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Applying social work law to asylum and immigration
Applying social work law to asylum and immigration

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8.1 Social work and age assessment

An ethically controversial area of social work practice is assessing the age of asylum-seeking young people. Correct age assessment is important so as to ensure that children get the protection and support they need and are entitled to under law. At the same time, determining the age of a young person claiming to be an asylum seeker is a very difficult issue for the local authority. In some cases, there might be an incentive for young persons entering the country to be held to be under 18, as it entitles them to services and accommodation and postpones questions of repatriation until they are adults. However, in more than half the cases of disputed age where age assessment has taken place, the decision was upheld that the person was in fact a child (Refugee Council, 2018a). These assessments require skilled social workers who take a child-centred approach that is both culturally sensitive and trauma informed. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has issued good-practice guidance on age assessment (ADCS, 2015), which acknowledges the ethical issues in social workers being involved with this. The guidance states that:

Age assessments are a controversial subject, and indeed there is a robust debate on whether social workers should complete age assessments at all. While we acknowledge the contested nature of age assessments, some children arrive in the UK whose age may be unclear, unknown or disputed. The fact remains that social workers are currently required to complete age assessments in England so as to ensure any service a child requires is provided appropriate to their age and assessed needs. Social workers, by nature of their education, experience and specialist skills in working with and interviewing vulnerable children and young people, are uniquely positioned to undertake holistic assessments.

(ADCS, 2015, p. 3)

One of the first questions social workers ask is whether it is necessary in a particular case to conduct an age assessment at all? The ADCS guidance states:

Age assessments should only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children.

(ADCS, 2015, p. 7)

In 2018, the Scottish Government (2018b) published practice guidance to assist social workers in assessing the age of young people seeking asylum in Scotland.

Dyball et al. (2012) suggest that:

A legally compliant age assessment carried out to professional standards will serve the interests of both the young person and the assessing local authority, not least because of the possibility of a challenge to a decision through judicial review with all that this potentially entails for the parties concerned. It is important therefore to adopt assessment practices that are defensible as this will assist in avoiding unnecessary distress and cost later on.

(Dyball et al., 2012, p. 10)

Assessment should aim to take the trauma and anxiety of the asylum seeker into account and to recognise cultural differences in regard to the recording and significance of age.