Determining the age of asylum seekers claiming to be minors is increasingly conceived as an integral part of asylum determination. Yet the large proportion of unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASCs) who have had their claimed age disputed, the frequent applications for judicial review of Local Authorities’ decisions concerning their eligibility for services, as well as the persistence of minors detained under immigration powers lead us to question the purpose and adequacy of current age assessment procedures.
The paper ‘Negotiating Childhood: Age assessment in the UK Asylum System’ attempts to shed light on these issues by analysing the policy and practice of assessing age in the UK. Exploring why age assessment is so politicised and how ‘age-disputed persons’ have become a salient political problem, it moves beyond a dichotomous understanding of age assessment as either due to an increasing number of adults attempting to access UK territory and welfare, or as the wilful treatment of children as adults.
Age assessment as an immigration tool?
Clearly there are incentives for asylum seekers to be categorised as minors in terms of welfare provision and asylum determination. For the Home Office and Local Authorities, there are incentives to categorise asylum seekers as adults. As no accurate method exists to determine age, concerns have been voiced by a range of actors that political (immigration) considerations impact decisions made on UASCs’ ages. However the paper finds that current decisions made on UASCs’ ages do not result from a purposeful use of age assessment as an immigration tool.
Does this mean that age assessments are not influenced by politics and context? No. Age assessment may not be directly used for immigration purposes, but, as the paper argues a range of social, discursive, political, institutional and managerial factors directly, or indirectly, shape the process for assessing age and impact the decisions made. This is illustrated through a three-step analysis which (i) presents the normative, policy and legal frameworks which have enabled UASCs of questionable age to emerge as a political problem, (ii) maps the evolution of the age assessment process as a multi actor and ad hoc process, and (iii) finally traces the outsourcing through judicial intervention of age assessment to Local Authorities. The age assessment process is unmistakably influenced by politics and diverse interests, but, as the paper seeks to demonstrate, not necessarily in the way expected or assumed. It defies the simplistic causation and explanations forwarded by both state authorities and advocacy groups.
Age assessment and asylum determination
Who has the right, and by what means, to make the final decision on age for both welfare and immigration has been a bone of contention and the subject of litigation. Moving beyond this issue, the paper proceeds to questions if, and specifically how, the process of age assessment itself may impact individuals’ asylum determination irrespective of the outcome of an age assessment.
Again the analysis draws attention to a series of seemingly non related issues: bureaucratic rationalisation and guidance, such as the new information sharing duty (A v Croydon  EWHC 939 (Admin)), having single case owners following files, and guidance such as that offered by Burnton J. in Merton. Given the legislated presumptive scepticism and emphasis on negative credibility evaluation, such well intended practice may, it seems, have unintended and unforeseen consequences for UASCs’ credibility evaluation. Consequently, the paper suggests that having one’s age disputed and/or assessed is likely to negatively impact credibility evaluation and thus prejudice age assessed UASCs in securing refugee status.
However, this potential influence on asylum determination is a result of the age assessment process as a whole; it filters through numerous actors and institutions not directly working with asylum and immigration. Grasping this complex process, and thus also why age-disputed UASCs may not be granted the benefit of the doubt within the asylum system, should elicit a less emotive and demonising critique of the government which therefore cannot be as easily brushed aside with a view to rectifying the age assessment process.