How do you assess the age of someone with no passport, no birth certificate, and no identity papers of any kind?
How can you know if someone who claims to be a child, but looks much older than 18, is lying when they may have been prematurely aged by having spent the best part of five years living rough, sleeping in camps, fleeing warzones, or walking across the Sahara?
These are problems that the British government is grappling with in the wake of the controversial clearing of a vast, illegal, makeshift refugee camp of unimaginable squalor and deprivation in Calais, France, nicknamed the Jungle.
The Jungle was estimated to be home to up to 7,000 refugees, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. They were in Calais because they were trying to get to the U.K., just 20 miles away across the English Channel.
This week, the camp was emptied and razed to the ground by the French authorities. Thousands of refugees have been bussed to dozens of official holding centers around France.
As part of the political settlement around the closure of the camp, the U.K. agreed to welcome over 200 hundred unaccompanied children—meaning under-18s—into Britain.
While humanitarians focused on the appalling violations of basic human rights and societal norms at Calais, several British newspapers found a different angle when it came to covering the levelling of the Jungle. They published photographs of several migrants among the 224 children who appeared to be well above the age of 18.
The toxic tone of the debate—right-wingers have called for immigrants to have their teeth examined prior to being granted asylum to establish their age—was amped up when a charity accused The Sun of manufacturing the crisis.
The U.K.’s largest fostering charity, TACT, tweeted a Sun snap of a “child” migrant whom the paper estimated to be 38, and claimed The Sun had gotten its facts wrong, and that he was an adult interpreter working for the Home Office.
Thousands—including BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker—retweeted the message on social media, calling those who questioned the ages of refugees “hideously racist and utterly heartless.”
Then the Home Office stepped in and declared The Sun was right; the individual in question was an asylum seeker claiming to be a child.
The Sun ran a self-righteous editorial the next day which took to task, “celebrity imbeciles” who, “took joy spreading their leftie lies on Twitter,” adding, for good measure, that the celebs who had retweeted the TACT claim were “too dim to see the irony of slating the accuracy of papers like The Sun, then tweeting unsourced and un-checked fiction to millions of followers because it suits their political prejudices.”
(On the subject of unobserved ironies, it should be noted that The Sun carried but slender coverage that day of the news that their once-star undercover journalist Mazher Mahmood, also known as the “Fake Sheikh,” had been jailed for 15 months for tampering with evidence in the collapsed drugs trial of a pop star he had tried to frame for the Sun on Sunday newspaper.)
British officials insisted that the migrants had undergone rigorous screening, which included psychological tests, to establish they were aged under 18, but that argument was undermined when The Telegraph revealed that as of the year ending in June, of 933 asylum applicants recorded as having had an age assessment, fully 636 (68 percent) were deemed to be over 18.
One of the few points in this story on which both sides agree is that those who made it to the U.K., whatever their ages, are the lucky ones.
It is estimated that up to 1,000 migrants, including many minors, remain in and around the wreckage of the “Jungle” camp.