How old does a child have to be before we cease to care whether he or she lives or dies? What’s the cut-off point for our compassion? Let’s apply this question to kids fleeing civil war in Syria: who are the ones we feel comfortable helping and who are the ones we’re happy to leave to perish?
Obviously, we all care about the cute, little ones; nobody but a monster would wish any harm to come to them, with their sad eyes and their terribly appealing innocence. Caring about the wee ones is easy though, because we can be confident that they’re not out to con us. Young refugees are pure of heart; blameless victims who deserve our help.
But what about the older ones? How can we be sure they’re really in need? How can we say with certainty that they’re even real refugees? What if they’re conning us into thinking they are just so that they can come here to establish themselves as criminal kingpins? When you think about it, that’s pretty damned likely.
And even if they are real refugees, they’re probably 18 and that’s a good enough innings for a foreigner, so why should we care what happens to them?
The above, I think, summarises the past week of debate about the United Kingdom’s decision to allow a few young refugees, previously living in the notoriously dangerous “Jungle” camp in Calais, into the country.
The furiously shrill reaction to the arrival in the UK of a handful of refugees who don’t fit the preferred profile – under 10, wide-eyed and trembling – has confirmed that our society is not as enlightened as some of us had hoped.
Conservative MP David Davies seized on photos of some of those entering the country to question whether they were children, at all. Was the UK’s hospitality being abused, he wondered?
And then – and this is a good point to remind yourself that we’re living in Britain in 2016 rather than Germany in 1939 – he suggested that those entering the country should be forced to undergo dental checks to verify their ages.
The British Dental Association, to its great credit, poured scorn on this idea, describing it as “inappropriate and unethical”.
A number of daily newspapers helped whip up anger, insisting that those refugees photographed certainly didn’t look like they were children.
One publication even used a mobile phone app which guesses the age of an individual to bolster its case that these were not kids. (This app, I know from personal experience, is hardly a fail-safe. Based on a recent photo, it judged me to be 96 years old. I am 46.)
The TV presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker suggested on Twitter that the reaction to the arrival of a number of refugees, verified by the Home Office as teenagers, was “hideously racist and utterly heartless”. For this, newspapers and politicians demanded that the BBC sack him.
Lineker was right, though.
It was telling to note that among those most vocally calling for Lineker to lose his job were Ukip MEPs. Ukip has repeatedly insisted that it is not a racist party, that its motivation is the restoration of “sovereignty” to the UK. But, yet again, it was Kippers who led the charge in demonising refugees.
When the UK voted in June to leave the European Union, the suggestion was frequently made that voters had become more racist, that great work done in tackling prejudice had been undone. But one cannot help suspecting that this was not so and that, rather, racist sentiment had become a secret, suppressed by mainstream political leadership which condemned it.
Now, thanks to Ukip and the Tory right, racists are free, again, to fully express themselves; this isn’t new racism, it’s the shameful old variety, awakened from its slumbers.
We should not be surprised that unaccompanied children in the jungle at Calais are not of the cute and acceptable-to-racists variety. Young children simply could not have made the journey from Syria alone. Most under-10s in the camp arrived there with parents or aunts or uncles.
Teenagers – encouraged to flee Syria by parents who might only have had enough money to pay the passage by ramshackle boat of their sons and daughters – make up the majority of lone kids.
Are they not vulnerable? Do their experiences not demand our sympathy and our compassion simply because they’ve passed through puberty?
David Davies is the worst of politicians. The current refugee crisis demands from those elected to represent us some leadership rather than the simple pandering to the basest instincts of some.
It is easy for a politician to whip up anger and resentment against refugees. It is more difficult to make the case that the UK should help.
The Calais jungle is a hellhole and each and every one of us, finding ourselves there, would do whatever we could to get out and to make a better life for ourselves and our families.
Those young people who arrived in the UK last week have experienced horrors that don’t bear thinking about, but think about them we must.
They have fled their homes to escape bombs dropped by their own government and its Russian allies, they have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean on packed boats unfit for purpose, and they have spent months in a stinking, dangerous camp, vulnerable to the attentions of predators.
What has become of the UK? Aren’t we supposed to take pride in our leadership on the world stage when it comes to doing the right thing? Don’t we have a proud history of opening our border – and our hearts – to refugees, whether Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s, Chileans fleeing Pinochet’s regime in the 1970s, or Somalis caught up in a brutal civil war in the 1980s and 90s?
Davies and those Ukip MEPs whipping up hatred against those seeking asylum in the UK besmirch our great history of doing the right thing when the vulnerable cry for our help.