Conscription and the media narrative on refugees

by Chris Bertram on December 13, 2016

The world is watching the denouement in Aleppo, with stories emerging of massacres, particularly of young men (and probably by young men). A [story I read from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent]( reported that such is the shortage of manpower for the Syrian army that other young men, emerging from eastern Aleppo, are being immediately conscripted into the Syrian army. A Syrian refugee I heard speaking the other day said there was no choice but to leave because you would either be killed, or you would be forcibly enlisted and forced to kill others. And many of the young Eritreans who find their way to Europe are also fleeing conscription (they face indefinite military service). This is hardly a new thing. The last major exodus of Americans fleeing the jurisdiction of their state was of young men who were evading the Vietnam draft.

James C. Scott, in his wonderful [*The Art of Not Being Governed*]( writes of state conscription as one of the main reasons why the subjects of states flee to the hills, to a zone outside of state control. There are few such zones today, and those that there are may be governed by forces even less appealing that the states that conscripts are fleeing from.

This all got me thinking about some of the media narrative on refugees over the past few years. The preponderance of young men has been treated by those who want to keep refugees out as a reason for suspicion. The “genuine” refugees for the newspaper columnists are mothers and children. It is the toddler drowned on the beach, like Aylan Kurdi, who elicits public sympathy. But young men are often the ones with most reason to flee. It is they who face the starkest choice between killing and being killed. No wonder they predominate.