‘Testing’ if refugees are children is about racism and ideology, not welfare

Yesterday morning I flicked through twitter as I usually do whilst eating my porridge and listening to the drone of the BBC news. As I flicked though, a line from the news tab caught my attention: ‘Some of the child refugees coming here are actually adults’ the voice declared, scandalised… I frowned and thought there must be some sort of punch-line, but this wasn’t farce. It was a genuine concern. A genuine concern that of the (relatively very few) refugees Britain is willing to give asylum to, some may ‘look’ to be over 18 (I won’t get into numbers but if you want a fact sheet, check it out).

With the Calais ‘Jungle’ being cleared out and prepared to be ‘closed down’, there’s been a push to get children – especially those unaccompanied – out and to safety as soon as possible. But the media, along with MP David Davies have caused a nice amount of hysteria around the issue by claiming that some of the children are actually adults. This claim led to the disgraceful suggestion from Davies that refugees be made to undergo dental checks or hand x-rays to determine their age via bone density.

Now, aside from the fact that such x-rays are disgustingly dehumanising and regard refugees as primarily ‘alien’ bodies; and aside from the fact the British Dental Association deemed them ‘inappropriate and unethical’; and aside from the fact that this ‘solution’ ignores the realities of being a refugee – such as lacking documentation, the trauma of trying to survive and the fact you have no home or place of safety – the whole idea around refugees as deceptive and suspect is rooted firmly in racism and xenophobia.

Ultimately, the age of the refugees doesn’t really matter for this debate because what David Davies and his ilk are really concerned with is not the welfare of refugee children, but scare-mongering.

If we look at the rhetoric alone for a second it’s clear that the suggestion that refugees would ‘pretend’ to be children is an implication about how ‘deceptive’ they are. These non-European and non-white people are painted as ultimately tricksters and frauds who we cannot ‘truly’ know. It is this depiction of them as ultimately unknowable which pulls on colonial tropes to suggest they are therefore hidden threats, dangerous. With all the media frenzy around refugees and asylum seekers in Europe in the past months it is clear that these dangers are deeply gendered. What we are being told to fear is adult, non-white, non-European men who ‘disguise’ as children but could easily and readily be rapists and terrorists – the two most widely figured stereotypes that have been applied in attempts to dehumanise refugees and justify lack of help. In fact, the stereotype of the sexually aggressive non-white man has a long history in Britain. It represents a wider fear about the ‘nation’ being ‘penetrated’ by non-whiteness – confusing for a Britain which is increasingly struggling with how to define itself beyond ‘whiteness’.

Moreover, to suggest refugees are pretending to be children is to suggest they are pretending ‘innocence’ too. It has been well recorded and documented that the ‘innocence’ accorded to the category ‘child’ is systematically denied to non-white children. Indeed, non-white, and particularly black, children are often deemed ‘adults’ long before they are, because their race makes them a ‘threat’ and thus puts them outside the category of ‘child’ (RIP 12 year-old Tamir Rice who was murdered by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, 2014 – officers thought he was 19 or 20). This demonstrates how the claim that ‘some child refugees coming here are actually adults’ perpetuates a long-standing denial of ‘childhood’ to non-white children.

This isn’t just an ‘unfair stereotype’ but a racist idea that gets incorporated into practice to mean that many refugee and migrant children are held in detention centres or even deported because they are ‘misdiagnosed’ as adults. The UNHCR specifically states that “[c]hildren seeking asylum should not be kept in detention and that this is particularly important in the case of unaccompanied children.” And yet this idea that non-white, non-European children are ‘not-really-children’ means they are disproportionately detained. It’s also worth noting that children can age prematurely when they have undergone such stresses and traumas as those fleeing their homes have…

David Davies’ case and the wider claims and implications that dangerous and potential-terrorist refugees are ‘disguising’ themselves as children are purely ideological. Even if there are or have been refugees over 18 entering the country the suggestion that human beings should be x-rayed to test if they are deserving of asylum has no basis in humanitarian concerns. It is instead the criminalisation of the very bodies of non-European peoples which suggests their existence is transgression and a threat. Davies’ ‘hospitality’ rhetoric makes this clear. He said his issue was that refugees may abuse Britain’s ‘hospitality’, as if this global crisis was a cosy invitation to a dinner party. The whole language of hospitality also reeks of ‘civility’ and the idea that refugees must meet certain requirements to deserve safety being extended to them. Maybe it’s just me but the very root of that idea is inhumane. Is it not time to stop the political posturing and xenophobia? Is our national identity so fragile that we won’t humanise and empathise with those suffering traumas we cannot even imagine?

There’s an unsettling and straightforwardly racist intention to the scare-mongering behind the ‘adults disguised as children’ rhetoric and it is this which ultimately needs tackling.

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