Not home alone – Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children and the ‘Culture of Disbelief’

By Siobhan Corria
Traumatised by war, abuse, torture, trafficking, sexual exploitation or persecution, unaccompanied asylum seeking children are among the most vulnerable people in our society.

According to Home Office figures, 405 of them, most from Afghanistan, made asylum applications between January and March this year.

Powerless and without independent adult guidance, many have to manoeuvre themselves through the complex, adult asylum system. What kind of welcome do these children get in the UK, a country known for upholding human rights, that likes to think we treat children fairly, humanely, with sensitivity and warmth?

Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children ‘in need’, and that includes separated asylum seeking children. A child who arrives at Heathrow Airport and claims asylum immediately, for instance, is Hillingdon’s responsibility.

In 2005 nearly half (45%) of all asylum applicants presenting as separated children were age-disputed and treated as adults. The Home Office, and often social workers too, believe that adults are claiming to be children in order to access education and extra financial support.

In 2007 the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA) research paper, ‘When is a Child not a Child’? presented strong evidence that age disputes are linked to ‘cultures of cynicism and disbelief’ among immigration officers and some social services departments.

Vulnerable children may be locked up or otherwise accommodated with adults, putting them at risk of harm. An age disputed child may be at risk of exploitation, deterioration in their mental and emotional health and feelings of loneliness, frustration and isolation. They are unable to access school, youth clubs, sports clubs and children of the same age.

The stakes are high for social workers charged with carrying out age assessments. To wrongly assess an adult as a child might put real children in foster care at risk. Tensions may exist between provision of welfare services and immigration control. Social workers may face pressure from managers to assess children as adults in order to keep within budgets. Practitioners are nervous and under pressure.

There is no statutory guidance. Practice guidelines, published by the London Boroughs of Hillingdon and Croydon in March 2003, have been approved in two cases before the High Court. The result has been a legal standard for formal assessments, known as ‘Merton-compliant’.

But no scientific or medical method can accurately determine age. It is notoriously difficult even when considering children from similar ethnic and social backgrounds. Asylum seeking children come from diverse cultures and backgrounds and have experiences that

British children will never suffer. To put it bluntly, social workers have to decide whether or not the person is lying. They may rely heavily on physical appearance, or assumptions about ‘appropriate behaviour’. The quality of assessments varies from council to council. Sometimes social workers rely on the credibility of an asylum claim to determine age. Children may find the process confusing; whom should they trust? They may experience emotional problems, relive traumatic experiences.

So what happens when the Home Office and social services assess a child as an adult?

Kaihan was found in a lorry in Somerset in October last year, assessed as an adult, dispersed to Cardiff, and housed with adult men. Welsh Refugee Council staff were deeply concerned. He was plainly a child. His solicitor and GP asked Children’s Services to make a full age assessment. Social workers performed only an initial age assessment, concluding Kaihan was indeed a minor and he was taken into care.

Then came Kaihan’s immigration tribunal appeal against his asylum refusal. The Judge favoured Somerset’s full age assessment over Cardiff’s preliminary assessment. Kaihan, having been cared for as a child, was once again classified as an adult, and suffered the multiple shocks of having care withdrawn, being disbelieved, losing his identity as child and facing forcible return to Afghanistan.

Why did the authority wait for the Judge to determine age instead of undertaking a full age assessment? Were they acting in Kaihun’s best interests? Or were there other considerations, such as budgetary constraints on welfare provision? The social services manager involved in Kaihan’s case is an ex Home Office employee. One of the social work posts is funded by the Home Office.

The lines between immigration and welfare sometimes blur. A few weeks later, Kaihan found his big brother Z through Afghan connections. The boys were reunited. Seventeen year old Z, acknowledged as a minor, had been given foster care and was studying for his GCSEs. Filled with
hope, and carrying the fresh evidence about Z’s age assessment, Kaihan went to lodge his fresh asylum claim at the Border Agency’s Cardiff office.

Kaihan was arrested, locked up in extreme distress, dwarfed in man-sized padded clothing to protect him from self-harm, transported with an adult detainee by caged van on the 109 mile journey from Cardiff to Oxfordshire to the adult detention facility Campsfield House.

Welsh Refugee Council instructed solicitors, and just days before Kaihan’s flight to Afghanistan, a Judge stalled his removal, released him from detention and ordered Cardiff Council to treat him as a child until a Judicial Review rules on his case. Kaihan still bears the scars of his period in detention and still faces disbelief from Cardiff Council.

Such ordeals, routine throughout the country, are likely to become more frequent as the public service cuts really bite. More children are likely to be classed as adults due to budgets, managers and the ‘culture of disbelief’.

Joker Idris, an unaccompanied asylum seeking child, was the subject of an age assessment which raised his age from 15 to 17 with catastrophic consequences.

Joker, then aged 18, was found hanging in his cell in Chelmsford Prison on Christmas Day, 2007. The Jury at the Inquest into his death concluded in June this year that Joker killed himself and that the failure by Essex Social Services to provide assessed care and support after his 18th birthday was a contributory factor.

Malcolm Stevens, an expert in child protection and social justice, who gave independent evidence to the Inquest, says it is shocking to see social work professionals using what is known to be such a flawed process as the justification for not helping children and young people who so clearly need it.

Siobhan Corria is a social worker in Newport, working in the looked after children’s team.  She worked in Youth Justice for eight years and later at Welsh Refugee Council where she worked with UASC, arranging regular activities including football and gorge walking