Age Assessments: yet another Home Office challenge?:
When we think of the Home Office, we often just picture a rigid institution which is constantly being accused of racism and intolerance. Of course, we hear that they do some analysis of the people they encounter, but we do not tend to associate them with carrying out any age assessments.
What do we mean by age assessments?
It is alleged that many of those individuals who claim asylum in the UK claim that they are children when they in reality they are adults. When children are registered as asylum seekers, the UK becomes officially responsible in caring for them. So, they receive a range of ‘necessary’ services and support which are considered legally important for the UK’s goal in safeguarding these children.
In order to ensure that these ‘necessary services’ are only provided to those who deserve it, the Home Office carries out age assessments. These are for those who claim to be children under the age of 18, but may physically appear older.
Similarly, many individuals who enter the UK and claim asylum do not have any documentation. For instance, for those who come from small villages in rural areas, they are unlikely to have any Birth certificates of any passports. Consequently, they are often unaware of their date of birth or even the year that they were born in. Without adequate knowledge of their age, it is very easy for a 16 year old to claim that they are 18, or vice versa.
Age assessments (supposedly) assist the Home Office in clarifying the exact age of asylum seekers. Unsurprisingly, of course, this is to avoid having to allocate a greater amount of money for the sake of supporting asylum seekers who do not (legally) have to be supported.
What is the governing legislation?
There is no doubt that if it were not a legal requirement, the Home Office would not even bother implementing any safeguarding measures for children or ‘potential’ children, and they definitely would not create any special services for those seeking asylum.
The Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 ‘implemented a duty on the Home Office to ensure that its immigration, asylum, nationality and customs functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the UK.
In light of this legislation, Home Office workers must act in accordance with the following principles:
- Every child matters, even if they are subject to immigration control;
- The best interests of the child will be a primary consideration, but not the only consideration, when making decisions affecting children;
- Ethnic identity, language, religion, faith, gender, and disability are considered when working with a child and their family;
- Children must be consulted, and the wishes and feelings of children considered, wherever practicable, when decisions affecting them are made – where parents and carers are present, they will have primary responsibility for representing the child’s concerns.
- Children must have their applications dealt with in a way that minimises the uncertainty that they may experience.
What are the criteria to be met for an age assessment?
The following criteria must be met in order for that individual to be subjected to a Home Office age assessment:
- The individual in question must be subject to Immigration control;
- There must be insufficient evidence to be sure of the age they claim to be;
- The age that they claim to be is doubted by the Home Office;
- The individual claims to be a child but is suspected to be an adult OR they claim to be an adult but are suspected to be a child OR they are suspected to be a child but are a different age than they claim to be.
Why is an age assessment important?
As mentioned above, it is necessary for the purposes of providing the adequate safeguarding services. However, it is also important for the purposes of detention.
As a general principle, even where one of the statutory powers to detain is available in a particular case, unaccompanied children must not be detained other than in very exceptional circumstances. The failure to adhere to legal powers and policy on detaining child can have very significant consequences. For example:
If a claimant child is detained, but a court later finds, or the Home Office later accepts the individual who the Home Office has treated as an adult was a child, even if it reasonably believed that the individual was an adult, any period of detention whilst that individual was in fact a child which was not in line with the relevant legislative measures, will be unlawful and may well result in the Home Office being liable to pay damages. Of course, the Home Office would put every intention into saving every penny, and would consequently avoid ever owing damages to any individual (not to mention how it would further taint their image).
Furthermore, the mistaken detention of a child can have a significant and negative impact on the mental health or physical development on that child. Likewise, detention can be extremely frightening for a child, with their perception of what they might experience potentially informed by previous negative experiences of detention suffered by themselves or by individuals they know, in their country of origin or during their journey to the UK.
What are the possible outcomes of an age assessment?
Outcome 1: Decision made to treat the claimant as an adult.
Outcome 2: Decision made to treat the claimant as an child.
Outcome 3: Decision made to treat the claimant as a child until further assessment of their age has been completed.
In the instance that the age of an individual is still difficult to ascertain after the primary assessment, a further assessment should be carried out. This assessment may include obtaining the view of the local authority. In the meantime, the individual will be treated as a child on a provisional basis.
Age assessments play a significant role in the asylum process. At the core of it, age assessments uphold important legislation safeguarding children. However, it should not be ignored that for the Home Office, it seems as though the existence of these is mostly to prevent them from falling into any legal issues such as avoiding the accidental or mistaken detention of a child.