Editorial: Ruling will help to safeguard asylum seekers

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Who decides the age and identity of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in circumstances where there is a dispute?

As we reveal this week (see p1), the Court of Appeal has made a landmark ruling that such a decision should rest ultimately with the court and not the local authority accommodating the young person. The London authority at the centre of the precedent-setting case determined that K, who had arrived from Uganda, was not the person claimed nor the asserted age of 14, but that she was over 18.

If an asylum-seeker is under 18, it of course imposes a heavier burden on resources for the receiving authority. The age assessment by the authority in question was based solely on conversations with the adult and the child. The case, brought by The Children's Legal Centre, has ruled that the courts should give the final say through a much more rigorous investigation of the facts.

For asylum seekers, an adjudication of their age is likely to colour their experience for the rest of their time in the country. Running at the heart of the treatment of asylum seeking children is a tension between children's policy and immigration policy.

The Home Office's Border & Immigration Agency (BIA) has issued a draft code of practice called Keeping Children Safe from Harm to bring immigration services into the Every Child Matters fold. Significantly, the BIA is also setting up a working group involving medical practitioners, children's charities and children's commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green - a paediatrician for 30 years - to review age assessment procedures.

The working group should explore the options for teams of social workers to assess all aspects of the young person's identity. The BIA should not use it to press home its case to introduce mandatory dental X-rays to determine the age of young asylum seekers. Quite apart from their unknown margin of error, X-rays would intensify the trauma and assault the dignity of the young people concerned, which is already a major problem according to the children's commissioner's report (see p9).

A staggering half of unaccompanied asylum seeking children currently have their age disputed. It is essential to their life chances that any assessment of their age is as accurate and non-intrusive as possible. While having young people face the examination of the courts is not the ideal solution, the Court of Appeal's ruling provides a hugely welcome safeguard in resolving age-disputed cases.

- Ravi Chandiramani, editor, Children & Young People Now.

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