#TBT ”Sex-distribution in the Swedish Red Cross Youth result of social norms?”

Since I’m currently in a course on scientific methodology and I’m really not studying (and of course definitely not freaking out about how to pass the course *cough*), I decided to go back in the archive and find the first ever research paper that I ever wrote, as an English assignment ( March 2012). Hey, if I could do it then, I can do it now! Never mind I had no idea what internal/external validity, confidence interval or standard error meant back then (although I was probably much better at maths when I was 17 than I am now). From a scientific point of view it’s kind of bs but it was fun. I guess. Since it’s throwback Thursday and all, I thought I’d also share it with you! (And also because I’m procrastinating… and I have been too lazy to write anything else for the past… 6 months)


Sex-distribution in the Swedish Red Cross Youth result of social norms?


Statistics show that about four out of five volunteers at the Swedish Red Cross Youth are females.

In order to understand the causes of this phenomena, in-depths interviews have been carried out along with questionnaires. 50 female and 50 male non-volunteers have completed the questionnaires, and one volunteer and one non-volunteer of each sex has been interviewed. The data suggests that males and females are equally empathic and value the existence of humanitarian organisations equally much, but more females  than males choose to volunteer in humanitarian organisations because of the norms of society suggesting that it is a feminine activity.

A humanitarian organisation is an organisation working to save lives, alleviate suffering and improving the human welfare.[1] The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was founded by Henry Dunant in 1863, and is now one of the most famous trade marks in the world[2] , with humanitarianism as its fundamental principle[3]. The Swedish Red Cross Youth (RKUF) is a subsidiary organisation, which has been independent since 1996. RKUF works to help children and adolescents in vulnerable situations, with the 4 main areas humanitarian migration, participation and social safety net, diversity and compassion, and sustainable development. There are 23 local associations in 21 different cities in Sweden, around 6200 members between one to 30 years old – who support the organisation by paying 50 crowns each year – and 1060 active volunteers.[4] There is also a National Executive Committee (FS) who has the responsibility for national issues and overall operations of RKUF. Everyone except for the president of FS and the paid employees are working voluntarily[5]. RKUF receives money annually from the Swedish Red Cross and from the paying members, but also from funds that projects apply to when needing money. The volunteers mainly contribute with their time and commitment, and most projects do not require much in terms of skills and knowledge. However, in my work with RKUF I have noticed that there are always more females than males present at projects and courses. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the cause for this phenomena.

   Key words

Altruism is defined as ”voluntary, intentional behaviour that benefits another and that is not motivated by the expectation of external rewards or avoidance of externally produced punishments”[6].

Social norms are rules developed by a group of people that specify how people must, should, may, should not, and must not behave in various situations”[7], and a person that breaks the norms can receive both formal punishments, for example a parking fine, and informal ones – an odd glare. There are different norms for different social groups, and these often lead to stereotypes, which are “over-simplified or untrue generalizations about social groups”[8]

 Sex is something a person is born with depending on the X and Y chromosomes – male or female, while gender is socially constructed – man or woman.
The decision whether to volunteer or not is affected by gender identity and not by sex; because of the social norms suggesting that volunteering in humanitarian organisations is a feminine activity, more females than males are active in humanitarian organisations.
I will look at the member statistics on the RKUF web site in order to compare the number of male and female members in the organisation, and the number of female and male members in the local association boards. I will also talk to leaders of different projects and courses about the sex distribution of the participants, and I will investigate the reasons for not volunteering and the perception of voluntary work by making a questionnaire. The age range for the participants will be 15 to 30 years since this is the main target group of RKUF. I will ask friends on Facebook, and collect answers from 50 males and 50 females in order to make a comparison between the sexes. I will also look at previous studies on altruism and volunteering through a gender perspective to see if they support my findings, and  carry out four focused (semi-structured) interviews[9] in order to compare the quantitative questionnaire with qualitative data. I will interview B and K who both hold important positions within the organisation (not disclosed for confidentiality reasons). They have been engaged in RKUF for several years, and have extensive knowledge about the organisation. The other two will be students in the second year in this school, and have not had any prior contact with RKUF. Respecting that, I will not mention their names and only refer to them as female non-volunteer and male non-volunteer In the beginning of the interview, neither of the subjects will have any knowledge of the exact topic of my research paper, more than it is discussing voluntary work in humanitarian organisations, in order to not affect their answers. I will ask them about differences between volunteers and non-volunteers, and reasons for why or why not people are volunteering, to see if this implicitly or explicitly states that females are more fit for volunteering. I will analyse the interviews with respect to the sex of the responder, and the connection to RKUF.



There are several theories regarding gender development; whether it is mainly nature or nurture that determines our gender and behaviour. The theoretic perspective of this paper will be the Queer Theory, which Judith Butler writes about in her book ”Gender Trouble”. One of the main claims of Butler is that gender is ‘performative’[10], and not decided by biological factors. This means that the way we act consolidates an impression of being more or less ‘manly’ or  ‘womanly’. Society is always trying to keep us in our gendered place – man if you are a male, and woman if you are a female – both by institutional powers such as psychiatric normalisation, and informal practices, for example bullying. Butler sees gender not as a fixed attribute depending on your sex and body, but as a ”fluid of variables which shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times”[11]. Thus, there is no genetic male or female behaviour.

The existence of altruism is also a controversial topic. Since it is impossible to know the ‘real’ motive of another person it will be disregarded in this paper, and altruistic behaviour will refer to all seemingly selfless behaviour in order to benefit another. However, the theoretical perspective in the paper will be the empathy-altruism hypothesis by Charles Daniel Batson, stating that empathy is the biggest reason for altruistic acts[12], as opposed to thee social exchange theory that states that ‘altruism’ only exists if the benefits outweigh the costs. Batson claims that feeling empathy for someone in need will evoke altruistic motivation – which is the foundation of all volunteer work. Experiments supporting this theory show that people can be willing to help others even without reward, and that people become more willing to help when feeling empathic concern[13].
Background research

As shown in table 1, Out of 62 trustees in RKUF 46 are females and 17 are males, and there are 16 female and 2 males employed by RKUF, which makes a total of ¼ males. During the latest XX course, 3 out of 18, that is 1/6, participants were males. In the YY school association of RKUF, there are 7 females and 1 male engaged in the newest project. In the ZZ project, there are currently 3 male and  15 female volunteers. During the AA training weekend in 2011, there were 7 males out of 33 participants, and only 1 male lecturer out of 10[14] . Out of 200 members on the online membership list, only 33 are males. This supports the observation that more females than males are active in RKUF.

Table 1: Sex distribution among 12 local association boards and employees

Association: Female Male
Eskilstuna 2 2
Kalmar 4 2
Linköping 4 2
Lund 3 3
Malmö 3 0
Mölndal 3 0
Skaraborg 3 0
Stockholm North East 7 0
Stockholm South East 6 1
Umeå 4 2
Uppsala 6 1
Örebro 4 1
Paid employees 16 2
Total 64 16

   Previous research
Since 1970, studies regarding altruism have been conducted frequently. Generally these studies have not shown any eye catching differences between males and females.[15] However, several recent studies have shown that even though females and males score the same on empathy tests[16], women have a higher tendency to work as volunteers[17]. This is controversial because according to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, empathic feelings should automatically lead to altruism, which is the foundation for a choice of volunteering. A similar empathy score should logically lead to a similar tendency to volunteer, but this is not the case, which lead to the belief that there is another factor than inner motivation of empathy affecting the choice whether to volunteer or not.

   Social acceptance

The questionnaire included a question asking the participants why they are not volunteering in a humanitarian organisation. More males than females answered that it was because they found it boring or unnecessary, while more female than males answered that they did not know (tab.2). It is hard to draw a conclusion from these answers since almost everyone has time to volunteer in some way if they would want to, thus everyone who chose not to do so believe that it is boring or unnecessary in some degree. However, if the answer they chose is what they want to show outwards, these results suggest that it is more normatively acceptable for males to simply not want to volunteer considering that more males than females chose that answer. This means that they are, as Butler states it, being kept in their gendered places by the norms. This is also true for the two non-volunteers that were interviewed – the female did not know why she is not volunteering, whilst the male securely answered that he was not interested.

Table 2: Why do you not volunteer in a humanitarian organisation?

  Males (%) Female (%) Total (%)
Lack of time 54 52 52
Boring, unnecessary 22 10 12
Don’t know 16 32 23
Other 8 6 13

   Volunteering in general
Table 3 shows that more of the males than females that were asked have worked as volunteers, in contrast to the situation in RKUF. This suggests that males are not more reluctant than females to volunteer in general – rather the opposite. However, males seem to be active mostly in sports organisations, something that lays more within the male norms than humanitarian organisations do. According to K and B, the reasons to volunteer in RKUF should be the same for both males and females, and the female non-volunteer also believed that the sex distribution is equal, probably due to the fact that there should be no difference in male and female motivation. However, this is not the case.

Table 3: Have you ever worked as a volunteer? If yes, in what areas? (multiple-choice)

  Male (%): Female (%): Total (%):
No 38 52 45
Sports 46 20 34
Religion 8 0 4
Environment 0 6 4
Politics 4 6 5
Animals 0 2 1
Plants 0 0 0
Culture 20 12 26
Other 6 12 9

   Importance of RKUF

More females than males are aware of the work of RKUF (see tab. 4), and more females also find the existence of the Red Cross in Sweden important (tab. 5). This does not mean that males find the Red Cross less important since one fifth of the males chose ”don’t know”, but males seem to be less aware of the existence of the Red Cross and the RKUF. However, the differences in table 5 are not significant, which suggests that males and females find empathy equally important. According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, they should then be equally altruistic.

Table 4: Do you know what RKUF does in Sweden?

  Males (%): Females (%): Total (%):
Yes 18 24 21
No 82 76 79

Table 5: Do you find the existence of the Red Cross in Sweden important?

  Males (%): Females (%): Total (%):
Yes 70 74 72
No 6 8 7
Don’t know 24 18 21

 Assumed sex-distribution

Despite the lack of knowledge regarding the Red Cross, a majority believed that more women than men are active in RKUF (see tab. 6). 99% of the participants made a wild guess or used deductive reasoning and 1% claimed to know the answer, which suggests that the society stereotypically expects women to be engaged in these kind of activities more than men. In the interviews, this also came up as a possible explanation. “Women help people, men fight against tigers”, as the male non-volunteer explained. Statements like this encourages the present norms, and he admitted that this is a common conception. K also states that RKUF is a too soft and nice organisation, which does not fit into the male norm. B explains that he has never received any negative feedback from the surroundings, on the contrary, but that however the situation might be worse for males who are already outside of the social norms to work as a volunteer. However, even though the feedback he receives is positive, it reinforces the difference between female and male volunteers as it focuses more on the sex than the actual work done.

Table 6: What do you think the sex distribution looks like among the volunteers in RKUF?

  Males (%): Females (%): Total (%):
More than 80% men 0 0 0
60-80% men 4 8 6
40-60% of both 22 6 14
60-80% women 66 62 64
More than 80% women 8 24 16

Since males and females answered similarly the question about the importance of RKUF (table 5), there should be no difference in their feelings of empathy – and according to the empathy-altruism hypothesis of Batson, there should be no difference in altruism. However, if volunteering it is not sex-dependent genetically, it is response to the expectations from the surroundings, as supported by the queer theory. Even though more males than females volunteer in sports, females are clearly over represented in RKUF. If the society believes that volunteering in a humanitarian organisation is a female characteristic, it will, according to the queer-theory, consciously or unconsciously encourage females and discourage males to become active in order to keep them in their gendered places, leading to more females than males in volunteering organisations. The answers from the questionnaire and the interviews support the idea that it is less accepted for males to volunteer in humanitarian organisations, whereas it is less accepted for females not to volunteer, leading to the unbalanced sex-ratio today.

Reflection on methodology

The reliability of the questionnaire can be improved in many ways. First of all, some terms were not defined, and some questions – and answers – can be interpreted ambiguously. I did not define “volunteering” or “humanitarian” and I did not specify nor explain the difference between gender and sex. One person wrote that she had volunteered at her grand mother’s place, which is not the kind of volunteering that I had in mind. There were few questions and the questions were short and simple, thus few opportunities were given to express and explain thoughts and values. Two people who have answered similarly on the questionnaire does not necessarily have the same view on volunteering. The small number of questions was intended in order to gather many answers, and the data wanted was quantitative and not qualitative. However, some of the conclusions drawn from the answers to the questionnaire might not be falsifiable since they are very hard to test experimentally. One of these conclusions is the argument that women did not choose the answer “boring/unnecessary” in table 2 because it is less normatively accepted for a woman to think that. The conclusion was drawn purely from qualified guesses and assumptions, without any empirical evidence.

The choice of test subjects was not random, and my prejudice might subconsciously have played a role in deciding who to ask. I tried to ask as ‘neutral’ people as possible, for example old school mates and people I don’t know well, but I cannot deny that many of the participants either play badminton or attend BB high school. Supposedly, the badminton players have volunteered in sports, and the people from BB high school do not have much free time. These factors might have affected the results, and the 100 people might not have been representative for the society. 52 of the asked people chose to not answer, which might be a source of error as well. It is possible that less altruistic people have a smaller tendency to answer questionnaires as they are not directly self-beneficial. I might have been able to gather more answers if I had posted the questionnaire publicly instead of asking every person individually but I suspect that the chance of people answering – truthfully – is bigger when being asked personally. Also they had the chance to ask me questions if anything was unclear. A problem is that people who do not have Facebook was excluded in this research. Even though age, ethnic, religious, socio-economic factors were disregarded in the research question more time could have been spent in finding a larger spread among participants.

The statistics are not very accurate since they are gathered only among those who are members on the RKUF web page, and sex was determined by looking at the names, which is not always accurate. The original idea was to contact the administrator of RKUF who has the member statistics in numbers, but she is currently on a parental leaf and no replacement has been found yet. Some people choose to not become a member on the web site, and some who are members on the web site are not active volunteers. This means that the statistics are misleading, but since the average difference between males and females is 400%, I believe that possible discrepancy is within the error range for my investigation.

To improve the questionnaire, the subjects should be chosen randomly. Also, more variables should be controlled. More accurate statistics is also needed to enhance the credibility of the research.

The interviews were used to enhance the validity of the questionnaire, but the reliability of these answers and the conclusions drawn cannot be guaranteed either. The questions could have been more to-the-point, and some of the information gathered is not at all relevant to this paper. I found it very interesting to interview these people and had a hard time staying to the topic.

Reflection on results
One exception to the results of the sex-distribution in the boards is in the FS with 4 female members and 5 male members, which is odd because the committee is supposed to reflect the organisation. However, this might reflect the society today, which has a majority of males in power positions[18][19]. As B said, the decision of board members is to a great extent made by the nominating committee, but that there are probably more males than females candidating. One possible explanation is, again, norms, which say that it is more right for males to run for power positions than females, which makes the females feel like they have to be ‘better’ before they can candidate.

I was surprised that neither B nor K mentioned the sex-distribution until I brought it up since both of them were aware of the, describing it as “extremely unbalanced” (B) and “catastrophic” (K). Possibly, B does not notice the difference to the same extent as he is sitting in the male dominant FS, but both he and K underlines the importance of attracting more males to RKUF. However, in one way I believe that the sex-distribution is not something they have in there minds every day when working with RKUF since male and female volunteers are supposedly similar. It might sound controversial, but in a way that can also be an argument for the norms being the main factor; male and female volunteers are not different even though they are of different sexes.

In the questionnaire, the participants who had never volunteered and knew the least about the Red Cross were generally the most reluctant to volunteer in a humanitarian organisation. The majority of the people that chose “other” as the answer for “Why are you not volunteering in a humanitarian organisation” and a majority of the people that did not find the existence of the Red Cross in Sweden important explained that they did not have enough trust that the organisations do what they should, and that they waste money on the wrong things. This is certainly a problem for the organisations to solve, but this also shows of a misconception, since volunteering does not directly involve money. Also both non-volunteers in the interviews associated volunteering in humanitarian organisation with hippies, something that neither of the volunteers mentioned. True or false, but since this is also a norm and stereotype issue, it might affect the choice to volunteer or not as well.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/humanitarian

[2] http://www.sok.se/osiskolan/osfakta/olympiskaringarna.4.5f13b5361230899f91780001454.html

[3] http://www.redcross.se/om-oss/sa-har-arbetar-vi/grundprinciper/

[4] A. Bäcklund, C. Andersson Bonnevier, M. Anlér ”15 år av kärlek och respekt med Röda Korsets Ungsdomsförbund”

[5] ”Arbets- och delegationsordning för Röda Korsets Ungdomsförbund”, adopted by FS 7-10 October 2011

[6] [http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/rs/2008/10Gender%20Altruism%20for%20publication.pdf

[7] http://www.sociologyguide.com/basic-concepts/Social-Norms.php

[8] [Sociology – themes and perspectives, p. 688].

[9] http://www.sociology.org.uk/methfi.pdf
[10] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo7o2LYATDc&feature=share

[11] http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-butl.htm

[12] http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195341065.001.0001/acprof-9780195341065-chapter-2

[13] http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/61/3/413/

[14] http://rkuf.se/blog/uncategorized/forst-till-kvarn-pa-platserna-till-move/

[15] http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/rs/2008/10Gender%20Altruism%20for%20publication.pdf

[16] http://lbms03.cityu.edu.hk/oaps/ss2007-4708-wms591.pdf

[17] http://midus.wisc.edu/findings/pdfs/369.pdf

[18] http://rod.se/sites/default/files/Grafik%20könsfördelning.pdf

[19] http://www.scb.se/Pages/ThematicAreaTableAndChart____327822.aspx





B. Personal interview. 2012-04-08 (translated from Swedish):

I am writing a research paper about volunteering in humanitarian organisations, with focus on RKUF. How come you started to volunteer with the RKUF, from the first beginning?

  • As most other people, I wanted to learn something and to broaden my perspective. And because there are so many possibilities, to help people in need.

Do you think the same argument goes for everyone who volunteers here?

  • Well no, I think there are many different reasons.

Like what?

  • For example, some people want to learn something and get experience, especially the ones who are engaged a shorter time. I think all volunteers feel passionate about something, but about different things. For example the organisation, or the work, or particular questions.

So why do you think some people chose to not volunteer with RKUF, or another humanitarian organisation?

  • Either they don’t have an interest in it, or they don’t have enough time. Many people have some kind of mental obstacle.

What do you mean by ‘mental obstacle’?

  • They believe that it takes a lot of time, and that you don’t get anything back. But I don’t think that is true.

Do you think there is any distinct characteristics for volunteers; some kind of pattern in who becomes a volunteer or not?

  • Yes, there is a distinction. RKUF is a very homogeneous group, though volunteers in general can be very different since there are so many different areas, like sports for example. We are very bad at reaching out to different target groups

How are we homogeneous, and which groups are we missing?

  • First of all, age wise. Many of the volunteers in RKUF are older than 20 years – in some local associations almost everyone is over 20. One reason can be that we are bad at adapting our language.

How is your language?

  • Very academic, and maybe a bit formal. We also have a under representation of people from socio-economically weak areas.

What about the sex-distribution?

  • We have around 1100 volunteers, and an extreme over representation of the female sex.


  • I actually don’t know. Maybe because that’s the norm. Volunteering does not fit in the male stereotype, it’s a female thing. And maybe also because the way we communicate, and our appearance.

So how is your appearance?

  • Well, that’s what we have to find out! But maybe guys feel less welcome.

Why would they?

  • Maybe not less welcome, but they might feel like their competence is not needed, or maybe no one has ever asked them to become a volunteer.

But how does this unbalance affect the work of RKUF?

  • In the projects, I don’t think it affects very much, but generally it is of course good with a balance between the sexes. Especially in projects where we meet young people, it is good that they get to meet both male and female volunteers to look up to. Most of the ‘leaders’ in RKUF are females, for example the president of FS has always been a female from what I can remember. This is not a problem though, only an establishment.

How does the sex-distribution look like in the FS then?

  • Last year there were more females than males, but this year there are five males and four females. I don’t think it has that big significance, it is always going to be more of one sex as long as we have nine board members in FS. Of course it would be a problem if the guys takes too much space since there are more girls in the organisation, but this year it hasn’t been a problem. Everyone has been taking a lot of space.

How come there are more males than females in FS when the situation is the opposite amongst the other volunteers?

  • Ask the nominating committee. But there are probably more males that candidate, I don’t know why. In the local associations, it seems to be more girls. Weird.

Okay, so as you might have figured out, I have a main focus on the sex-distribution in RKUF, and I have the same thesis as you had – that the norms of society say that females should volunteer, and males shouldn’t. And as an actively volunteering male, can you notice these prejudices?

  • You mean in a negative way? No, I have never received any negative feedback from the surroundings because of my sex – rather positive actually. Maybe it would be worse for a person who is already outside normative to work as a volunteer. However, people have asked me why I work for free. But this is my hobby, that I like to do during my free time, and besides I do get a lot back so I wouldn’t say it is for free.


K. Personal interview. 2012-05-03 (Translated from Swedish):

I am writing a research paper about volunteering in humanitarian organisations, with focus on RKUF. How come you started to volunteer with the RKUF, from the first beginning?

  • I want to make the world more equal, and we should help when we can. To be engaged in RKUF is a concrete way to help; you really see that you’re making a difference.

Do you think everyone volunteers for that reason?

  • No, I think it is different for all volunteers. Some people might feel guilty that they have a better life than some other people, and choose to volunteer in order to clean their conscience. Another reason might be to find new friends, especially in the youth association I think, because it’s fun to meed other people with the same interests.

So why do you think some people chose not to volunteer?

  • Oh gosh… Lack of time? Some people feel like they don’t have enough time. Some think that it doesn’t matter, what we’re doing, and that we are naïve doing it. But some people might have other interests and actually don’t have enough time.

Do you think the people active in RKUF is a special group of people?

  • Yes, we are all very socially aware generally. We don’t only know that some people are poor, we know WHY people are poor, and WHY injustices exist. A majority of us come from middle- or upper-class families, with a stable background, so we feel like we can help others. There are probably also people who have received help from the Red Cross earlier and want to ‘pay back’. We are engaged, optimistic people.

And what do you think of the sex-distribution?

  • Catastrophic! Catastrophic, really. Especially if you compare us to other youth associations, for example the political ones – they are much more equal in sex-distribution. Especially in organisations where there exists power positions, there are more males. We don’t decide in the same way as politicians, and it’s a pity that not more guys are interested in us.

How do you notice this maldistribution?

  • Mostly when they (males) are needed, in projects where they’re asking for male volunteers, and we have to say no and explain it. Also, we have a strong feeling of sisterhood, we’re nice to each other and take care of each other. I don’t know if it is because of the lack of males, but the atmosphere seems to be warmer.

Are there any more negative consequences of this?

  • We (RKUF) are not taken as seriously. Instead of being seen as an organisation that fights for everyone’s best, we become an exceptional group, which does not reflect society as a whole. We don’t get as much legitimacy, which might make us less influential in politics – just because we are so few. People see us as a group of naïve girls who think that we can change the world instead of a serious organisation for everyone. I notice it myself when I’m talking to people at fairs, and they tell us that we are a nice organisation. That is good, but we don’t only want to be nice – we want to be seen as an important organisation.

How then can we attract more males to the organisation?

  • Well, we have to be conscious about our way to advertise. I don’t think we should tell everyone that there is a lack of males because that might sound frightening. It is important for us to try to have a even sex-distribution at exhibitions, and where people see us, even though this is not reflecting the actual situation. And we also have to put more emphasis on what we are actually doing! Many people probably have prejudices about what we are doing, for example first aid, but we also have homework-groups, immigrant and refugee-projects, etcetera. This knowledge might attract more volunteer overall, but also males.

Is there a different sex-distribution in the association boards compared to the projects?

  • Not in the youth association… or it depends! In our board there is usually one guy and the rest are girls, which represents the organisation pretty well. But generally there are often more guys in the board if you think relatively, compared with the distribution in the organisation overall. This might be a conscious choice by the nominating committee, because when a equal board represents the local association more males might want to join. However, it is a little ironic that the last president of the Swedish Red Cross was a male – that is definitely not representative. It is fine that there are males in the board, but that was a little over the top.

Do you think there is a difference between the choices of a girl and a boy to volunteer or not?

  • No, I think the reasons for not volunteering are the same. Or to not get engaged, boys might choose other non-profit organisations, like political youth associations. But when it comes to the Red Cross, maybe we have a nice image that maybe doesn’t attract males as well as the images of political associations, which have a tougher image, power-image. We put very little emphasis on power. We have a too nice image. Politicians fit in the male norm, whilst RKUF is an too soft and naïve organisation.

Okay, as you might have understood, the main focus of this paper is on the sex-distribution. Do you have any more thoughts of this topic, that we haven’t talked about?

  • It is a pity that we have to fight to find engaged guys! Especially since our objective is to help people in need, and there is a great demand for male volunteers. So it’s not because it looks nice in the membership list, but because there is a need. Otherwise an all-girl organisation would do.


Female non-volunteer. Personal interview. 2012-05-08:

I am writing my research paper about the Red Cross, and volunteering, are you a member of or a volunteer at the Red Cross?

  • No, I’m not.

Okay, first three quick questions: Do you know what the Red Cross does?

  • Actually no, I don’t know that much about the Red Cross. It has not been one of those things… I know that it’s mostly about helping people, in different situations I guess.

Have you heard of the RKUF?

  • Yeah I think so.

And do you know what they do?

  • No, not specifically.

Now to the ‘real’ questions: why are you not a volunteer?

  • Because I haven’t been asked or felt that kind of want to do it necessarily, I haven’t though of it really. I’ve thought of volunteering but not with the Red Cross. I haven’t really felt a strong drive. It hasn’t been one if the things I’ve wanted to do. Well, once in a while I’ve been putting a coin in those things, and I have this idea that I want to, well after the gymnasium or something, I might volunteer somewhere, travel around, learn Arabic, travel around some countries, help people, countries, you know…

So why do you think other people chose not to volunteer in a humanitarian organisation?

  • I think it’s because… I think its a lot to do with culture – in some cultures its bigger to volunteer and give money away to charity, and in other it’s not as big. And I think people who don’t volunteer don’t have enough time, or don’t want to put away their money and time into something they don’t really know about, that they’re not sure that they want to do. That they’re not passionate about, I think it has something to do with that.

And on the other hand, why do you think some people do volunteer?

  • It might either be a religious thing, or a cultural thing. Some people feel like being a good person, helping other people, is what you should do. Other people feel like, kinda, what is life, if other people have it worse than you and you can help them if you want. And you can’t live with not doing it. Some people just want to do something good for the world. Some people might have experienced it themselves – experienced starvation, being really poor, not having anyone on your side really, living in a country where they don’t have rights, where they’re not given the help they need. Caught between wars, things like that.

Do you think it is a special group of people who volunteer?

  • I don’t know, I think it depends on what has happened in your life, different events can lead to that path. Like if your stuck with a boring job and you’re so sick and tired of that, and starting to volunteer might feel like it gives your life a meaning. Some people can’t live with such an unfair world and want everyone to have a nice life. I definitely think its different, it depends on what they feel.

 What about things such as social status, age, sex etc?

  • Young people I think, during this age you have a lot of opinions and you’re not tied down by work and family. This is a time when I think a lot of people want to volunteer. I think a lot of old people as well that have gotten their pension. And middle aged people as well. As for the economy, I think it depends. But a lot of, maybe, since we live in a country with a lot of middle class people, probably… Its really difficult to say. I know it is… No i don’t think it really depends on this. There are people who earn a lot and don’t give anything away, and people who earn a little and don’t give anything either. I think its quite equal. As long as you ear something you can give away some if you want.

What about sex?

  • I don’t know. Maybe I think its pretty equal too. Though… I think its got a little to do what time, like during 60’s, it was peace and hippie revolution, and a lot of people, I don’t think sex was really important.

And today?

  • I still… I don’t know… it’s a tough one. I guess… I don’t know. Probably kind of equal. Maybe it depends on the kind of charity. Different charities have different… more of one sex. I think its really mixed. About equal. I don’t think sex has a big part of it. I don’t think your sex really dictates what you’re passionate about. I think there are so many different the Red Cross does really… anybody could be interested in it. It’s not just one thing, there’s a lot of different things and different people can find something they’re passionate about.

I wish you were right, but the fact is that there is a lot more females than males volunteering. What do you think about that, why do you think that is?

  • I don’t know really, a lot of it has to do with culture, probably. Charity has been seen as something housewives in the past participated in and contributed to. That kind of mentality might have continued living. Like, working as a volunteer, with charity, is not something manly. I think if that mentality changes, if we’re brought up as equals maybe – like there’s not that big of a difference between males and females – I think it would be a lot more mixed!


Male non-volunteer. Electronic interview. 2012-05-11 (translated from Swedish):

My research paper is about volunteering in humanitarian organisation, and I have now interviewed two people who are volunteers, and one who is not. Are you, or have you ever been, active in an organisation such as the Red Cross?

  • I’m not, and I have never been.

Why are you not?

  • I haven’t seen a reason to be a part of it, and no one has ever asked me so I have never been introduced to that really.

Would you like to become a volunteer if someone asked you then?

  • No, I don’t think so, I don’t feel attracted by the idea, and I don’t think that I’d enjoy it.

But do you think it is good that organisations such as the Red Cross exist?

  • Yes, I think it’s good that they exist even though I am not very engaged or interested.

Why do you think people chose to not be engaged, apart from yourself?

  • Because it required motivation and time, and I don’t think everyone sees it as something rewarding.

And on the other hand, why do you think some people are engaged?

  • Because they feel like they can make a difference. And because they think it is fun to help people.

Do you think there is a specific group of people who become active with these sorts of things, if you understand what I mean?

  • Yes, I think it’s the aesthetic type. Not hipster, but kind of hippie, in a 21st century way, if you get that.

I think I do. So how would you describe that in terms of socio-economic class, age, sex and such?

  • Age, either young or overgrown hippie. Either lower-class or upper-class. sex mixed, but more women.

And why do you think it is like this?

  • They want to help people, and they have the energy. And they have a lot of time. And so on.

So does that make women more suitable than men?

  • Yes, they are more helpful and care for others.

Would that be nature or nurture?

  • Evolution! Women help people, men fight against tigers. Or something like that.

So my thesis is that more females than males are engaged in volunteering because the norm say that it is a female thing to be engaged in humanitarian organisations. What do you think about that?

  • I think that might be very true. I don’t really know why, but I guess it is a common conception.

So people usually believe that the woman should take care of others while the man fight against tigers?

  • Exactly!


[1]   Definition of humanitarian http://dictionary.reference.com/

[2]    The Olympic committee of Sweden

[3]    Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross

[4]    A. Bäcklund et al, ”15 år av kärlek och respekt med Röda Korsets Ungsdomsförbund”

[5]    ”Arbets- och delegationsordning för Röda Korsets Ungdomsförbund”

[6]    Lacey D. Seefeldt Gender Stereotypes Associated with Altrustic Acts

[7]    Sociology guide, ”Social norms”

[8]    [Sociology – themes and perspectives, p. 688].

[9]    Socioloy Research Skills: Research Methods

[10]  Judith  Butler (Big Think), ”Our behaviour creates our gender”

[11]  Resources: Judith Butler http://www.theory.org.uk/

[12]  C. Daniel Batson, ”Altruism in humans”

[13]  Batson et al, ”Empathic joy and the empathy-altruism hypothesis”

[14]  ”Välkommen till MOVE 2011!”

[15]  Lacey D. Seefeldt,”Gender Stereotypes Associated with Altrustic Acts”

[16]  Woo man Sze. Zisi, ” Gender and cultural differences in empathy-altruism hypothesis  among university students in Hong Kong”

[17]  “Men’s and Women’s Volunteering: Gender Differences in the Effects of Employment and Family Characteristics”

[18]  Riksdag och Departement, ”Könsfördelning bland ordförarna av statliga kommittéer år 2011”

[19]  Statistics Sweden


Night at Hara

I returned back to the warehouse around nightfall, and once again Northern Lights came just before midnight to collect blankets. Did I mention that it was raining again? I recognised one of the persons coming; their teams have been at the warehouse quite a lot. ”That’s enough, I don’t think we have more space in the car,” he said as we carried the boxes. ”Do you need more? I also have a car,” I offered. Still want to use that car as much as possible. It’s like not even altruistic reasons etc, I would just be frustrated about renting a car and not using it, haha. We loaded my car as well, and started driving towards Hara. Hara, and BP, are two other smaller (around 1000 people in total) informal camps just next to the highway on the road towards Idomeni. I had driven past it every day, but never visited it.

We arrived to the camp, and were immediately surroIMG_8773unded by people. Once again, I stood irresolute. How to do this without creating chaos? The other volunteers have done this many times, I thought, I’ll just stay in the background. It was dark, but the camp was crowded. We started walking around the camp, trying to assess peoples needs and to gather them at the hotel reception. Oh yeah, so Hara is a hotel actually, not really functioning as such I believe. And there are some troubles between the owners and the people living here, as well as the organisations. Some days ago, all water supplies here were cut.

”Come to my tent! Look, touch the floor. Touch the blankets” Everything was wet, of course. Everyone needed blankets, sleeping bags. Some of the inhabitants there helped us to translate, luckily. What would we do without them. The people were told to wait at a certain place, but it didn’t seem to work. I didn’t understand the system. Let’s just stand and look, I decided. Another person kept me company, let’s call him D. He’s from Syria, but he speaks amazing Turkish.

Eventually, we ran out of blankets. I have no idea how the distribution was actually done, who was prioritized and so on. There was apparently still a huge need, so we drove back to the warehouse to pick up more blankets. ”Har du vann?” asked one of the volunteers in Norwegian. ”What?” I didn’t quite get it. ”Vann,” he said again. ”Vagn?” (wagon) I asked back, confused, and he nodded. ”What kind of vagn; barnvagn?” (baby stroller – common request) I asked to confirm. ”VATTEN!” (water) he said, and we all started laughing. Language barriers at its best.  It doesn’t sound funny when translated though…

We decided to first park the cars further away as we arrived back to Hara, and gather the people in an attempt to not create to much fuss. I think it worked, I don’t know, but eventually all the blankets were gone. I had my sleeping bag in the back of the car as well, someone took it too. Well, they have more need of it than I do. ”Do you still have blankets?” a man approached us, and we said no. ”I’ll give him mine, I have two,” said D and walked away towards his tent. ”A true Turkish gentleman,” shouted another young man, S, after him. ”KURDISH!”, D shouted back. ”Wups,” S started laughing. ”You are crazy,” the volunteers told him. We were all laughing.

And then, everything was done. We stood around the car, just breathing and looking at the camp which was now empty, without people outside. It had been a hard night – especially for the volunteers who were actually doing things. I was just confused. Apparently, it’s not like this every night, luckily. D and S comforted us, ”you did a good job”.

”Is your car locked?” S suddenly asked me. ”I think so, why?” I went to the side and checked the door. It wasn’t locked. They looked at me. ”The other guy said that he saw two people take something from the car, check if anything is missing,” S told me. ”Jessica, you have to be more careful,” D added. How embarrassing. ”I’m not sure,” I said, ”I didn’t have anything important in the car. I cannot find my bag but maybe it’s at the warehouse. Anyways, there is nothing important there, only some biscuits (of course), and my phone charger. If I lost it, I’ll buy a new one tomorrow”. ”I’ll give you mine,” said D. ”No,” I answered, ”thank you”. He still went to grab it. ”I cannot accept it, I don’t want it!” I tried to explain, but some people are just too good. Really, I don’t know what to say.

I drove home, it was maybe 3 or 4 am. ”I should really brush my teeth,” I thought for some seconds before I fell asleep.

“Did I tell you that I drove the boat?”

Once again, Hummus Rights in the morning, and again in the female line. Not so much different from the day before; difficult and messy, but also a lot of fun and smiles and beautiful kids. Also beautiful adults. Uh. Humans.

After the distribution, I stayed and chatted with two young men from Syria, one of them spoke quite good English – let’s call him A. He invited me to their tent, where some of his friends were also sitting with two children. I offered them some biscuits, which I had bought the previous day. The parents declined, so I gave it to the kids. I’m rude, I know. The little boy was not more than 5 years old, I would guess. He took them and looked at me shyly. He grabbed a handful to give me. I shook my head, ”it’s for you!” He didn’t give up, just looking at me and holding the biscuits. I couldn’t say no to that.

“Did I tell you that I drove the boat?” A said, referring to the journey to Lesvos. Then he showed me some videos from the boat. “Look,” they pointed at a man with a scarf around his face. “He was so afraid, he didn’t want to see”. I understand him. “I was not afraid!” said A. “I was only afraid for him,” his brother commented, “He doesn’t know how to swim”. I’m happy everything went alright. They crossed midday, it was calm and sunny, the journey took around two hours. I’m always afraid when I hear of crossings. I had to get back to Polikastro, heading towards Thessaloniki, but promised to visit them again.

After visiting EuRegMe and getting lost on the way back, I arrived at the warehouse for a nightshift and some sorting. The clothes sorting soon became a fashion show with the oddest objects that we could find – not very efficient, but maybe good for our mental health? I was going to sleep next to the door to wake up in case someone would come. Couldn’t be bothered to make a new bed, so I just curled up on a pallet behind the distribution area. Northern Lights visited us some time before three, to pick up some blankets and similar, and the rest of the night was quiet.

Good morning,


Back to Greece – Polikastro!

Hello again!

So, I decided to once again go to Greece, this time the Northern part of the country. Idomeni has been a hot topic in the news lately, and I searched through the internet in an attempt to determine where I could be the most useful. I didn’t expect to work with anything health related this time, as I had been doing on Lesvos, as the situation seemed quite different. I was planning on going with Lighthouse Relief, but unfortunately plans where changed along the way. They still seem awesome though, just saying. In the end, I aimed for the Czech Team, who were (are) running a big warehouse in Polikastro. Working in a warehouse is not very popular among volunteers, I’ve heard, but still oh so necessary.

And off I went, without much more plans than that.

The border control between Turkey and Greece was the first time I’ve ever been questioned while entering a Schengen country. To exit Turkey was smooth and easy, but the Greek border control took ages. “Where are you from?” he asked me, “What are you doing here? What are you doing in Turkey?” He looked suspiciously at my passport, poking the corners, flipping the pages and examining the papers. I thought for a second that he would pick it apart.

I arrived to Thessaloniki after some 11 hours of from Istanbul, and successfully rented a car after much research and confusion (most rentals want you to be at least 23 years old and own a credit card). Seriously, why would anyone want to drive a car in a big city? It’s horrible. Anyways, after some hours of embarrassment and horror, after getting a sim-card and sleeping bag, I found started driving towards the warehouse, about an hour away.

Today is soooo windy, I was afraid the car would blow off the road. I drove past the EKO camp – an old gas station now serving as a home for about about 2000 people – where the tents were dancing in the wind.

The warehouse is big. We receive more or less sorted donations from all over Europe (mostly) – clothes, shoes, toys, sleeping bags, shampoos and what not. At the warehouse, volunteers would sort the non-sorted items (PLEASE sort your items properly if you’re donating something, makes live so much easier than having volunteers on the ground sorting tons and tons of items!) and pack them on pallets according to different categories. Individual volunteers as well as bigger organisations would come to the warehouse to pick up the things they need – may it be a pair of trousers for one person, or ten boxes of t-shirts for a bigger distribution activity.


We sorted some clothes, and then a truckload boxes of rain boots. My eyes have turned into deserts, I should have brought my sunglasses to protect against the wind and the sand – even my ears are full of sand. I cannot imagine what it’s like to live at the camp today (or any other day, for that part).

In the evening, I went to the meeting for IMG_8704new volunteers at Park Hotel – a hotel in Polikastro, which is now used kind of as central point for all volunteers. It seems like all groups need more people. Apparently, the situation in Idomeni is very bad. Not that it’s unexpected, but sad. Increased violence – between ethnic groups, domestic violence, even against volunteers*. Also, diseases are more and more prevalent. Respiratory infections, gastrointestinal problems, dermatological conditions… Furthermore, it’s a bit scary to hear how the police is seemingly rather ambiguously arresting volunteers**.

*I NEVER experienced any threats or violence while at the camp as such – I was much more worried before going there after hearing all the warnings.

**Majority of the police that I met were actually also quite friendly, and not at all rude or hostile as people.

Back to the warehouse, it was eventually time to sleep. Did I mention that I will sleep in the warehouse? It seems quite fine, only EXTREMELY dusty, hm. ”You know how to do it, right?” another volunteer asks me. ”Uhh, not really?” I reply. She explains: first you take two pallets, then some cardboard pieces on that, and then you might want a blanket before you put down sleeping mat and sleeping bag. This way, it will be less cold and less hard. We walk around the warehouse to find an appropriate place. In several corridors, these kind of pallet beds have popped up. ”Not too close to the door,” she advises me, ”it will be windy and cold”. We walk on, and she points at a pallet reminding me of the Tower of Pisa . ”I don’t trust our ability to stack properly,” she says, ”You might not want to sleep too close to the pallets”. Eventually, I find an empty corner, and I ask her if it seems like a good idea. She shrugs – ”hopefully you will not be killed by boxes during the night”. Uh, I hope so too.

Just finding my way to bed.

Goodnight, and if I survive until tomorrow I will write again!





So the other day I ended up in a heated debate with my Turkish teacher. In Turkish. Which felt quite disabling. I was reading a news article about refugees and smugglers, when she commented that she was angry with Afghans coming here and trying to reach Europe, as there is according to her no security problems in Afghanistan, and thus the people who leave the country are purely economic migrants – often already rather wealthy. She agreed that they should have the right to move, and that maybe a  small proportion of them are in need of protection, however, Afghans should respect that there are more urgent crisis going on (Syria and Iraq) and that they should therefore wait in their country, and not take the ‘spots’ and resources from people in greater need. And so on.

Even though I can kind of see where she’s coming from, I disagreed quite a lot. Frustrated with my inability to properly communicate, I went home and researched about Afghanistan for 10 hours or so (because I’m just not capable of prioritizing my time). I ended up not sending it to her, because it’s taking too much time to translate it to Turkish xD But since it’s here, I thought I’d share it with you. It’s a random mixture of facts, news, emotions and opinions, with a variety of reliable to less reliable sources and you’re reading it at your own risk 🙂

About Afghanistan

I’m actually not going to write an introduction to Afghanistan, because I’m sure that you know more than I do (this was intended for my teacher, if you don’t agree then google knows more than I do anyways). However, I wish to highlight some events and facts that makes me consider the country within a severe armed conflict, which we could denominate war. This lays the foundation for why I think that Afghans seeking refuge should not be considered economic migrants by default.


American drones dropped 251 bombs in Afghanistan in January and February 2016 (which is 3 times more than last year) – although Obama decided to end combat mission in the country a year ago. Why? Because ISIS, with their Khorasan branch, is gaining more territorial control in the country. About 340 people have been killed in these airstrikes. The ISIS branch in Afghanistan, whose link to the group in Syria and Iraq is unclear, is recruiting followers in 25 of the nation’s 34 provinces brings more horror and a new dimension to the country.

The ISIS in Afghanistan include members of foreign origin, for example Chechnya and Uzbekistan, according to the villagers, though the UN investigators have reported that ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria have also come to Afghanistan. ISIS and the Taliban have also declared war on each other, accounting for a number of casualties. After ISIS winning fierce battles with the Taliban in a southeastern village, where also a number of civilians fell victim, houses of suspected Taliban supporters were burned, men were abducted from mosques and several of them tortured and executed through painful means.

Villagers report of how ISIS is forcing families to send at least one of two sons to join their forces, and families with daughters to provide wives for the newly recruited fighters, if they don’t want to be beheaded. In most cases, both perpetrators and victims were Pashtuns, which might explain the current lack of mass-rape as we have seen committed in amongst others Iraq. Nevertheless, the treatment has not been mild. “They pulled out my brother’s teeth before they forced him to sit on the bombs”, says one of the tribal elders. Villages were forced to join the Wahhabism, whereas they had previously mainly practiced the Hanafi strain. Schools were shut down, electricity lines torn and cellphone towers destroyed.


Nevertheless, the Taliban insurgency poses a bigger threat in bigger parts of Afghanistan as they seem to be stronger than ever since 2001 – which is when the Taliban rule of the country ended. During the first month of 2016, there were at least 4 bombing attacks with more than 85 casualties by the Taliban in Kabul – a city deemed safe according to Swedish authorities (though of course not safe enough for Swedes to travel to). The victims were mainly civilians, including children, media personnel, but also police officers. During the past month, Taliban have gained increase geographic power as army forces have pulled out of several cities following months of deadly battles. Historically, the Taliban have in general been more active during the summer months, which might lead to the suspicion that the situation will worsen later this year. The combats have increased since most foreign troops left the country in 2014, and in response to this troubling trend, Obama has decided to keep about 5’500 troops in Afghanistan, as opposed to the initial decision.

Diversity of actors

The situation is also complicated as many actors are present in the area. We have the ISIS and the Taliban, as previously mentioned, but also Pakistan’s efforts to target militant extremism within their border had the consequence of pushing more militants across the border to Afghanistan. Furthermore, the diversity of ethnicities as well as branches of Islam causes tension outside of armed groups, and we have seen a history with discrimination and unorganized violence as well. Since many years back, Kuchi nomads and primarily Hazara’s have annual clashes with many casualties. Many of the refugees are of Hazara ethnicity, and they tell of violence from several actors and perpetrators.

An example

During last year, we saw a number of events where passengers were forced off busses by gunmen after being forced to show identification documents. Several of these passengers, who were mainly of Shiite minority, were then executed, amongst others through beheadings, which created countrywide – and even international – protests among the Hazara population. Also my social media feed was filled with pictures of a 9 year old girl named Shukria, I don’t know if you’ve read about her. Her family had returned from Pakistan, where they had been refugees, to Afghanistan in 2012, to work their land again. Her father, who walks on crutches, says: “She was the smartest girl in her class. When I hurt my leg, Shukria told me she was going to become a doctor and fix it”. Instead, he had to take farewell of her with her head roughly stitched to her neck. Some leaders in Afghanistan say that there were over a dozen attacks towards the Hazara minority in Afghanistan during some 10 months of time, and the perpetrators are not always identified.

Iran and Pakistan

More than 2 million Afghans are living in Iran and Pakistan, and a number of them also leave to Europe due to violence and discrimination towards these minorities in the other countries. Iran is also recruiting Afghans – especially those adhering to Shia Islam – to fight for Assad in Syria. This is done to a large part through threats and coercion. This would of course not be a problem if the people affected could consider going back to Afghanistan, but many of them do not see this as an option.

Worrying development

There were 11’002 civilian casualties in 2015, mostly due to the increased ground fighting between Taliban and security forces and complex suicide attacks, UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) explain in their 2015 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. These civilian casualties are the highest recorded since 2009, when recording started. The casualties were mainly (62%) caused by anti-government elements, especially the Taliban. During the same period, Afghan security forces suffered from more than 12’000 casualties. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in their 2015 mid-year report also reported of a 50% increase in internal displacement over 18 months as conflicts intensified. Another worrying trend is the increase in recruitment of child soldiers by armed groups. The Taliban uses madrasas to provide military training to teenage children, who are then deployed in combat.

War or not?

Uppsala Conflict Data Program is a rather renowned resource within peace and conflict studies. According to them (as of 2014), there was by 2014 an ongoing war in Afghanistan, with the highest level of violence since the invasion started in 2001 (see table 1). And as mentioned, 2015 was worse than 2014 in regards of casualties, according to UNAMA.

Table 1: Estimation of fatalities in the war against Taleban (and Hizb-I Islami-yi Afghanistan) in Afghanistan during 2001-2014

Year Intensity Low Best High
2014 War 11337 12132 15492
2013 War 7604 8044 10167
2012 War 7225 7396 8443
2011 War 7085 7228 8096
2010 War 6225 6374 7886
2009 War 4600 5276 6639
2008 War 4171 4561 5852
2007 War 5360 5828 6569
2006 War 3095 3159 4211
2005 War 1214 1268 1655
2004 Minor 597 621 1559
2003 Minor 346 353 902
2001 War 2772 2877 4703



Indeed, Afghanistan might be less unsafe than Syria and Iraq; it ranks on 160th place out of 162 on the Global Peace Index; with 3,427 points compared to 3,444 of Iraq and 3,645 of Syria (the higher points, the worse). Main factors causing these differences: Afghanistan has less security personnel and police compared to both other countries, more of UN peace keeping funding goes to Syria, where more heavy weapons – and violent demonstrations – can also be found. On the other hand, Afghanistan suffers a greater political instability, have a greater number of internal conflicts fought and spends more money on the military. Iraq suffers the most impact from terrorism, Afghanistan second. We can see that these three countries received the same score for political terror, intensity of conflict and deaths from internal conflict.

Right to Asylum

Now, moving on to asylum seekers. The right to apply for asylum and protection from persecution is described in international laws and conventions. The shape of the current system could be much more safe and efficient. Nevertheless, the asylum process exists in order to distinguish people who need protection from people who don’t need protection. In other words, if someone is granted asylum or subsidiary protection with the benefits that this entails, that person had a reason to flee according to International or domestic law.

The stance of Europe

Germany has indeed explained that asylum seekers from Afghanistan are economic migrants, and not in need of protection. They are also angry with Afghans for fleeing the country. Germany, Macedonia and several European countries have taken measures to decrease the number of asylum seeking Afghans. At the end of last year, the Macedonian border was only open for Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians. Now, Afghans are also off the list. The European Council on Foreign Relations writes that the push by Germany and EU countries to depict Afghan migration as an economic problem is a part of a “broader desire among European policy makers to put Afghanistan behind them”. Whereas the country is “far from truly secure”.

To stay undocumented

If the asylum application is rejected, the person can choose to stay in the country without permission. These living conditions are extremely harsh – they don’t take resources from someone else, as they don’t receive any support. I worked with undocumented migrants in Sweden for about 3 years; we used to hand out food to these undocumented people, and asylum seekers. We would collect left-over food from stores; expired food, old bread, sad vegetables… If they had chosen to return to their countries of origin, the Swedish migration agency would have provided them with transportation, and maybe even some financial support. Instead, they chose to stay in Sweden. Almost three years ago, we implemented a new law granting undocumented migrants subsidized ‘health care that cannot wait’, and children the right to go to school. Before that, they didn’t even have these rights. Most people still don’t know about these rights.

Of course, they do not receive any economical support, and they don’t have the right to legal work. A friend of mine was 17 years when I met him. He was offered a ‘black’ job at a pizzeria. No insurance or guarantees, and he would earn about 4% of my salary. Apart from the lack of services, and job opportunities, they live in constant fear of being discovered and sent back, as well as threats from anti-migration groups. In spite of the difficult situation in Europe and in spite of the dangerous route, they choose to come and they choose to stay. How bad was the socioeconomic situation in their country, I wonder? Or is it because of safety reasons that they came?

The unfriendly discourse

The phenomena of setting vulnerable groups against each other is quite common; for example in Sweden, there are always people arguing that we need to take care of the homeless, the old and the poor Swedish citizens before we start to help refugees and other migrants, with the main argument that we have a set budget, a set quantum of money and resources that can be spent on caring for other humans. That might be true, I have never studied economy, but from what I heard, the profits of big private companies, banks and similar greatly exceeds whatever costs migration might have. Nevertheless, they are not addressed in this zero-sum calculation. The main problem thus does not lay in a conflict of migrants against disadvantaged local population; it’s rather about the systemic level management.

Zero-sum game

In my opinion, being angry with the ones who are fleeing is misdirected. Blaming them for insufficient support for other refugees in need is to set two vulnerable groups against each other. If we say “an Afghan is living in a house where a Syrian could have lived”, why don’t we say “a Swedish person”, or “a Chinese person”, or “an American” is living in that house, where the Syrian refugee could’ve received shelter? Furthermore, is there a set limit of shelters that can be offered, and these will be distributed as a zero-sum-game? If an Afghan wins, a Syrian loses. No options. Life is dangerous when we play zero-sum games. We all become enemies when we play zero-sum games. Meanwhile, someone further up in the hierarchy, someone above the game, someone benefiting from status quo, is laughing at us and enjoying their privileges. I know that the situation in Syria is extraordinary, but for me, it would make more sense to tell the people in Sweden to buy one less bag of potato crisps per week and thus afford for one more refugee to continue their life in Sweden, than to tell people in Afghanistan to stay. On a structural level, this might be true. But I find it hard to put the blame on the individual – especially of such a country as Afghanistan. I could also scold my friend for buying a bag of crisps instead of donating for UNHCR in Lebanon to help Syrian refugees.

To judge suffering

I agree, that one should be considerate about people in worse situations. But at the same time, it’s too easy for us to judge. “I don’t think you should make such a fuss about you being sexually harassed, at least you were not killed”? People have different perceptions, tolerances and knowledge. When I was reading the articles and reports on violence in Afghanistan, I imagined that I would be the one living there. Had I not fled, if it had been me? Had I not fled, if it was my family abducted in the bus, tortured, beheaded? Had I not fled if my son would be forced to join ISIS, and my daughter would be married to one of their soldiers? Had I not fled, if the government of my country continuously lose ground to terror organizations, if I’m starting to doubt that they will remain in power for much longer? I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I would’ve thought “wait a minute, my fear and suffering is probably not as grand as of the people in Syria, if I try to find a safer life for myself, maybe one person in Syria is deprived of this opportunity”. Probably not. But what I know is, that I don’t want us to judge the ones who flee.

Now, chances are that a number of Afghans don’t flee because they face an immediate risk of death. The socioeconomic situation in the country is indeed very bad – I encountered a number of articles supporting that during my reading session as well. Even if that is the case, I do think that they have the right to leave. They have the right to apply for asylum, even if they are rejected. Of course I’m not saying that you should do something just because you can; a legal right is not always morally right, but being angry with them is like kicking someone who is already lying down, while privileged people, for example Europeans, hold the same benefits and many more, and use them without a second thought. Who are we to judge how desperate a mother should feel for not being able to feed their child, or a child for not seeing a future after decades of war?

Wealth and poverty

We should once again remember that refugee status has little to do with who is rich and who is poor – economic wealth has little to do with the need of protection, although I admittedly sympathize more with the poor than with the rich. I often think of refugees as poor people, which is definitely not true. On Lesvos, three kind young Afghan men told me: “Don’t help us, don’t pity us. We have money, we’re well educated. We might not have showered for 5 days, but we are not helpless”. And then they gave me a box of dried figs from Iran. I also met many young Moroccan boys on the island, and I would ask myself: “Why are you fleeing? There is no war in Morocco!” And that’s what the authorities also thought, henceforth, the boys were rather badly treated, often not given blankets, food and similar – also by volunteers. We all thought that they were in less need than Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. They should’ve stayed in Morocco. But at the end of the day, when they are cold and hungry, do they not deserve help and support as much as anyone else? We are not here to compare one person’s suffering to someone else’s. They don’t need our judgement and anger. We, who have money in our bank accounts, who would return to a warm bed by night, have no right to judge them, have no right to tell them to stay in poverty. In my opinion.

Safety and perceptions

Maybe you’re right – maybe, a large percentage of Afghan refugees don’t come from the circumstances that I’ve mentioned before. Some people will say that Afghanistan is safe. I haven’t heard anyone saying that Syria is safe, but as mentioned I have probably a dozen friends trying to convince me to come to Iraq. “It is safe,” one of them promises, while others are screaming that I’m out of my mind if I even considers it. And another one invites me to Libya – “Jessica, if something bad could happen, I would never ask you to come here!” he exclaims. From someone else, I hear that the only one smiling in Libya are the cookies with faces. I don’t think any of them is wrong, or lying. They just have different perceptions of reality. And that’s also human.

The power in words

So, many Afghans – as well as people of other nationalities – might come here ”unnecessarily”. Even if that would be the case, I would kindly like to ask you to be careful with generalizing terms. I understand that you would probably never say that to their face and I feel reassured that you would never treat them like any less of a human being, but I believe that words are still too powerful. As for myself, I might relate unhealthily and abnormally much to the people I meet, but when you say that you’re angry with Afghans who seek a better life in Europe, you’re angry with the child who tried to kill himself when he learned about the rejection of his asylum application. You’re angry with the pregnant women and the two other persons who drowned while trying to enter Macedonia the other day. You’re angry with my friend who would show me the scars on his body and tell me about the bombs that fell when he was a child. And it pains me too.

My fears

It pains me, because I know that they are already facing numerous challenges and a lot of hate. Although I have not yet been in Afghanistan, I have heard about difficult times there. Of course, that is a question of belief and disbelief. Sometimes, stories are contradictory. But from the dangerous road and the pain they live through here and along the way, I choose largely to believe. And they are already treated as unwanted. People are angry with them. Hateful. Violent. I don’t want this to happen to them. I’m not claiming that Afghans are in more , or less, need than anyone else, I just want them to be treated respectfully and with dignity. If people think that Afghans shouldn’t be here, that they don’t deserve protection, that they are only selfish and aiming to take advantage of systems designed to protect others, then I can imagine that the treatment of them will be worse. If someone hears “Afghans shouldn’t come here”, then it does sound like it includes everyone from Afghanistan, also the proportion that you recognized might be in need of protection. In fact, the statement is hard to interpret in any other way. And, as mentioned before, it’s already hard for us humans to not generalize, even to statements that are not generalizing.


But to sum it up, my personal believe is that the security situation in Afghanistan is bad enough to be classified as “war”. Furthermore, even if a big proportion of the people leaving the country do not flee due to war, I don’t believe that they carry the blame for difficulties that war refugees face. On top of this, I wish to call for a careful usage of language as it is a powerful tool in shaping thoughts and values. Generalization, anger and blame on a specific ethnic group – especially an already underprivileged such, often constitute the seeds of the alienation, segregation, discrimination and even violence that we see today.

Most people in the world are looking for better opportunities, and migration comes as a natural part of it. Maybe, the war in Syria should make everyone stop and wait. But that won’t happen. If we want to be angry, then maybe we should be angry with everyone. I’m not saying that it’s wrong. In fact, it might be right. Personally, European politicians and decision makers have become the target of my anger, as I believe that they hold more power and responsibility than an individual crossing through the Aegean Sea in a tiny inflatable boat.


EU-Turkey: Sorry not sorry

So, Europe. I didn’t think that I could get more disappointed. Now maybe that’s unfair; disappointment usually comes with expectations, and I shouldn’t have had any expectations in the first place. But still, Europe. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that I’ve misunderstood everything, or that this is just a bad dream (which is very much less likely than the first alternative, which is actually possible).

A deal was signed between EU and Turkey 5 days ago, on the 18th of March. What it actually means, I honestly don’t know. I don’t even know if anyone knows. I only know that it created chaos over one night. A friend called from one of the Greek islands. This is not a camp, this is a prison, they said. They are cold, they don’t have blankets. They are hungry – they’re queuing for food but the food always runs out before they reach it. There is a kiosk just a few meters away, but they are not allowed to go outside. No one is there to help them, and no one knows what is happening. Protests. Violence. I don’t know what is happening, I don’t recognise this description. I googled. Internet barely seems to know what is happening.

Idomeni, Greece

Most volunteers and NGOs left the refugee camps, as these suddenly turned into detention centers. Some of them were forced to leave, others left as a statement to show their disapproval with the development. Volunteers and NGOs, who had been providing food, clothes, healthcare and moral-mental support in these areas for months and months. I read that the military is now controlling the areas, I see pictures of misery. I hear about how refugees who have fled war and persecution, who have just crossed the Aegean Sea in a dinghy boat, are arrested after they’ve been pulled out from the water. As if they haven’t been through enough trauma.

I want to hear that these are only false rumours, exaggerations, but I’m afraid they are not. Finding verified information is extremely difficult. What I know though, is that the EU-Turkey agreement has been heavily criticised by not the least Amnesty, Medecins Sans Frontiers and the UNHCR. It has been criticised by every person and organisation I know of, who is trying to help the refugees and improve their conditions. But okay, what is this agreement actually about?

For one, the return of ”all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek Islands” back to Turkey, which will be done ”in full compliance with EU and international law, thus excluding any kind of collective expulsion”. To my ears, the ”return of all” already sounds like collective expulsion, but what do I know, I’m only a layman. Now, the deal goes on describing how the right to apply for asylum in Greece still withholds. However, if Turkey is seen as a safe third country, they will be deported back to Turkey. Whether Turkey is really a safe third country or not is debatable, but most probably it will be considered such in a majority of cases.

For the one who cares, my train of thoughts went from ”everyone will be deported” to ”wait, if everyone gets deported, who is applying for asylum?” to ”oh, so only the ones who don’t register will be deported” to ”all pretty words are empty words”. I still don’t know what is happening, but let me just expect the worst.

Moving on with that train, what does Turkey get ”in return” for watching their borders more closely, and taking back the refugees who had crossed to Greece? As you see, I’m assuming that few countries actually want to take responsibility for people who need protection, without anything in return. Turkey gets 3 billion euros, development towards visa free travel within Schengen and maybe a brighter outlook on EU membership. Also, for every Syrian sent back from Greece to Turkey, one person will be resettled from a Turkish camp to an European country.

Let me see if I got that right. The number of resettlement opportunities for Syrian refugees in Turkey will depend on the number of people risking their lives in small inflatable boats across the Aegean Sea. We are trading with people’s lives and desperation. What is the price of one resettlement spot? What do you want, Europe, what do you want? So, if Europe wants resettlement, Europe want more people to cross the sea. Which Europe actually doesn’t want, which is why there are measures taken against human smugglers, and which is why Europe is sending the people back. Uhum.

Europe, you want refugees to stay away from your borders, I understand. If this plan is successful, the number of irregular crossings will stop. Smugglers will be caught, refugees will be deterred from going. Well, I don’t think that will happen. People are desperate. People are not risking their lives for fun, not today, not ever. Maybe, it will be more dangerous. More expensive. More lives lost. Is that what you want, Europe? Also, I should mention that this trade of refugees does not seem to apply for other nationalities, such as Afghans and Iraqis, who constituted about 50% of all arrivals to Lesvos last month.

Sorry, I got carried away. Back to the resettlement spots; there will be a limit of 72’000 guaranteed spots in total, as I understood it because the EU countries did not want to enter the deal and leave this open. Fair enough. 72’000 people is a lot. In October last year, over 135’000 people arrived. To one Greek island. Just saying. And Turkey. Is Turkey, who has not even fully adopted the refugee convention, going to take care of all the refugees fleeing from the neighbouring countries? I don’t know if Europe actually thinks that Turkey can handle this better than European countries can, or if Europe is happy as long as they don’t have to think too much about it, regardless of the consequences in their backyard.

This reminds me of two things actually.
First: The Dublin Regulation. I could not understand how the Dublin regulation (refugee seekers should apply for asylum in the first EU/Schengen country that they arrive to, eg Italy) could exist. Once, we went for a study visit to the Migration Board. We spoke to the communication officer; I asked so many questions that they must’ve hated me. ”Can you please explain how the Dublin Regulation is a good idea?” I asked, and the lady could not answer. I was surprised, I had expected some kind of excuse at least. They must have been asked this question before? Anyhow, I suppose the EU-Turkey deal has a similar rationale.

Second: This reminds me of what is happening in Sweden right now. The government is proposing changes to reduce the number of asylum seekers in Sweden, for example through temporary instead of permanent residency permits, decreased possibility of family reunification and abolition of two other acceptance groups (I don’t know how I should describe it in English..). These suggestions has received heavy criticism from most experts within the area, everyone from Amnesty to the Employment Service to the Children’s Ombudsman. Will the government carry it through anyways? The one who lives will see, as we say in Swedish.

Meanwhile, innocent people continue to suffer.

Disclaimer: I like law, but I’m not sure law likes me. Feel free to prove me wrong on above mentioned points. Please do, for once I might be happy to be wrong.

Vial Detention Center, Chios, Greece


Bombs in Belgium

What’s on my mind? Bombs in Belgium, I guess few of you have missed. Condolences to the affected, to humanity.

Quite worried about the consequences, I just have to add: This kind of violence is what causes people to flee from their homes around the world. This kind of violence aims to create fear and hatred. Please don’t fall for it, don’t let it win. I know it’s hard to not be afraid. It’s natural to be afraid. It’s not wrong to be afraid. We want to build walls and close doors, because it makes us feel safer. Also in our house, we’ve mostly stayed home since last week. Don’t get me wrong – fear is crucial in self preservation. However much can we protect ourselves – against what, and at what cost?

The only thing I know, is that hatred will not build peace. If someone wants to hurt us, they will. Never before have I felt our mortality so tangible. If we want, we could live our lives in fear, and it would be justified. Sometimes, I fear mankind and I feel like hiding in a corner under a blanket (I know, blankets don’t protect much against physical violence). But let us not punish the most vulnerable people. Let us remember that the perpetrators are not religions or ethnicities. Possibly ideologies – extreme ideologies bred in inequality, ignorance and hate. Ideologies that want to create more inequality, segregation and fear. Let us not feed the fire – we will all get burnt.

On another note, I see quite some criticism of the disproportional amount of attention this gets compared to other incidents around the world. Do I agree? I think yes. As I now live in Turkey, I’m quite aware of attacks here. In the western part of the country, I should add. But how many of you have read about, heard of or grieved over the bus bomb in Peshawar (Pakistan) or the suicide attack in a mosque in Maiduguri (Nigeria), last week? I admit, I had not until today.

I don’t think it’s wrong to feel stronger about certain things than others, I don’t think that we have to speak about every problem in order to justify speaking at all. If that would be the case, we would certainly never be able to speak at all – although traditional media and politicians at least, could take a greater responsibility. Nevertheless, let this be a reminder of the injustice, and let us work against it every day. Not only days when it is extra visible in social media.

On a third note: EU-Turkey deal. Maybe related, not so related. Actually, I’ll write about that tomorrow instead.

Photo: Lighthouse camp, Lesvos, December 2015. Because we can. I’m sure we can.

Do something!

37 people dead, 125 injured, they say. The third attack in less than 6 months in Ankara. This time, the car carrying the bomb exploded in the heart of our city. In the middle of everything. At the bus stop that we used every week. At the metro station that I entered two days ago. At the park where we normally meet our friends. At a place full of people waiting for the bus, relaxing in the park and living their life.

The victims were not soldiers, not politicians, not even activists of any kind. They were just humans. Civilians. Just like anybody, just like us. Students – many students. I cannot imagine the pain of their families and their friends. And my friends. Maybe that’s why it’s too hard to hold back my tears today. It could have been me, it could’ve been any of us. We were lucky that we did not decide to go there at that time. But then again, life is already a lottery. Any safety that we have is by luck. It could always be any of us. I suppose we tend to forget about it until reality slaps us in the face.

I wonder what can make a human do such a thing to innocent people around them. I wonder, what pushed them to this point, what is their goal? This attack feels scarier in some way as it was completely indiscriminate towards the civilians, and due to its manifest location. Maybe also because it seems to suggest an unpleasant pattern and an undesirable development in the region. I can no longer say that life here looks and feels like normal, even though we still do the normal things – whatever normal means.

In spite of this, I’m not feeling afraid. I just… don’t even know what I’m feeling at the moment, or if I’m feeling anything. The darkness sometimes seems overwhelming. I see that there are acts of retaliation. More people will suffer. Reading that some 14’000 people are stuck at the Greek-Macedonian border, trying to find safety in Europe. One thousand people trekking across a river, three of them drowning. And the wars, in the countries already so much torn by war that we have almost forgotten about them. Still going on. A friend once told me to not read the news, maybe that is a good advice.

Today, my thoughts are with the victims of this attack. The injured, the deceased, their families and relatives. Please pray for them if you pray. For the whole society, for all of humanity. for the misfortunate people who see no better way than violence. And then, we have to do something. Anything. You don’t have to be Ankara, you don’t have to feel with us. But now, every action is needed. When the morning comes, I will also look ahead. We can be broken, we can be demoralised and scared. But in the end I am certain that we will stand strong – because we don’t have much choice. I do have the option of leaving the country, as opposed to most citizens. However, I would rather stand here. This is our world, and we have to stand together.

You are my hope

A family member suggested me to return to Sweden but I’m not considering going back home just yet. Nevertheless, I admit that I’m worried. When I look across the city, I wonder if the smoke from the explosions could be seen from here. I imagine how a city can be destroyed, turned into ruins, in the blink of an eye.

But what I am mostly worried about is the fear, the hate and the suspicion. I’m afraid of the accusations thrown between groups – may it be based on nationality, ethnicity religion or something else – because we simply cannot keep more than one thought in our heads. I am scared that the wrong ones will be punished – that people with foreign names will face increased discrimination where they live, that it will become even more difficult for the 60 million displaced persons to find a safe home. Please, please, people, do everything you can, to show the world that we are better than this.

As I tried to calm down unhappy relatives, I was wondering how normal this is. How often do similar things happen in other countries, without causing much of a response? How much attention did the attack in Ankara even get, outside of my circle of acquaintances and this city? Well, at least Facebook safety checked us. I wonder, how normalized can it become? Today, at least 140 people lost their lives in bomb blasts in Homs and Damascus. We still care, right?

I will not ask for you to stop the war, not today. But do something. Educate our children, teach them about humanity. Try to understand the people around you, in spite of our differences. Prove them wrong, the ones who try to divide us. Unite. Work together, help each other. Honestly, my hope lies in every one of you.