Age disputed refugee children

22 October 2016
Zrinka Bralo

There has been recent news coverage asking questions about the ages of refugee children.

It is concerning that for some people the first response to refugee children, some who have had to wait for months or years for UK authorities to allow them to reunite with family members, is hostility and disbelief.

Refugees often have to flee during crisis, sometimes with little more than the clothes on their back, and so it is not appropriate to require refugees to meet complex evidential requirements before their cases can be accepted.

Some refugee children do have identity documents confirming their age or they may have contact with family members who can get these sent onto them. At the other end of the spectrum, some refugee children do not know how old they are and so are age assessed in order to give them a ‘working’ date of birth.

Even where children deliberately lie about their age, there can be complex reasons for this. For example some children say they are older than they are, because they believe that younger children are likely to be held by the authorities. Some children say they are younger than they are because an agent has told them to do so. People smugglers can be extremely abusive and violent to unaccompanied children and the authorities in the United Kingdom have accepted that the level of control they exercise over their charges should not be under-estimated.

Looking at statistics on age assessments is therefore not a helpful indicator of the kinds of cases that are age assessed. Age assessments are also regularly challenged – often successfully – in court, because Home Office and social services assessments of children, often who they have only just men, can be rudimentary and inadequate.

The main issue raised in the media is that children may ‘look’ older based on photographs. Appearance is not a good indicator of specific age. Each individual develops differently and issues like ethnicity, diet, lifestyle and trauma can impact development and aging.

Appearance alone is an extremely unreliable indicator of age, particularly in relation to teenagers and young adults. If someone is biologically 30 years older than they are claiming then appearance may be sufficient, but that is not the issue raised in most cases where queries are raised about whether a young person is aged around 15-19 and appearance alone is not a reliable indicator.

Some jurisdictions rely on medical examinations for age assessments, but again people develop at different rates and the margin for error from medical testing is usually around 5 years, so these tests are not reliable either for the 15-19 age range. Tests in different countries can involve dental tests, x-rays and even genital exams. It is important to remember that these tests are nearly always in relation to separated children where no parent can give consent. Looking at it from a human perspective: how would you feel about officials in a strange country arranging for these kinds of medical tests on your child without your consent?

The more reliable way to age assess is by a detailed psycho-social assessment over a period of time. This involves monitoring a child’s interaction with their peers, so for example a teacher working with a young person in a class of peers over a period of time will have the opportunity to assess their psycho-social development. A GP can also confirm if a young person is still growing and in general a person who is growing taller will be a child or very young adult. This requires monitoring a young person over a period of time. These kinds of age assessments are more usually found in the family courts.

In the United Kingdom doctors and medical practitioner organisations have repeatedly declined to conduct examinations on children that are not medically necessary or in the individual patient’s best interests. For example it is generally impermissible for doctors in the United Kingdom to take x-rays from a child unless this is medically necessary for treatment, because x-rays expose children to radiation.

This is an extremely important ethical position in relation to children’s welfare and best interests. It is important that the high standard of care provided to children is not compromised and that certain categories of children are not treated in a less ethical way than others. It is concerning to see children’s images featured on the front page of national newspapers the day after they arrive in this country and targeted with hostility and hate. What must they think about this country which is to be their home?

Jennifer Blair, Barrister
No5 Chambers, advising for Migrants Organise

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