Asylum, age disputes and the process of age assessment

Policymakers and those working in children’s services have been increasingly concerned about the growing number of children and young people who are seeking asylum or are subject to immigration control, but have no documents to verify their age. This can mean that they are unable to access the appropriate support and protection. 

Research, led by Professor Heaven Crawley in the Department of Geography’s Centre for Migration Policy Research (CMPR), has examined why age is disputed, concentrating on the process by which age is assessed and questioning dominant concepts of ‘childhood’, as well as the potentially damaging impact of actual and proposed methods for assessing age.

Hand X RayThe underpinning research, entitled When is a Child Not a Child? Asylum, Age Disputes and the Process of Age Assessment, was undertaken in collaboration with the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) and funded through a £52,000 grant from the Nuffield Foundation and was published in May 2007 by Professor Crawley. 

The research identified an over-reliance on physical appearance and medical techniques with a wide margin of error, and considerable variation in procedures for age assessment. These problems were linked to prevailing cultures of cynicism and disbelief among immigration officers and social workers, associated in particular with an over-reliance on physical appearance and credibility as indicators of age even though children and young people come from countries and cultures in which childhood is understood and experienced very differently. The use of x-rays to assess age compounds this problem further because of the lack of comparative baseline data on the physical development of children from different ethnic backgrounds.

Significant failings were also found in Home Office procedures for ensuring that appropriate referrals are made and that children are able to access a formal age assessment. There was considerable variation in the quality of the age assessment processes undertaken by local authorities, with a lack of statutory guidance and inadequate support for social workers found to be largely responsible.
The research also identified a potential conflict of interest between the requirement of social service departments to undertake age assessments and the obligation to provide services to children in need. It was concluded that it is impossible for a genuinely holistic and multi-agency approach to age assessment at ports and screening units.
User interaction before and during the research process led to a series of interim impacts including: (1) improved awareness in the UK, Europe and Australia of the reasons why age is difficult to assess for children from different social and cultural backgrounds; (2) improved guidance and training for lawyers, social workers, paediatricians and other practitioners; and (3) changes to policy and improved procedures for the assessment of age. These, in turn, led to improved protection and welfare outcomes for asylum-seeking children including a significant reduction in the number of children whose age is disputed. In 2006 when the research began around half (2,279) of those claiming to be children were age disputed and treated as adults. Since publication there have been steep drops in the percentages recorded as age disputed, beginning in 2009 with a fall of 57%. In 2012, just 328 individuals had their age disputed, a decrease of 12% compared with 2011 (374) and continuing recent year-on-year decreases.

The process for securing impact was greatly facilitated by close collaboration with many of the end-users. The research was conducted in collaboration with ILPA and a Project Advisory Group of 18 individuals representing UKBA, voluntary sector organisations, lawyers, social workers and immigration judges. The findings were shared with end-users prior to publication at a roundtable chaired by the Children’s Commissioner for England who wrote the foreword to the report in which he stated: “[W]e often hear the term ‘evidence based policy making’. The quality of the research that has gone into the production of this report really does provide a sound basis for moving forward…and an excellent starting point for a properly informed discussion”.

The research has had considerable reach and is viewed “as a benchmark of excellence not only for the rigour of [its] academic approach, but also for the practical impact it has had in challenging government policies and practices at the front line”. These challenges have been secured via lawyers, social workers and other practitioners. ILPA and other professional bodies have used the research to define best practice and have informed lawyers of the findings through briefings, training to more than 100 solicitors and barristers and an annual conference at which Professor Crawley was the keynote speaker.

Voluntary sector organisations have used the research to raise awareness of age disputes and develop practice guidelines. According to one user, the research “was pivotal in the development of the Age Assessment Best Practice Guidance that we created in 2012 and which was endorsed by the Scottish Government, UKBA and COSLA”. The All Wales Protection Procedures Review Group has also issued guidance drawing on the research, and age assessment training for social workers has been provided by Professor Crawley through the Wales Migration Partnership. Research by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2012) found that many social workers rely on the research findings to inform their practice. More generally there has been an increase in awareness and understanding of the issues associated with age assessment as a result of media coverage on the BBC website and in the Guardian, Daily Mail, New Scientist, Community Care and Young People Now, much of which refers explicitly to the research findings.

In March 2013, Professor Crawley convened an expert roundtable hosted by The Honourable Justice Blake, President of the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) and chaired by the former Children’s Commissioner for England, also a leading paediatrician. The roundtable brought together senior policy makers from the Home Office and Departments of Education and Health with lawyers, children’s organisations and social work managers to discuss developments and secure consensus for an improved process. According to the former Children’s Commissioner, Professor Crawley has “facilitated for the first time some important dialogue between government departments of state, the judiciary, the legal profession including lawyers, and medical and social care practitioners. She has the authority and competence from her stature and knowledge to lead such disparate groups to find common ground to improve the outcomes of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society today”. As a result of the roundtable the Home Office established an Age Assessment Strategic Oversight Group in June 2013 composed of representatives from Local Authority Children Services, the Association of Directors of Children Services, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), Departments of Health and Education, Children’s Commissioner for England and Home Office. The group’s remit is to oversee improvements to existing age assessment procedures whilst a new model is developed.