Questions over age of refugee children show how ugly Britain has become

Arrivals in Croydon from the Calais Jungle. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

After months of delays, the first unaccompanied minors living in the Calais Jungle camp were finally allowed to enter the UK. But instead of being widely celebrated, the arrivals provoked a serious backlash – particularly over whether they were actually under the age of 18.

Headlines ranged from “Fury at ‘soft checks’ on child migrants: Adults pretending to be children say aid workers” in the Daily Express to “Tell Us The Tooth” in The Sun and a frontpage from the Daily Mail on “The ‘child refugees’ debate”.

Conservative MP David Davies also tweeted a Daily Mail article that challenged whether or not the refugees are children.

He went on to claim that the refugees’ teeth should be checked to ascertain their age – something the Home Office quickly ruled out as “inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical”.

Longstanding scepticism

Refugees’ status as genuine is commonly challenged, and suggestions that child refugees are not really children is nothing new. My colleague Heaven Crawley has shown that child asylum seekers in the UK undergo testing to clarify whether or not they are really children, possibly because child asylum seekers get more support than adults. In 2015, 789 unaccompanied asylum seeking children had their age disputed by the government – out of 3,253 applications.

Some members of the public support the idea that refugee children are really adults. Back in May, the Daily Mail claimed its own journalism had influenced government policy after the government performed a U-turn and announced it would allow some migrant and refugee children into the UK following the paper’s call for such a move. This was particularly noteworthy because the Daily Mail is among those papers normally so opposed to any kind of immigration.

When my colleague Amrita Narang and I analysed the comments underneath this news story on the Daily Mail, we found that many of the posts claimed that the children weren’t really children at all. Posts included one that pre-empted calls to have the children’s teeth checked:

Please do dental checks on them first to check their age, and confirm they actually are orphans. Looking at what is happening in other countries this will open the flood gates to relatives suddenly turning up, or these 13-year-olds actually being nearer 30.

We concluded that anti-refugee arguments, particularly those which say that refugees are never legitimate, have become common and mainstream and that humanitarian arguments in support of child refugees carry limited weight in such fora.

What we found is that such sentiments are now being repeated in media reports. For example, The Sun carried the line: “MPs demand dental tests of ‘child’ migrants as concerns grow over ages of asylum kids arriving in Britain who look closer to 40. Fourteen more ‘kids’ etched with crow’s feet arrived in Britain yesterday.” And the comments following the report largely support this approach, with one post saying: “Who is really surprised? These ‘kids’ will have a better life than me and I am British.”

Comments on the Daily Mail’s coverage also continue to assume that these children are adults, with one popular comment asking: “Do we supply them shavers for free with gel and aftershaves.”

Support for refugees challenged

There has been a humanitarian response to this challenge, including from dentists and the British Association of Social Workers, who claim that this is unethical and makes refugees’ situations worse. The former England football captain Gary Lineker also tweeted his opposition to treating child refugees badly.

While this tweet has been popular, the responses to it have mirrored those from earlier in the year. Replies included “They are not children you clown” from former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, and another commenting “They’re not children that’s why” featuring pictures taken from a Daily Mail article making that same point. The Daily Star also carried the headline: “Lineker brands Brits racist in migrant row”. This again demonstrates popular support for the idea that refugee children aren’t children.

This has shown that the plight of refugee children, and appeals to humanitarianism, are often ignored in the face of accusations that some kind of scam is going on. This helps to support those who argue that refugees should be prevented from entering the UK.

Some newspapers are strongly pushing a line that refugee children are not really children, and so are not deserving of help – wrongly assuming that older refugees are not needy, too. This line is clearly influencing the arguments of some readers and their attitudes towards refugees. It is hard to see how any argument in favour of supporting refugees, even when they are children, could gain popular support among some groups in such a hostile environment.