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Happy Birthday? Disputing the age of children in the immigration system

In 2011, Coram Children’s Legal Centre represented a young person, referred to as Y, in a case in the High Court. Y was trafficked to the UK from Nigeria at the age of five to work as a child domestic slave. She had been forced to work for two Nigerian families for nearly ten years, denied access to education, denied medical attention when she was ill, and only allowed to leave the house when the family went to church. Even then, she was forbidden from speaking to anyone. Y was finally able to escape her captors in 2008 and, after sleeping rough for several weeks, was taken to the local authority for support.

It would be reasonable to assume that the subsequent court case concerned bringing Y’s traffickers to justice, or seeking damages for the trauma that she had undergone in the previous decade. Instead, Y was in court to address a dispute about her age. As might be expected in her circumstances, she had no passport, birth certificate or other documentation to prove how old she was. All she knew was that she had seen her date of birth written down in a diary, and that it had been confirmed by her trafficker.

For nine months the local authority accepted Y’s claimed date of birth. She was placed in foster care and a care plan was drawn up, with no concerns raised about her age by her social worker, foster carer or the teachers at the school in which she was placed. However, following a police investigation during which Y’s traffickers told the police that she was older than she claimed, the local authority decided to review her age. Based on a number of factors, including a dental examination and the observation that Y presented as ‘independent and astute’, the social workers carrying out the age assessment for the local authority concluded that she was an adult. Y was taken out of secondary school and away from her foster carers.

 Rather than accepting her account and providing her with the support and protection she so desperately needed, the local authority to which she had turned moved her into accommodation with adults. As a result, she was also treated by the Home Office as an adult until the dispute was resolved. This conclusion could only be challenged in court, by initiating proceedings to judicially review the local authority’s decision, and by spending three days in a ‘fact-finding’ hearing so that the judge could make their own decision as regards to Y’s age. Fortunately, the judge believed Y and it is now recognised that she was born in 1993.

After the case, Y pledged ‘I am going to make the most of my life’ and went on to study child care at college. But the process of being disbelieved and of having to challenge the local authority legally had taken nearly three years – yet more time wasted on top of the ten years of her childhood she had already lost. Crucially, while the dispute was ongoing, she was also denied the protection to which she was entitled as a victim of trafficking, such was the focus on her chronological age rather than her needs and vulnerability.

This case vividly illustrates how damaging the impact of an unlawful age assessment can be on a young person, and Y’s case is sadly by no means unusual. Each year, a quarter of all unaccompanied children claiming asylum have their ages disputed. Ten years since the first court judgment outlined the criteria to follow when conducting age assessments, children are still being regularly disbelieved about how old they are and facing harmful, protracted disputes, during which they frequently do not receive the support and protection to which they are entitled. They might be housed with adults, denied access to education or college, or detained as an adult in an Immigration Removal Centre and forcibly removed from the United Kingdom. That the local authority chose to believe Y’s traffickers over her own
account in this case is a stark example of the extent to which a culture of disbelief has developed in both the immigration service and social care, with vulnerable children viewed with suspicion and hostility, and subjected to ‘a forensic inquiry into the minutiae of their lives’as practitioners on all sides seek to ‘prove’ how old they are.