by Francesca Sella
Why is this important?
Local authorities in Scotland have a legal duty to look after and provide support and accommodation to children who are separated from their families.
The majority of unaccompanied children who enter the UK to seek asylum do not have evidence of their age. Because of this, when an unaccompanied young person presents in a local authority in Scotland stating that they are under 18, social workers need to carry out an initial brief enquiry to decide whether the young person is, or could be, a child.
This initial enquiry carried out by social workers can have a huge impact on the young people involved.
If a young person is found to be an adult at this stage, they will not be entitled to any support from the local authority and they will be treated as adults by the Home Office going forward. This means that the young people will be accommodated in adult Home Office accommodation and potentially become at risk of re-trafficking and exploitation.
Children wrongly assessed as adults at this stage also become liable to be detained and removed to Rwanda under the current Home Office policies.
These decisions are also very concerning in light of the new Illegal Migration Bill currently going through Parliament as, under this new legislation, the Home Office will have a duty to remove adults from the UK who enter via irregular routes to seek asylum.
Essentially, both under existing policies and under the new Bill, the difference between a child being assessed as a child or wrongly assessed as adult can be the difference between them being able to safely stay in the UK or being detained and sent to Rwanda.
How can practice be improved?
Social workers tell us that this initial enquiry stage is one of the most difficult and confusing parts of the process. JustRight Scotland and the British Red Cross regularly assist young people who are found to be adults by local authorities at this initial stage. Whilst in some limited cases these decisions might be lawful and appropriate, there have been concerns around local authorities adopting practice which is not in compliance with legislation, case law and the Scottish Government guidance.
This guide aims to clearly set out the procedure that local authorities should follow when firstly meeting an unaccompanied young person who is stating they are under the age of 18. The guide covers what enquiries social workers should make and what safeguards should be put in place.
Importantly, the guidance sets out the wide margin of error that local authorities should keep in mind when carrying out assessments at this stage. This is particularly significant considering that workers will, in most cases, be the first professionals to meet these vulnerable young people. Very often these young people are fleeing situations of trafficking, exploitation and abuse and will be lacking sleep, proper nutrition and will be very traumatised. This will deeply affect the way they present and workers should be mindful of this through the first encounter with the young person.
The guide also recommends that, in the rare cases where workers find that the young person is obviously an adult, referrals are made to statutory and third sector organisations to ensure that the young person can access alternative support. This is crucial as young people are otherwise left facing destitution and homelessness and will become at risk of potential re-trafficking and exploitation.
Age assessments are complex and the initial stage where workers meet a young person for the first time can be challenging. How a young person presents is clearly a very unreliable way of determining their age, especially when meeting them for the first time.
We believe that this guide could be a helpful tool for local authorities and it will provide clarity to social workers and, in the long term, improve practice and consistency throughout Scotland.