Negotiating Childhood: Age Assessment in the Asylum System

JCWI, Anna Verley Kvittingen, 14 January 2011

The Committee recommends that the State party […] Give[s] the benefit of the doubt in agedisputed cases of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCmRC) 2008: para. 71(e)).
In November 2009, the UK Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeals of two agedisputed unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs). Although the case, A&M, concerned the independence and competence of social workers to assess the age of UASCs under the Children Act 1989 (CA89), its importance lies with age assessment’s intrinsic link to asylum policy and the operation of the asylum system. A&M represents the culmination of a political controversy in which age assessment has been used to entrench, question and contest government asylum and child policy.

Faced with rising numbers of undocumented asylum seekers claiming to be minors, age assessment is increasingly conceived as an integral part of asylum determination in Europe (ECRE 1996; EU 1997, 2005; EUAFR 2010). Portrayed as a viable way to safeguard domestic asylum and welfare systems from adults posing as minors whilst concurrently ensuring that children are protected (Council of Europe 2005), age assessment has nonetheless been notoriously controversial in the UK. The appearance of ‘age-disputed persons’ as a discrete administrative category (Home Office 2005: 12) has fuelled existing debates around asylum-seeking children and triggered a highly politicised and progressively legalised process for assessing their age.

The detrimental effect of this process upon UASCs’ well-being and access to services is documented in social work literature (Kohli and Mitchell 2007;Wade et al. 2005). So are advocacy groups’ claims that age-disputed UASCs are subjected to particular risks within the asylum system, such as detention (11 Million 2008; AI 2005; BID 2009; Crawley and Lester 2005; ILPA 2009a).While the impact of age assessment on welfare provision is undeniably critical to the individuals in question, the overall emphasis on welfare risks obscuring both the political function and effect of age assessment.

This paper therefore seeks to address the underlying issue of why age assessment is so politicised in the UK. How have age-disputed persons’ become a salient political problem? Why does their age assessment remain contentious despite a number of policy amendments? Why has A&M reached the Supreme Court?

Full report here: Negotiating_childhood_Age_assessment_in UK