CCLC statement on assessing age

Coram Children's Legal Centre statement on assessing age

19 October 2016

Coram Children’s Legal Centre is deeply concerned by comments and articles written in relation to children brought to the UK from Calais under the Dubs amendment. Snap judgements on age matter: they can have a catastrophic impact on children wrongly believed to be adults.

G believed himself to be 15 when he arrived in the UK from Afghanistan, but when he arrived in the UK border guards judged him to be significantly over 18. G was immediately detained at the border, in adult accommodation. Because he was an asylum-seeker and destitute, he was dispersed to the North East of England to be accommodated in a hostel for adult men. Several months went by in which G became increasingly frightened and depressed. He was referred to a GP, who strongly believed G to be a child and so referred him to social services. He was age-assessed by two social workers who believed him to be his stated age, and within a few days he had a foster carer and a social worker who was helping him to get back to school. However, it took many months for G's mental health to recover.

It is important to note that there is no way to accurately assess age, with the margin of error sometimes as much as five years either side, especially around the time of puberty. There is no medical assessment, whether through dental x-rays or measurement of bone density, which can accurately assess a child’s age. The Children’s Commissioner, British Dental Association and Royal College of Radiologists have raised serious concerns around medical procedures being used to assess age, particularly given the significant lack of accuracy.
Furthermore, those children currently being brought to the UK from Calais already have family in the UK and have the right to enter the UK through the Dublin Regulation, which sets out that a child should normally have their asylum claim considered in a European country where other family members are residing. The Dublin Regulation works both ways: the UK sends many more family members to other European states than it takes in.
Where no reliable documentation exists, assessing age is notoriously difficult. Cultural differences and the effect of trauma can have a significant impact on physical experience. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has stated that the most appropriate approach is to use a holistic evaluation and the UK government guidance confirms that assessments should only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt the age of the child. Across the country, social workers must grapple with a complex process made more difficult by a lack of training and long delays. However, it is better that trained professionals conduct these investigations than journalists and political commentators. At the end of the day, it is vulnerable children fleeing persecution, often suffering high levels of trauma, who will suffer from lazy assumptions. 
It is not denied that issues around age are difficult. However, generalised statements and assessments on physical appearance alone are dangerous and misleading. It is important that issues around age are discussed and dealt with in an accurate, fair and lawful manner.
For more information see our 2013 report 'Happy Birthday?'. If you have questions or concerns about a particular case please contact our advice line on 020 7636 8505 or  

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