Legal Update: Age assessment guidance

Kamena Dorling
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kamena Dorling, head of policy and programmes at Coram Children's Legal Centre, examines how long-awaited guidance could help social workers assess the age of children seeking asylum.

Assessing the age of asylum-seeking children can be a traumatic process for young people and costly for local authorities. Picture: Nathan Clarke
Assessing the age of asylum-seeking children can be a traumatic process for young people and costly for local authorities. Picture: Nathan Clarke

Abdul arrived in the UK aged 16, looking for safety and support after years of suffering and abuse in Afghanistan. However, without any documentation he could not prove his age, and children's services assessed him to be an adult. The basis of the conclusion was that he looked older than 16 and was "deliberately trying to make himself appear younger". He was sent to Home Office accommodation, where he was housed with adult men.

Months later, despite concerns raised by a nurse helping Abdul with his mental health problems, he was detained in an adult immigration removal centre. After a court ordered his release, he was assessed by another local authority, who found that he was the age he had always claimed to be. This whole process took a year, during which time Abdul was detained for nearly a month, and incurred large legal costs.

We are in the grips of a global refugee and migrant crisis. The number of children arriving alone in the UK is increasing rapidly, and throws into sharp relief some of the weaknesses in the system for these children. Each year, at least one quarter of all unaccompanied children claiming asylum in the UK have their ages disputed because they arrive with no documents or with false papers. These children are alone, without family, and are often dealing with bereavement, trauma, experiences of exploitation and abuse, and mental health problems. Their age is fundamental both to their accessing the right care from children's services and to the proper determination of their asylum, immigration or trafficking case. Unfortunately, many children can end up facing protracted disputes, during which they may be denied access to appropriate support, accommodation and education.

A long, costly and damaging system

Assessing age is extremely difficult. Within different ethnic and national groups there are wide variations in young people's growth rates and ages of puberty. Many children may look and act older as a result of traumatic experiences in their country of origin. Even when using medical evidence, it is impossible to identify a child's exact chronological age, and a margin of error of up to five years either side applies. The Home Office will decide whether they think a child is in fact an adult based on their appearance and demeanour, an approach that has long been shown to be flawed and inaccurate.

Local authorities must come to their own conclusions if there is a significant reason not to believe a child is the age they claim to be. They must make assessments using criteria that has developed on an ad hoc basis through case law as decisions and decision making processes have been challenged in the courts. To date, there has been no formal guidance for social workers conducting these assessments. For children, there is no appeal process; the only way a child can challenge the outcome of the assessment is by judicial review.

In 2013, a report published by Coram Children's Legal Centre (CCLC) highlighted just how long, costly and damaging to children the age assessment process can be. These cases are not only harmful for children, but are very costly for local authorities if they end up in court. The report emphasised that where an assessment is necessary, it must be conducted in a fair and lawful manner, with the views of independent professionals feeding into an holistic, multi-agency assessment process.

New guidance for social workers

This month, long-awaited best practice guidance for social workers on conducting age assessments has been published by the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS). It is hoped that this guidance, written by experienced social workers and practitioners with input from government, NGO and legal experts, will help social workers undertake this difficult task, and to conduct holistic assessments working with all relevant professionals and carers. The guidance contains practical advice on preparing for and conducting age assessments, as well as a range of useful resources covering relevant issues such as trafficking, trauma and memory, legislation and case law. It forms part of a suite of publications including the ADCS and Home Office Age Assessment Joint Working Guidance and the Information Sharing Proforma.

As we continue to shape our response to the refugee crisis, it is vital that we improve the existing system for unaccompanied children seeking asylum. No organisation working with children in the immigration system would deny that there may be occasional cases of people claiming to be younger than they are. Nor can it be ignored that some children will be briefed by smugglers who facilitate their journeys to this country. But these exceptional cases should not shape the whole system for children who do not have proof of their age, and it is vital that all practitioners work together to ensure that children seeking asylum receive the support and protection they so desperately need.

Download Legal Update: Age assesment guidance as a PDF

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