Would you lie about your age if it opened the door to a better life? I know I would. I have known many men and women who have lied about their age for far less than a roof over their head, a hot meal and dry clothes. We honour teenagers who lied about their age to fight for their country in two World Wars and we admire the brave young people who lied about their age to hide among children as they fled Hitler's Nazis and sought refuge in Britain.
Last week much of the nation was outraged that a small number of young people may have lied about their age to escape the refugee camp in Calais. They have fled the wars of Syria and Afghanistan and lived by their wits as they dragged themselves across a continent, hoping to be reunited with relatives in countries like Britain and France. And as they smiled at the cameras for the journalists waiting outside the immigration office in Croydon, they would have little sense of the anger and hatred that would be directed at them here in the fifth richest country on Earth.
Lurid front pages depicted them as monsters, as if their very presence challenged the existence of our nation. How dare they abuse our hospitality, demanded one MP. Small wonder that the next group of refugees covered their heads with blankets, akin to common criminals being ushered into court.
Whether they have indeed lied about their age will be determined by Border Force officials and social workers in coming weeks. What newspapers did not take the trouble to explain is that the youngest children from Calais, who make up most of the contingent and whose age is not in doubt, were already placed with foster carers. There they will remain until their futures in Britain are resolved.
Some will say this public condemnation is justified, in the face of evidence that the system is being abused. Others will say it is racism and xenophobia, pure and simple. I think it betrays another, equally corrosive, aspect of our society, which is a lack of empathy with and compassion for vulnerable teens and young men.
"Where are the toddlers?" snarled a Mail Online reader, one of more than 2,000 who posted overwhelmingly hostile comments across more than 20 pages at the end of one particularly vicious article. For the unpalatable truth is that we prefer our looked-afters to be tiny and cuddly, and white.
There is a desperate shortage of foster homes for teenagers, and securing an adoption for a teen is nigh on impossible. And as a consequence of their race and faith thousands of vulnerable young people have little chance of finding a forever family.
It is absurd to have to spell it out, but those tiny, cuddly, fragile babies and toddlers who make you coo grow up to become teenagers and young adults. They are one and the same person. Those cheeky little boys become brooding young men. But just because a 15-year-old has broad shoulders and a bit of stubble on his chin does not mean he cannot be a vulnerable person in need of compassionate care. And the day he comes of age he becomes a care leaver, thrown into a grown-up world with negligible support and expected to get on with his life. The once tiny, cuddly toddler, now fully grown, yet often still a child in so many ways, suddenly finds that doors remain closed. If only he could lie about his age...
A dog is for life, not just for Christmas, as that memorable animal welfare slogan used to go. So are boys and girls. Yet our compassion melts away at the first sight of adulthood, for we care not about the hardship a young person has endured on the way to becoming a grown-up. Take time to ask a young homeless person how he came to be living in a park and you will hear the story of a toddler who once cuddled up to a caring person for a story or a bottle of milk.
Whether you have fled falling bombs and gunfire, or a drunken and abusive father, once your voice breaks you are on your own.Suggest a correction