Asylum and Age Assessment

Time for change?
Debra Hayes
“An unaccompanied asylum seeking child is a person
under the age of 18 who is applying for asylum in
his/her own right, who is separated from both
parents and not being cared for by an adult by law.”
There are an estimated 5,500 UASC in the UK
Since the year 2000 over 15,000 UASC have entered
the UK seeking asylum. They may enter with no ID or
An increasing number are being “age disputed”, in
2009 over a 1000.
Sources – UNHCR and Refugee Council via
Separated children who claim asylum alone
(UASC) may need to be age assessed because
1. UKBA need to know if the applicant is over or
under 18 because that will determine the
support arrangements. Adults enter the asylum
system and all that goes with it (dispersal,
subsistence living, potential destitution,
possibly even detention) whilst children are the
responsibility of the Local Authority and will be
looked after under the Children Act.
2. The LA has a duty to assess children in need, to
do so age is required. Eligibility and
entitlements around 16 and 18 differ.
Chronological age is not necessarily clear in all
cultures and contexts. There may not be records
or even a shared understanding of a “birthday”.
There are different conventions and calendars.
Separated children may not have documentary
evidence like birth certificates or identity cards
A “culture of disbelief” permeates the asylum
system which extends to children. Basically
adults are said to be posing as children to
“benefit” from advantageous arrangements
Even within the same context there are many
physical and emotional differences among
We have many Eurocentric ideas about what a
child should be able to do at a particular age
Separated children come from a complex array of
circumstances where they may have had to
function independently, had significant caring
responsibilities and experienced traumatic events
There is NO reliable medical or scientific test to
establish chronological age. All methods have a
significant margin of error which is why
paediatric assessment talk in ranges eg 14-16,
rather than a fixed point.
Key research by Crawley (2007) found most disputes
arise early in the asylum process with UKBA case
owners at ports and screening units making a quick
assessment based on physical appearance and
Where the applicant’s appearance “very strongly”
suggests they are significantly over 18 they will be
age disputed and enter the adult asylum system with
all the terrible consequences (dispersal, housing with
adults, possible detention and already with credibility
compromised and having not been believed)
In other cases where the stated age is disbelieved but
they are not considered significantly over 18, the
young person becomes “age disputed” and will be
referred to the LA for formal assessment.
The LA will conduct an assessment of age to
determine eligibility for services. It may agree or
disagree with the original UKBA assessment.
Sometimes the LA will dispute even when UKBA
didn’t. It may agree the person is a child but still
dispute the actual age.
Additionally social workers at asylum screening
units may undertake age assessments, possibly
alongside other screening interviews, raising
issues about role and function.
The LA may also come into contact with age
disputed young people who have been dispersed
into their area as adults
Some age disputed young people are not
formally age assessed in the LA responsible for
Some young people are assessed many times
within and between LA’s
There is NO statutory guidance. There is a
protocol (HO/ADSS 2006)
Legal challenges mean since 2003 they should be
“Merton-compliant” ie done holistically covering
areas such as physical appearance/demeanour,
interaction during assessment, social history and
family, developmental issues, education,
independence and self care, health and medical
info and contact with other relevant sources
Continued inconsistencies in process, some LA’s have
expertise and specialists, some do not. Research
indicates considerable inconsistencies in quality.
(Crawley, 2007)
Judicial Reviews have raised issues about the weight
given to “experts”
Context of resource constraint and cuts, the LA doing
the age assessment is the funding authority
Young people may be in protracted battles to get
basic protection and services
However holistic they are, age assessments often end
up making problematic judgements and statements
about credibility which ultimately affect the asylum
In no other arena do we systematically disbelieve young
people/children. Rising numbers are being age disputed,
in 2009 3,175 UASC applied for asylum and 1,130 were
age disputed. Some years it has been almost half of all
Recent research (Kvittingen, 2010) draws attention to the
fact that the age assessment process itself prejudices
UASC’s in securing refugee status. (it is always worth
remembering that the majority of asylum claims fail,
around 70% and UASC’s fare worse than adults in asylum
Significantly Social Services, unlike in other European
countries, have become the “expert” in age assessment,
even above paediatrician’s who are technically more
neutral. Local Authorities are likely to be increasingly
subject to litigation.
This cannot be seen outside the context of a hostile
asylum system which has the stated intention of
deterring, detaining and removing those seeking
safety, constructing them as undesirable, socially
burdensome and costly, rather than as valuable
members of our communities.
The context of the cuts means we need to be careful
to avoid scapegoating this group who may be
considered expensive and less deserving than citizen
We are becoming increasingly embroiled in
immigration systems with lack of clarity about role
and function, who are we doing age assessments for?
“the cumulative effect of the age
assessment process has
unintended and unforeseen
consequences when evaluating
age-disputed UASC’s credibility.
As a result, age assessment may
ultimately negatively impact
asylum adjudication and is
therefore likely to remain
Kvittingen (2010) p.7
Improve training and support in age
Establish statutory guidance and independent
Developing regional expertise/specialism?
Separate the age assessor role from the
funding authority?
Engage in a campaign of opposition to age
assessment in the profession with a view to
building a boycott?
Crawley,H (2007) When is a child not a child?
Asylum, age disputes and the process of age
assessment, ILPA
Kvittingen,AV (2010) Negotiating childhood:
Age assessment in the UK asylum system,
Refugee Studies Centre

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