What happens if a ‘child’s’ age is disputed? What can that really mean for a vulnerable child?
Without access to a full independent guardian, which safeguards a young person’s best interest, asylum may be refused, and the child put in immigration detention and removed without ever having their age formally assessed, and as mentioned with regards to training practices.
This can lead to incorrectly determining their age by using questionable techniques, such as their physical appearance, intimate medical examinations or the use of x-rays as methods to quickly determine age.
Many children and young people will not be able to provide evidence as to their age, and some may not even know their chronological age as calculated in countries other than their own.
We must remind you that a child unaccompanied or separated may have experienced physical, mental, sexual or emotional abuse on their journey to Europe. These experiences may affect a child’s ability to participate fully and openly in an age assessment process and appear to an untrained professional as being uncooperative or deceptive.
Also, you must remember is that children may have lost their trust in adults in positions of authority, and the child most certainly will be traumatised or frightened.
Therefore, use of professionals who are child centred becomes even more crucial.
Why we should trust first and give ‘the child’ the benefit of doubt?
In terms of when an age assessment should be carried out, the phrases “disputed age’ and “doubt the age of” and how ‘credibility’ influences this, has led to considerable discussion amongst professionals involved in age assessments. Especially, when using visual indicators of age.
These preconceived ideas of children seeking asylum, can include how cultural relevance and race influences our thinking.
What one person deems a valid reason to dispute age may substantially differ from another and can be subjective.
Therefore, age disputing children as opposed to applying the ‘benefit of the doubt’ can affect the way you engage, as children may perceive it as another aspect of mental and or emotional abuse through questioning of their credibility and identity.
Age assessments should only be used to ensure that appropriate services (including education) are offered. And, current guidance states that there must be a “significant reason” to doubt the age of a child.
What effect can it have to ‘not’ give the benefit of doubt to a child?
Our findings show that there are far more risks attached to the placement of a child in a reception or detention centre for adults when there is a case of doubt about his or her age.
In some countries where medical age assessment procedures (including intimate examinations) are used as a rule rather than the exception, the benefit of doubt is ‘not’ awarded in practice. Therefore, these traumatic and invasive procedures are applied to both documented and undocumented children, regardless of whether they present official identity documentation or manifestly appear to be minors.
Hence, the existing Age Assessment Procedure developed and implemented to assess age claims of migrant children was reviewed in late 2014.
This made positive improvements to the procedure, recognising the need for a holistic approach, including a greater integration of the ‘benefit of the doubt’ in decision-making.
A holistic approach to age assessments – why it works!
In 2015, the United Kingdom produced guidance on how to undertake age assessment following a holistic methodology that forbids the use of invasive medical techniques.
The statutory guidelines, “Care For Unaccompanied Trafficked Children 2017” also provide helpful guidance to practitioners by recognising the importance of affording children the benefit of the doubt:
“Where the person’s age is in doubt, they must be treated as a child unless, and until, a full age assessment shows the person to be an adult”
An important conclusion you can take from these reports is that age assessment should only be conducted in cases of serious doubt about a child’s age, and as a last resort. It should be carried out only in the best interest of a child and on a case- by- case basis.
As you can see, to holistically conduct age assessments will take time and only through collaboration, but this procedure is important as it can facilitate the recognition of an individual as a child with all the deriving safeguards.
Such as protection by a full independent guardian, the right to child-friendly accommodation and care, the right to seek appropriate international protection and assistance and the right to education.
These safeguards also contribute to protecting children from violence and exploitation, forced labour and trafficking.
What we have highlighted to you is how a holistic approach to age assessment can work, in terms of operational and strategic partnerships, foster better working cooperation and facilitate the development of policies and procedures which reflect and include the core principles pertaining to the rights of the child.