Youth Support
Young Refugees and Asylum Seekers

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Asylum Seekers and Unaccompanied Minors


Young Asylum seekers can face a plethora of problems when trying to access appropriate services in the country where they find themselves

Unaccompanied minors have often arrived in a foreign country under circumstances of extreme mental and physical danger and are frequently traumatised by their experiences for which they may receive very little help.

Children and young people may have been separated from their families by conflict in their native country, by the actions of unscrupulous ‘agents’ who may have promised them safe passage or by traffickers and others who may have attempted to exploit them on their journey.

Here are some examples of young people whom we have worked with (names changed)

Anna was left alone when the terrorist rebel organization, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), killed her family in Uganda. She was then trafficked as a child prostitute and ended up in Britain aged 15 suffering severe post traumatic stress disorder as a result of multiple rapes, beatings and abuse. She was unable to find the security she desperately needed due to questions regarding her status – she did not know whether she would be deported to the country in which she had suffered so greatly; she did not know if any of her relatives had survived; she did not know how she could carry on living.

Tariq, a 16 year old Kurdish boy, was found wandering in Kent having been dumped by a lorry driver who had transported him from Europe in a compartment over the wheel arch of his lorry. He was emotionally traumatised and had a severe learning disability so that he was unable to tell his story apart from the occasional ‘child-like’ drawing and did not understand what had happened.

Several young people have had their access to education and services curtailed due to disputes over their age and status. If accepted in this country they may be dispersed into the wider community without the support and guidance they require both as young minors and as traumatised young people.

Age assessment  is often required to establish whether an asylum seeker is indeed a minor. Despite the very real needs of young asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors there will always be some who take advantage of the situation and may attempt to claim that they are minors when they are not and in view of the actions of this minority of claimants, some areas have become much more stringent in their assessment of young applicants.

Age assessment is not a straight forward matter.  Human beings vary in their development and maturity and growth and there is a wide range of so called ‘normal’ findings at various ages.  The assessment of age can never be perfectly accurate and in order to make an estimate of age all aspects of a person’s life and behaviour need to be taken into consideration.  Of paramount importance is also the need to consider race, ethnicity and local conditions in assessing growth and development. Race can affect size height and growth rates; local conditions such as malnutrition and disease can have significant impact on growth and development including onset of puberty.

In our age assessment process we include as many factors as possible so as to give an overall picture of likely age – this includes growth factors such as height, weight, body mass, foot size and any changes which might indicate growth velocity ; developmental factors such as skin hair and teeth and general body features including voice ; sexual development  and its stages; mental and emotional age estimates including thought processes and general concepts. Also of great importance is the history and social milestones which the young person might have experienced – again taking culture and religion into consideration.

From time to time controversies arise in terms of certain tests being applied to minors to assess age. For example the question of xrays has been hotly debated.  The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health by whose standards we abide; does not recommend Xrays in determining age – both due to the inaccuracy of ‘bone age’ as a factor when the chronological age is not known and also by virtue of the un necessary risk of repeated Xrays.  Similar arguments apply to Xrays of the teeth.

Lucy Ward, social affairs correspondent to the Guardian reported in January 2007 that “Young asylum seekers entering the UK face undergoing x-rays of their teeth and wrist bones to try to assess their age under government plans opposed as unethical and ineffective by an array of medical specialists and children's campaigners”

To quote her article -

A Home Office document seen by the Guardian, a final version of which is due to be published within days, outlines plans to introduce the medical procedures in measures to determine whether unaccompanied young asylum seekers without valid documents are under 18.

That age threshold is crucial because under-18-year-olds receive higher levels of support and protection than adults, and ministers are concerned that some asylum seekers try to pass themselves off as younger than they are to qualify. Approaching 3,000 unaccompanied children apply for asylum in the UK each year, from countries including Afghanistan and Iran, but more than 2,500 other applications end up in age disputes.

However, the plans to try x-rays and dental checks, part of wide-ranging moves to overhaul the treatment of children coming to Britain alone to seek asylum, are being challenged by a powerful lobby of critics. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health raised concerns that the procedures are inappropriate for determining age. Gill Markham, vice-president of the Royal College of Radiologists, questioned the ethics of "irradiating people for purposes not to their advantage".

X-rays are accurate only to within plus or minus two years in assessing age, so could not distinguish with certainty between a 16 and a 20-year-old, particularly from racial groups for which the UK holds no official data on size and age, she added. The Children's Society says medical assessments "can be very traumatic and invasive for children who have experienced persecution", and the office of the children's commissioner for England has raised concerns with the Home Office about "the use of a medical procedure for non-medical purposes" and a lack of informed consent.

Other articles of interest include:-

Seeking Asylum Alone - Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Refugee Protection in the U.K.

Determining the duty to look after unaccompanied children under the Children Act 1989 (use of section 17 or section 20).

Heaven Crawley, director of the Centre for Immigration Policy Research at Swansea University

Children's Legal Centre

A case for change: How refugee children in England are missing out. By the Refugee Council, Save the Children, The Children's Society

The latter report concludes that “Young people who are already socially excluded by the nature of their status can ill-afford to be excluded to an even greater extent by the statutory services which should be helping them. Recommendations include: -

  • all refugee and asylum-seeking children should be provided with a place in a mainstream school within 20 days of request. Local education authorities should appoint a co-ordinator to support their education.

  • social services should assume responsibility for all children in need in their area, regardless of status. Unaccompanied children should have a named social worker.

  • NASS and local authorities should consider the suitability of an area before offering accommodation

  • plans for young people should be concerned with their care before and after they turn eighteen. No young person placed in one area should be subject to dispersal once they are eighteen.

  • the government should introduce guidance on age assessment. Where it is not possible to decide, the applicant should be treated as a child. They should not be detained simply because their age is disputed.

  • all refugee and asylum-seeking children should be registered with a local GP. Primary health care trusts should ensure GPs provide equal access, with interpreters if necessary.

  • young people must have enough money to meet their assessed needs, and leisure and transport should be classed as a necessary expenditure