Complaints that teenage asylum seekers and migrants brought to Britain are not in fact under 18 years old betray some unsavoury prejudices. The mistrust of foreigners underlying these complaints is blatant. But is there something else at play as well? Maybe people feel these new arrivals don’t look young enough, but perhaps they don’t look poor enough either. British philanthropy was built on the idea that there is such a thing as a deserving poor and therefore an undeserving poor and it is stubbornly persistent. The elderly war veteran that has worked all his life and faces a freezing winter on a pitiful pension is somehow more deserving than the long term unemployed single mum raising her kids on food bank hand-outs. If these refugee children are not in fact children then perhaps they aren’t refugees either and not deserving of our help after all.
When I hear people questioning if these young men are young enough, I am reminded of a party my 16 year old daughter had once. The kitchen was full of teenagers and there was a group of around six young men – tall, muscular and brooding. I pulled my daughter to one side “Who are those men?” I demanded, “they must be 21 if they are a day!” “Mum, they’re in year 12. They are 17,” she said. “Oh!”
Teenage boys often look older than they are – British boys, and boys from the Calais Jungle. So maybe that’s what this is all about.
But perhaps there’s another reason behind the outcry. Age aside, maybe the asylum seekers just don’t look the way we expected. Because don’t we all, when asked to consider the plight of unaccompanied minors in the aptly named Calais Jungle, conjure up a certain image? A six year old orphan perhaps, innocent and wide-eyed; an open, grubby face with the trace of a tear; ideally dressed in rags with a hint at what was once a vibrant “ethnic” weave. Instead we are faced with a 15 year old boy in a hoodie strutting about and skulking on his mobile phone. The young men arriving this week don’t fit our idea of vulnerable child fleeing a war zone and so we feel cheated. We retaliate by subjecting them to trial by the press, violating their privacy with paparazzi and demanding that someone inspect their teeth.
Perhaps our most basic survival instincts require us to tell ourselves that these children are not like our children and that becomes difficult when we are confronted with children we assume will look different to ours, but then defy expectation. Our children are well fed and cared for. Our children would not be forced to journey alone across perilous seas in makeshifts rafts. Our children would not be forced to live in tents with adult strangers. Our children would not need to risk their lives to reach a foreign land and a long-lost relative that they have probably never met. These refugee children ought to be dishevelled and emaciated. But they are not. They look like our children.
When you can’t tell the difference between a 17 year old lad that has just crossed continents and lived in a makeshift camp for months on end, and your 17 year old that gets a lift to school when it rains and has his own bedroom fridge, then how on Earth are we to know the difference between them and us? Perhaps that’s what alarms us the most – that we can’t tell the difference between them and us; that perhaps there is no them and us. That there is just all of us and a teenage boy that needs a safe place to call home.