There's a reason the teenage boys I work with from the Calais Jungle look so old

They’ve been travelling for months (years, in some cases), sleeping rough, starving and dehydrated. They’re not going to bounce off the bus like Harry Potter on his first day at Hogwarts. What did you expect?

Kate Scarlett Duffy
Sunday 19 March 2017 20:56 GMT
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I'm fed up of justifying my job to people's dads, to taxi drivers, to Tinder dates. I was momentarily relieved to hear the UK was finally mobilising to take some of the lone child refugees from Calais so I could finally stop banging on about the need for us to address our response to unaccompanied minors. My jubilation turned to dismay when the lads I was working with descended from the coach in Croydon to the horror of the Daily Mail-reading British public, who decided they weren't young enough to justify a proper humanitarian response.

Their faces were blasted all over the tabloids, in a breach of these children’s privacy that wouldn’t be allowed in any other context I know. The main complaint seemed to be that they “needed a shave”. Well, yeah. Plenty of Afghans have full beards at 12. That’s biology. Next.

What are these teens supposed to look like? They’ve been travelling for months (years, in some cases), sleeping rough, starving and dehydrated, with little treatment for injuries, and then they ended up living in the – let’s pause on this word for a second – Jungle. They've had to act like men to survive. They’re not going to bounce off the bus like Harry Potter on his first day at Hogwarts.

For these boys to make it through the sorting hat of the stringent Home Office selection procedure, you can bet they’ll have pretty rock solid documentation that proves their age. But many others don’t. Birth certificates don’t come as standard in many countries. Or they get lost, or misinterpreted. I run a housing project for unaccompanied asylum-seeking young men in Harrow, and one of our residents gave his birth date the American way – 12/1 – when he was actually born on the 1 December: a whole year’s difference. He couldn’t understand why everyone said he was 17 when he wasn’t.

He was age-assessed on arrival, as are a lot of the young men I work with. It’s an inexact science, interpreting physical appearance, demeanour, educational records to see if they’re consistent with the age the person is claiming to be. To decide whether they're children, or “children” as the tabloids would have it.

I'm not really sure who Britain expected to step off that coach in Croydon. Angelic 12-year-olds with soft prepubescent chubby faces and a bag full of crayons and football stickers? The guys I work with are definitely not cute little 12-year-olds, but when I see them covered in tiger face paint, hunting for Easter eggs, pulling their first Christmas cracker, or sulking about tidying their bedroom, their playfulness, innocence and above all their childishness shines through.

MP calls for child refugees from Calais to have teeth checked to verify age

To distract myself from the anger I felt reading the tabloid coverage this week, I decided to put my selfie addiction to good use and test out the “facial recognition software“ that the Daily Mail has been using to suggest our Croydon lads are in their twenties or thirties. It’s called How-old.net and was developed by Microsoft as a bit of fun. I tested it on some of my old pictures, gratified to see 15-year-old me ready for a night out with fake ID came out as 25. Result.

Then I created the photo montage which appears at the top of this article. So what does it tell you? The sadder you look, the older you are? In my show, Dear Home Office, performed by eight unaccompanied-minor refugee young men, one scene is about being illegally detained in Greece as a child among men. Our actor addresses the decision makers when he says, “So you think I look old, Mrs Home Office lady. Do you ask yourself why?”

It's not that I'm a “bleeding-heart liberal”, as Nick Ferrari would say; I just don't believe in the criminalisation and demonising of young men seeking safety. David Davies MP says he hopes “British hospitality isn't being abused” by migrant “children”. I'm going to jump on the air quote bandwagon here and suggest we need to redefine what “British hospitality” is – but this week’s coverage is certainly not it.

‘Dear Home Office’ by Phosphoros Theatre is at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington on the 27 and 28 October at 7.30pm. To reserve tickets, call the box office on 020 7609 1800

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