Reframing the Discussion of Child Refugees | Tiara Sahar Ataii

Image credit: Tiara Sahar Ataii

Certain values are unassailable. That children are more vulnerable than adults is one of them, transcending both politics and culture. It’s both so non-controversial and so sacrosanct that it has long been a favourite for the right-wing media when discussing the UK’s refugee policy, employed as an inviolable shield behind which xenophobia can easily hide.

For example, in the comments of David Davies’, the Tory MP for Monmouth, last October when the second wave of minors living in Calais were brought to the UK: ‘These young men don’t look like minors to me. They are hulking teenagers who look older than 18. I’m all for helping the genuine children but the well of goodwill is rapidly being exhausted here.’

A few objections spring to mind when reading such comments. Firstly, the Dubs Amendment, which promised to grant 3,000 unaccompanied minors refugee status (only to be suspended by Theresa May in February), is a surplus to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the Tory government committed to accepting before 2020. Comments such as Davies’, however, which give the impression that 25-year-old men are queue-jumping legitimate children, encourage the dehumanisation of refugees as seen in headlines such as: ‘Those man-child migrants? Some are as old as 29: Social workers discover hundreds of adult asylum seekers lied about their age in order to enter Britain “as teenagers”’. Such was the injustice of the ‘man-child migrants’ that the Daily Mail felt it necessary to resort to faux-scientific methods such as ‘facial recognition systems’, to deduce that one unaccompanied minor was in fact 39. Little fuss was made when charities pointed out that said individual was an interpreter, and not a refugee at all.

To claim that refugees are ‘queue-jumpers’ is to close one’s eyes to the hell that they live in. Being a refugee is dangerous, regardless of age.

Secondly, Davies’ comments betray an over-adherence to form over substance. By fashioning himself as a justice aficionado on behalf of the wronged British public, he seems blind to the arbitrary nature of the ‘justice’ he is preaching. No one would agree that a refugee is significantly more vulnerable the day before their eighteenth birthday than the day after it. Ultimately, to function the law has to set arbitrary lines. Justice surely lies more in the temperance of such rules as opposed to an intransigent application of them.  To insinuate that a refugee’s claim to asylum becomes null once they are past eighteen is a lazy understanding of both the definition of a refugee, as well as the purpose of the asylum system.

And if indeed these refugees had been lying (which is by no means proven), then Davies still does seem a little quick to jump to the conclusion that they have done so to ‘abuse’ British hospitality. If you’ve sold all your possessions to leave a country that is run by the Taliban, destroyed by air strikes, or torn apart by civil war, only to live in a camp in a Le Pen-voting French coastal town that has no toilets and only enough roofs for 1,000 people, with no option of going back to your homeland, nor sleeping in the mud, and your plan B (a people smuggler over the Channel) has failed due to a lack of funds, then lying about your age might not be such an unimaginable step to take. Preaching the utmost honesty in all proceedings is a luxury of those who have food and shelter.

refugee children
Headlines from tabloids fuelling anti-migrant sentiment

To claim that refugees are ‘queue-jumpers’ is to close one’s eyes to the hell that they live in. Being a refugee is dangerous, regardless of age. Being an unaccompanied minor, however, is dangerous in any circumstance – as childhood memories of being lost in a shopping centre will attest to. One of the most frequent objections to the UK’s admission of refugees is often accompanied by the comment, as Davies voices, ‘I’m all for helping the genuine children’. But this seems too convenient a guise to hide behind. To say that the refugees are only vulnerable if they are children denies the extreme misery and destruction that faces them if they are to return, and thus to deny Western involvement in these countries.

And so we see a race to find the most vulnerable. If only the most vulnerable may be admitted, then the majority itself may be rejected. As such, Davies quips: ‘I’m also curious that there are no young women – I would have thought they would be much more vulnerable.’

To make a binary division between outwardly vulnerable or, non-vulnerable and therefore a ‘queue-jumper’ amounts to nothing less than scaremongering. Vulnerability – despite what the media may claim – is not necessary visible. For refugees, typically, it may manifest itself in political involvement, religious belief, or belonging to a particular ethnic group. Though, of course, women and children tend to be most vulnerable due to rampant sexual abuse in camps, just because a refugee has the physical strength to make the journey to Europe does not mean that they would have been safe in their country of origin. Being a ‘hulking teenager’ does not save you from a shooting range when the ISIS finds out your cousin supported Assad, or from the Taliban when they find you belong to the Hazara tribe. Besides, the international definition of a refugee stresses an ‘indiscriminate threat of violence’ in one’s country of origin, which Davies seems utterly blind to.

Yet, we allow xenophobic rhetoric to hide behind a surface obsession with a supposedly fool-proof system of age recognition (conveniently, no such thing exists, which means that perhaps we should let nobody in?). In no world should the fetishization of acting the saviour allow us to exclude refugees based on the fact that they no longer have the outward vulnerability that affords us such self-satisfaction. Supporting child refugees is noble only when you also admit the adults that they will later become.

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