Independent Age Assessment


Age Assessment

Age Disputes

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 Agency. 

Why is age disputed?

In western-Europe, much emphasis is placed on the importance 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 sparse.

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.

Assessing Age

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 1999 that:

"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.