Understanding the reasons why age is disputed is a complex
task. There are a wide range of circumstances in which
age may be disputed. Each year, around half of
unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the UK are treated as
age disputed cases by the UK Border Agency.
Age disputes can arise at any stage of a young person's
journey through the immigration and asylum system. Most
commonly age is disputed at the initial application stage,
usually at port of entry or screening unit. A judgment
will often be made by the border official based on physical
appearance, demeanour and documentation (if any).
Some children may be referred to the UK Border Agency as an
adult by others - for example, the police - who have no
obligation to give the benefit of the doubt and will have
received no training in age assessment. Other people may
be age disputed by Social Services as a result of a formal or
informal age assessment process. In some cases, social
services may dispute a young person's age even though the
applicant has not been age-disputed by the UK Border
Why is age disputed?
In western-Europe, much emphasis is placed on the
of age; whereas in other parts of the world, a chronological
age is less important and the issuing and production of formal
documentation may be rare. Whether a person is an adult
or a child has huge implications for us in Europe.
In many countries birthdays are not celebrated;
chronological age is of far less importance and birth
certificates difficult to obtain. This may be
particularly the case in countries with high levels of infant
mortality and low levels of literacy. Young people may
have grown up in parts of the world affected by conflict and
upheaval where access to appropriate healthcare provision is
Disputes can also occur because of the alternative
calendars used in different countries around the world, or
ways in which age is calculated.
Similarly, adults may claim to be younger than they really
are in order to gain access to the services and support only
available to children or to benefit from the asylum policies
in relation to children.
The 'Culture of Disbelief'
There is increasing evidence in research to support the
suggestion that a culture of disbelief has evolved towards
those seeking asylum in the UK. Underpinning this
culture appears to be a general lack of care and empathy;
asylum seeking children are often greeted with hostility by
the UK Border Agency and police. This culture also seems
to have crept in to some social services departments, leading to
increasing numbers of age assessments being challenged through
the courts system.
Assessment of age is notoriously difficult. There is
no magic formula that can be applied to a young person to
determine their age. Children cannot be carbon-dated in
the same way that archaeological finds can. Even among
children who grow up in the same country and from similar
backgrounds, there are significant differences in their
development. Medical assessments bring with them a
margin of error.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health stated in
"In practice, age determination is extremely
difficult to do with certainty and no single approach to
this can be relied upon. Moreover for young people
aged 15-18, it is even less possible to be certain about
age. There may also be difficulties in determining
whether a young person who might be as old as 23 could, in
fact, be under the age of 18. Age determination is an
inexact science and the margin of error can sometimes be as
much as five years either side. Assessments of age
measure maturity, not chronological age."
An assessment of age undertaken by a social worker should
be a holistic one, which takes into account a wide range of
information, including medical opinion, but will also be based
on observations of a young person over a period of time and
(preferably) in a variety of settings and circumstances.