Children are Children First | A Holistic View to Age Assessments

As the European migration and refugee ‘crisis’ continues, more unaccompanied children are embarking on the dangerous journey to Europe. Therefore, it is critical that children are seen as children first. This existential humanitarian crisis continues to hold great difficulties for children and young people on their journey to freedom.

For children who are alone or who are separated from their families, this means they are left to find their way, alone.

These unaccompanied children are traveling to Europe due to atrocities happening in their communities, fleeing conflicts, seeking safety and protection, and are looking for a free and better life. Many of them are simply seeking reunification with their families in Europe and as children, are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and being trafficked.

Save the Children reported that over 200 000 unaccompanied child migrants sort asylum in Europe over in the last five years.

These children often do not have identity documents, which poses a real challenge for the authorities tasked with identifying, protecting and supporting unaccompanied children. And, for children to obtain the necessary protection and assistance they are entitled to, it is necessary to know their age to make sure that a child receives the care and support appropriate for their age and needs.

In a report co-written by Love146UK’s Phillip Ishola with Rapporteur, Ms Doris FIALA, Switzerland, (ALDE) reflects this need and how good practices in holistic, child-centred age assessment can enable child support agencies to meet the needs of children more rapidly. The practices including mitigating the negative outcomes of waiting periods that can leave children vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and the inconsistent of age determination.

So how can you see when good practice ‘age assessments’ work? And what does this mean for children and young people?

Firstly, to explain, age assessments are a process by which authorities seek to establish the chronological age, or age range, of a person, or determine whether an individual is an adult or a child.

Currently there is no process of assessment, medical or otherwise, which can determine the exact age of individuals with 100% accuracy.

There also is considerable variation in the methods and quality of age assessments undertaken across Europe. This lack of consistency can once again, make unaccompanied young people susceptible to exploitation.

Our view, together with many child protection services is the belief that children should have the right to be trusted and believed, and as such age assessments should only be carried out where there is considerable doubt, and should always be conducted in the best interest of the child. Meaning that each child is seen as a child in their own right and must be fully informed of why there is doubt in any process.

You must remember that these children are unaccompanied and may have been trafficked and most certainly traumatised during their journey to safety.

This is a good reason why we must provide full independent guardianship to recognise a child’s vulnerabilities and to protect their best interests and well-being.

This is a human right we are fighting for but as yet, not afforded to unaccompanied children with any certainty or consistency.  Our work continues through collaboration with child protection services across Europe, and in accordance to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) agreement, to keep young people safe and protect their rights, as a child.

Together with (PACE) we are particularly concerned that certain age assessment methods can be frightening and traumatising for children and can sometimes involve inhuman and degrading treatment such as sexual maturity examinations. This process can be negatively life-changing.

If a child’s age is disputed or they are deemed an adult, immigration detention and removal are likely to become a reality. In cases of detention, the negative physical and psychological effects on children’s health and development are far-reaching and lasting.

Our view is that this conduct is not only ethically questionable but is devastating to a scared and traumatized child. This combined with the lack of an appropriate and safe process of identification and reception, can push children to flee from one European country to another, seeking protection and into the hands of traffickers.

You’ll see it is therefore critical for children to be protected appropriately, and to receive the services they need and are entitled to, such as decent accommodation and school placements. For this alone, it is necessary to determine the age of anyone seeking asylum who may be a child.

Therefore, the question of children being seen first and foremost as children and not as migrants, holds greater significance now, more than ever.

We have seen that the number of arrivals of documented and undocumented children in Europe by air and land, often involve smuggling and children and young people who are being trafficked via these smuggling routes, the latter, as you may know, is extremely difficult to identify and track. 

This brings us back to the issue of the inconsistency of age assessment models and practices and the current push for fast track age assessments.

Our opinion is that this could reflect a lack of guidance, training and support for those tasked with undertaking an age assessment. And this inexperience and lack of education can, and does, lead to an over-reliance on physical appearance as indicators of age and, in some cases, the violating method of use of scientific tools (medical examinations and the use of x-rays) as methods to quickly determine age.

This makes our educational training programs at Love146 UK vital to mitigate the above.

As to protect young trafficked survivors, our partners, the police and other first responders all need to recognise the signs of trafficking and exploitation. So together we can focus on prevention first, to understand the causes and reasons children can be in this situation. But if and when they are, we need to know who the appropriate person is to carry out age assessments.

How can you tell when this age assessment is necessary? And who should then carry it out?

Therefore, several questions arise regarding who is best placed to carry out these functions;

  • Which professionals could undertake child assessments in a way appropriate to the age of a child, and who are skilled in identifying risk in a child-sensitive way?
  • And, what is the role of the police, border officials and the medical professionals in determining age?

That’s why we’re working towards a holistic age assessment framework of unaccompanied children, where social workers would be the lead professionals. As they, and the child centred frameworks in which they operate make them best placed to avoid or mitigate the risk of traumatising or re-traumatising a child.

However, we must not discard the vital role that other professionals would contribute to the holistic age assessment and how they should be guided by the outcome.

In this, our approach is also relevant in terms of partnerships for all of those who work with vulnerable children. Therefore, is important for us to engage with the network of professionals from the statutory and non statutory fields and those who may be supporting them.

So we see that the views of the professionals (border and immigration officials, teachers, psychologists, guardians, legal representatives or other relevant practitioners), if sought and relevant, can help unify the views of the professional conducting the age assessment, while encourage good and supportive inter-agency practice.

Allowing agencies to work together in a child- focused manner can therefore facilitate the development or enhancement of agency specific guidance and procedures.

We hope you can see that a holistic child-centred approach that captures the social aspects of a child’s life (family circumstances, ethnic and cultural considerations and a child’s level of understanding of their world and experiences) would provide a mechanism by which any dispute of age can be resolved.

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