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