The first child refugees entering the UK experienced a mixed welcome last week. Around 70 children, 54 of them girls mostly from Eritrea travelled to Croydon, but not everyone was pleased to see them.
A raging debate over whether refugees have been lying about their age in order to enter the UK has prompted right wing parties and the media to speculate about refugees' intentions when they land on our shores. As our government is taking children in first, age has become an awkward symbol of a measured immigration policy, polarising politicians and the public.
One particular statistic is causing a lot of trouble. It suggests 65% of refugees who had their age checked were found to be over 18. But the figure doesn't relate to the entire refugee population, just a selection of individuals pulled aside who may have looked like adults. We also don't know how old those verified to be adults actually were, but we do know that some were only a few months over the age of eighteen. Turn the statistic on its head, and you get a much more interesting picture. It tells us that authorities carrying out age checks are wrong 35% of the time - a huge margin of error, which could be symptomatic of a subconscious bias in those monitoring our borders. It's a bias we can't seem to shake.
Conservative politicians recently voiced concerns about age checks for refugees applying for asylum in the UK. The call for dental checks of refugees claiming to be children was set aside by Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill. Dental checks are known to be unreliable, often inaccurate by up to five years. It is also illegal to force people to have a dental check to verify their age. It wasn't just the Immigration Minister who was less than impressed with the proposal - howls of disagreement could be heard in the House of Commons Chamber as the request was made.
Whilst the UK gets ready to take in 20,000 refugees from Syria over the next five years, the dismantling of the refugee camp in Calais has prompted the UK to start processing children's applications for asylum. Over 80% of children in the camp are not accompanied by an adult. The youngest of these is just eight years old. It's also estimated that around 90% of the children in the camp are young men, a figure which has caused alarm and one which politicians have latched on to in order to spread more fear and prejudice amongst the British public. It's only logical that a significant proportion of children escaping from war and travelling thousands of miles would be teenage men - the sheer distance, and journey conditions alone would make the route impossible for younger children without families willing or able to take them.
The government has confirmed that it will be looking to offer refuge to the most vulnerable children in the first phase of asylum applications. According to Citizens UK, there are just under 1,300 unaccompanied children in Calais. Of those, only around 387 child refugees may have a legal right to come to the UK.
Initially, the government will prioritise asylum for children with existing family connections in the UK. Under the Dublin Regulation a child is considered to be someone under the age of 18. EU Member States also have a responsibility to process applications through the Regulation's hierarchy which places family considerations at the top of the list. Section 67 of the Immigration Act, often referred to as The Dubs Amendment, will allow children without family connections to enter the UK.
Once here, these children will either be placed in the care of their families or the Local Authority, who will then be responsible for their welfare. Many of these children will be suffering with war-related mental health difficulties, like PTSD and may be unable to form relationships easily. Some may seek comfort in drugs or alcohol. Whilst social services have been tasked with assessing things like age and wellbeing, it's not clear just how informed social work teams are about war related trauma, or how to spot it. This knowledge is vital to ensure that these children are given the support they need.
A record number of refugees applied for asylum in 2015 - 1.3 million people, all displaced, many of them children, have had to leave their countries in order to escape some of the most terrible conflicts imaginable. Conflicts which have exposed children to the horror of watching their parents die, and seeing their homes destroyed. Conflicts which our government has created through failed foreign policy, greed and an insatiable desire for power.
We have a duty to give these children a place to live.