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"They told me to stop crying at night": How the UK is failing asylum seeking children

Figures suggest that many young asylum seekers arriving in the UK have their ages wrongly disputed leading to serious safeguarding problems.

Laura Gibbons
1 July 2019
Young asylum seekers who have their age disputed by local authorities are at risk of significant harm.
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The Court of Appeal recently declared that the UK Home Office's policy of determining the age of young asylum seekers is unlawful as it fails to ensure that children are not mistakenly treated as adults.

The case has left people questioning the practices of the Home Office and local authorities in the UK when young, mostly unaccompanied, children and young people seeking asylum arrive in the UK without any documentation proving their age.

Some children and young people who arrive in the UK have never had any form of ID, birth certificate or similar documents in their country of birth. While others were unable to bring such documents as a result of having to flee their home suddenly fearing for their safety. Unlike in the UK where we celebrate the birthdays of our friends and family with parties and presents this does not happen in all countries with very little significance being paid to birthdays, or sometimes even age. One young person confused by the process of having his age challenged stated “I am here fleeing for my life and they are worried about a date which meant nothing in Afghanistan.”

As a result of their age being disputed, some vulnerable young people are left in unsuitable and unsupported adult asylum accommodation with other unknown adults, sometimes for lengthy periods. They struggle to cope with independent living, often unable to cook, wash and look after themselves. They miss out on education and struggle to access health care. One young person dispersed into adult accommodation told us that the adults in the house have told him to stop crying at night because he is keeping them all awake.

Ahmed (not his real name) is supported by the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) through his legal proceedings with regards to his age. He is just 14 years old but has been assessed as 22 and is living in unsupported adult accommodation. He has been left isolated as a result of his inability to travel independently. He has required home visits for all legal appointments and help with transport to attend the monthly youth group. He is unable to cook and manage on his asylum support of just £5 per day:

“I was left to fend for myself, I struggled to cook or do anything. In Initial Accommodation in Liverpool I was bullied and my bed was slept in by adults, I was forced to sleep on the floor in the same room as the adult. I was under constant threat from this adult. He would grab me by my neck, push me around all the time. Luckily my solicitor got involved and I was moved to another room. I lived in fear as he was taking drugs and would get very angry and aggressive…As a child living with adults, I feel very scared, lonely, isolated and abandoned. I cannot cook for myself, no one mixes with me as they are all adults.”

In the last two years, GMIAU has provided one to one support to 67 young people. Of these young people, 36 have been age disputed.

Of these 36 young people four had their ages accepted following an assessment; 20 had their ages accepted following a legal challenge but without the need for litigation; three were accepted after litigation had commenced; in one case the young person went missing from their placement after being assessed as an adult; one was out of time to bring a claim for judicial review and seven are ongoing.

These figures demonstrate to us the alarming extent to which age assessments are being carried out. There is no medical test which can definitively prove how old someone is and so there is no way of confirming someone’s age. Someone’s age in the UK is rarely questioned because there is a national system of recording births and each person normally has some form of ID. In the case of those arriving without documentation, or even sometimes where there is documentation but it may not be photo ID or where there is no way of proving its validity, we are seeing young people questioned on their age with worrying frequency.

The statutory guidance in place states that age assessments should only be carried out where there is reason to doubt that the individual is the age they claim. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children

But we regularly see young people who are assessed as being over 18 only for this to later be overturned following a challenge. Sometimes this view is simply not supported by other professionals working with the young person. Sometimes the young person has been referred to another local authority because of concerns about their vulnerability in unsupported adult accommodation with the new local authority accepting them as a child. These are not middle-aged individuals posing as children to cheat their way through the asylum system as some media reports would have you believe.

Physical appearance is accepted to be a notoriously unreliable indicator of age. Think about the reasoning behind the “challenge 25” policy in the UK for selling alcohol – it is accepted for these purposes that you can’t tell someone’s age just by looking at them. Why do we therefore think it is acceptable to do the same for these particularly vulnerable young people when the stakes are so high?

One of our young people described the questioning process like this: “when I arrived two ladies came to the police station. They asked a lot of questions, I was very tired and upset, it was only two hours after arriving. I had a severe headache but they did not care and carried on with their questioning. I was kept for one day and one night, then taken to a hotel…I felt very sad and I was treated like a criminal, they did not care about what I was going through or what I was saying.”

Age assessments can be a time consuming and traumatic process for the young people involved. Usually at the same time as they are being asked lots of questions by their legal representative and the Home Office they are being asked questions about their age by social services as well. The trauma and frustration at not being believed by social services, of having to go over the same, often distressing topics about the reasons why they had to leave their home and their family, about the family they have left behind and often have no contact with and about their lengthy, arduous journeys across continents, is bound to be damaging and will often lead to a breakdown in trust with the authorities.

The implications for the young person’s future in the UK are significant and determine the level of support they receive and the manner in which their asylum claim is dealt with. There is often a delay on the asylum claim being processed whilst the issue of age is resolved – sometimes this means a young person arriving under 18 will not have their application considered whilst they are still a child. Hassan (not his real name) was a young person from Iran who was age assessed as an adult. He was taken to GMIAU’s Asylum Support Housing Advice (ASHA) project based in Moss Side and, upon disclosing his age, he was referred to GMIAU’s Young People’s Support Worker for help in December 2017. His age was accepted on 29 March 2019, six days before his 18th birthday. During this time Hassan had been detained in an immigration centre, moved in and out of adult asylum accommodation and his asylum claim has been on hold until a decision on his age. His asylum claim will now proceed to be considered as an adult.

We hope the Home Office and local authorities will use the recent Court of Appeal case as an opportunity to question the appropriateness of age assessing large numbers of children seeking asylum. There should be a systemic overhaul of the way the government approaches the issue, rather than leaving individuals at risk and forced to seek incremental improvements on a case by case basis through the courts. Without significant changes to the age assessment process, we are placing some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society at risk of significant harm.

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