The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health stated in 1999 that:
“In practice, age determination is extremely difficult to do with certainty and no single approach to this can be relied upon. Moreover for young people aged 15-18, it is even less possible to be certain about age. There may also be difficulties in determining whether a young person who might be as old as 23 could, in fact, be under the age of 18. Age determination is an inexact science and the margin of error can sometimes be as much as five years either side. Assessments of age measure maturity, not chronological age.”
Understanding the reasons why age is disputed is a complex task. There are a wide range of circumstances in which age may be disputed. Each year, around half of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the UK are treated as age disputed cases by the UK Border Agency.
According to UKBA “In the year ending June 2016, 1,060 asylum applicants had their age disputed and 933 were recorded as having an age assessment. Of those who completed age assessments in the year ending June 2016, 68% were assessed to be over 18, despite claiming to be a child when the age dispute was raised“.
Age disputes can arise at any stage of a young person’s journey through the immigration and asylum system. Most commonly age is disputed at the initial application stage, usually at port of entry or screening unit. A judgment will often be made by the border official based on physical appearance, demeanour and documentation (if any).
Some children may be referred to the UK Border Agency as an adult by others – for example, the police – who have no obligation to give the benefit of the doubt and will have received no training in age assessment. Other people may be age disputed by Social Services as a result of a formal or informal age assessment process. In some cases, social services may dispute a young person’s age even though the applicant has not been age-disputed by the UK Border Agency.
The need for age assessment
- Almost half (45%) of those who claim asylum as separated children are age disputed by the Home Office and treated as adults. A significant proportion are subsequently assessed as being under 18 years of age.
- In many countries birthdays are not celebrated; chronological age is of far less importance and birth certificates difficult to obtain. This may be particularly the case in countries with high levels of infant mortality and low levels of literacy. Young people may have grown up in parts of the world affected by conflict and upheaval where access to appropriate healthcare provision is sparse.
- Disputes can also occur because of the alternative calendars used in different countries around the world, or ways in which age is calculated.
The culture of disbelief
- The problem of age disputes is linked to prevailing cultures of cynicism and disbelief among immigration officers, social workers and other professionals mostly based on physical appearances. There is an over-reliance on physical appearance and credibility as indicators of age.
- There are significant failings in Home Office procedures for ensuring that appropriate referrals are made and that children are able to access a formal age assessment. There is evidence in research to support the suggestions a culture of disbelief has evolved towards asylum seekers in the UK. This culture starts with the UK Border Agency and the Police, and unfortunately this appears to have crept in to some social services departments which has led to a number of challenges through the court system.
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