Over the past few days, it has been difficult to miss the media coverage of the arrival of 14 of the 387 unaccompanied refugee children living in the Calais jungle and identified as having a legal right to join family members in the UK. Amidst expressions of welcome and empathy, there has been an undertow of less sympathetic responses, with many commentators questioning the ages of the young people shown in photographs, with calls among more hysterical quarters for mandatory dental checks, and even for the sacking of a Match of the Day presenter.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, many of those critical of the decision to allow a minibus full of young people into the UK on the basis that they are ‘clearly’ older than they claim to be be appear to have forgotten that they, like this writer,will have been served in British pubs from the age of 14 or 15.
We wish these young men and women the happiness they deserve following a lifetime of unrest, displacement and trauma.
It is interesting, however, to see how the attitude of suspicion and disbelief towards asylum seeking young people permeates British society, frequently to their detriment, depriving them of their basic legal rights.
‘Jamal’ is one such person. At the time he was referred to ASIRT for support, he had living in a local authority placement for just over two months, Yet he had been provided with so little information by his social workers- of which he had, to date, had four- that he was unable even to tell us his address. All he knew was that he had been sent to live in a house with some other young people, he got fed three times a day, and he got given a bus pass every week.
Jamal told us that he had been living in the ‘Jungle’ for some months prior to his arrival in the UK, and that he was from Afghanistan and was fifteen years old. He was not in school, and had been given no help to find legal representation. He had also been told that his present social worker, along with the Home Office, had ‘decided’ that he was 16 years of age, rather than the 15 he professed himself to be. He had spent the past two months in limbo, receiving no form of education, not progressing his asylum claim, and effectively, it seems, simply being ‘warehoused’ by the Local Authority until it was ‘decided’ that he was 18, and thus no longer eligible for accommodation and support
The entire approach adopted here by the Local Authority appeared entirely unlawful. Statutory guidance around age disputes suggests that an unaccompanied asylum seeking child’s age should be disputed, and an age assessment carried out, only in cases where there are strong grounds to believe that a given young person is over 18. Plainly. given the apparently arbitrary decision to regard Jamal as just 16, no such grounds had been expressed. Moreover, the guidance suggests that young people should be provided with a full explanation of the reason for conducting an age assessment, and supported throughout the process by an unaccompanied adult. Again, no such procedure had been followed.
On Jamal’s instruction, ASIRT wrote to the local authority challenging its conduct of his case to date, demanding within ten working days an explanation of the reason for its decision to dispute his age, the failure to follow policy and age disputes, and the failure to provide him with a care plan, outlining his assessed needs and the local authority’s responsibilities to meet them, or with copies of any assessments carried out to date.
We duly received a response, confirming that Jamal had been ‘reassessed’ and was now regarded as the 15 years of age he had always claimed himself to be, had been moved from the shared accommodation at the unknown address previously provided to him and into a foster care placement (where, he tells is, he is ‘too much happy’), and that steps were being taken to identify a school place for him. An appointment had also been arranged for him to see a solicitor about his asylum claim..
He is, in other words, now able to establish a life for himself in the UK, and to prepare himself, with appropriate support, for the challenges he will experience as he attempts to navigate the UK’s asylum system.
We know that Jamal’s circumstances are far from unique, and that many other young men and women in his situation are being denied basic information about their legal rights by statutory services.
We are determined to help challenge these injustices.