IT’S ALL over the tabloid news again, that now sadly all-too-familiar baying for the teeth and bones and blood of children from Calais.

Lily Allen sits in the same hut I’d been in at Easter with members of the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee from Scotland.

She is in tears and I remember my own steady silence as I sat next to the same boy she is apologising to, recognising the situation all too well.

For the last eight years, as a direct result of volunteering a room in my home and fostering an unaccompanied minor, my life has been immersed in what it means to try to help young people prove their age.

In order to write this piece I’ve just opened up two filing cabinet drawers full of papers relating to age-disputed children.The vivid emotions of anger and despair, of grace and gratitude which each piec” for an age-disputed minor.

A “litigation friend”: “[…] can fairly and competently conduct proceedings on behalf of the child; has no interest adverse to that of the child; and undertakes to pay any costs which the child may be prepared to pay in relation to the proceedings.”

Some £5,000 of legal fees and three years later in this particular case, and the child in question was finally granted refugee protection.

Would that it had been that simple – a mere cash transaction and the signing of a legal document of “friendship”.

I am leafing through more papers and finding my lists. The child was age-disputed with four different claims of dates given by the Home Office lawyers.

Every time a new date of birth was fabricated it had to be contested anew.

I move on through the files. Ah, yes, the first age assessment of the child, done by social workers.

Age is not an easy thing to assess. The social workers’ report relates to “physical appearance and demeanor” of a 15-year-old.

It requires the workers to “consider racial differences”, bone structures.

The child is measured (five feet four inches). The social workers believe the child is younger than the Home Office papers state. The child is undocumented.

Let’s call the child Peter. Peter is “nervous”. Peter is asked if he would like a drink and asks for milk. The age assessment documents Peter’s story of being trafficked. They give great detail about Peter’s fingers, how they fiddle with a cup.

Home Office ‘rejected help’ to assess ages of refugees

When asked about the disappearance of a parent, apparently this tension increases. Peter is asked if he has a girlfriend; if he can prepare food independently for himself; what he used to do if his mother got sick; how he got the scars on his body. Peter was in Calais for a while. Did he prepare food for himself there?

At the end of the paperwork the social workers state that they are “feel quite strongly that Peter is under 18 years of age”. The conclusion to the document, however, is written by the social workers’ manager with additional information supplied by the Home Office. It overrules the age assessment and states Peter is lying, and is in his 20s. Search engines make anything possible so I looked up the record of minutes of meetings this manager has attended. Interestingly, his views on age disputes were recorded in a regional meeting where he stated that social services did not have the resources to look after unaccompanied minors and that age disputes were a reasonable way to make savings.

A new date of birth appears on the papers. Social services refuse support to Peter and he is turned out of the young people’s hostel where he has been in care as a 15-year-old, told he is lying about his age and will be deported.

And yet, in my experience, it’s not the young people who are lying. Repeatedly it’s the migration-statistic-obsessed, random-date-of-birth-generating authorities.

I think of all the young people I know – those who have had to grow up quickly because of terrible things that have happened in their lives, regardless of whether it’s in Glasgow or Khartoum. And of my first-year undergraduates spending money on things which will make them look older than they are. I look on through the files. A second medical age assessment full of detail of the average weight and height of young boys from Peter’s country of origin, asking detailed medical questions.

The assessment by the doctor confirms the age as that given by Peter himself. In the next file, another letter where the Home Office disputes this.

A baptism certificate is supplied – no birth certificate ever existed as Peter had been born in a refugee camp in a time of war and there were no authorities registering new births in the chaos.

Another letter from the Home Office stating that it does not accept baptism certificates as proof of age; a letter from an orthodox priest stating the custom and practice of baptism within six months of birth; another letter of refusal.

Legal letters; three different lawyers from three different locations in the UK after Peter had fled in fear under threat of deportation, aged 15 (or aged 19; or in his 20s; or later in his 30s – whatever).

A further medical opinion. This time, three years later, and with a new measurement of height. Peter is now no longer five feet four inches but now five feet six. Attached to the opinion, the scientific papers proving that it is impossible without the administration of growth hormones for adults over 18 to grow two inches.

And then, and I’m smiling now, scores of letters from educators, neighbours, people who had met and come into contact with Peter who wrote letters of support for Peter stating that in their (often professional) opinion, Peter was the age he said.

Since being granted refugee status we’ve actually seen Peter reunited with his mother. We’ve seen her documents and know it would have been biologically impossible for her to have had a child of any of the spurious ages concocted by the Home Office and their assiduous servants.

This is just one account. I could give you others. Thankfully, in Scotland, and through agencies like the Guardianship Project, Scottish Refugee Council and the Red Cross, more careful determination practices and procedures have been formulated.

The messy devolution of powers of care but not of decision-making in matters of immigration mean that the legal minefield of “proving” age, with is all its cultural and aesthetic nuances, all its changes of genes and growth and diet, is still at the mercy of a rabid press, whipping up a mob to bay for blood, bones and teeth as proof of their repeated falsehood that these most vulnerable young people are lying.

In the words of singer-songwriter Karine Polwart: “I can think of better things, can’t you?”

Alison Phipps has just been appointed Unesco Professor for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow