Age assessments of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children must be carried out by social workers and draw on a multi-agency approach, the professional association for social workers has warned.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, which lays out a raft of legislative measures to change the processes for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK, is currently in Committee Stage in the House of Commons.
A new clause in the Bill puts the burden of proof on a child to prove that they are under 18 where there is insufficient proof. Further clauses establish the National Age Assessment Board which can overrule a local authority age assessment and carry out their own if required to by the Secretary of State.
A statement by BASW said: “The British Association of Social Workers are opposed to the Nationality and Borders Bill, and do not believe that the proposals in the Bill do anything to create a welcoming or more effective asylum and immigration system. Instead, the Bill seeks to penalise people who have travelled to the UK seeking a better life than the one that they are fleeing.
“We also believe that age assessments should be led by social workers and draw on a multi-agency approach, where practitioners in health, care, education, and community may contribute. At best, age assessments result in an estimate of age spanning across a period of several years with the range including years both over 18 and under 18,” it added.
New Clause 29 in the Bill states that an ‘age disputed person’ is a person who the Secretary of State, public authorities, and local authorities have insufficient evidence to be sure of their age. This puts the burden of proof on a child to prove that they are under 18.
However, BASW believes this should instead be changed to reflect that an age disputed person should be where an authority or the Secretary of State has significant doubt about the child’s age.
New Clauses 30 and 31 outline the powers and procedures of the National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) and outlines that the board will also be able to overrule a local authority age assessment and carry out their own if required to by the Secretary of State or a designated person on their behalf.
BASW supports of the idea of a central resource of expertise led by social workers that is part of a multi-agency holistic approach, but does not support the NAAB in its current form.
“We are concerned that age assessments will be used as a political tool by the government to order age assessments on persons who have attracted media attention. We are concerned at the lack of transparency and accountability of the NAAB. We also have great concern about the powers being used to override professional judgement,” said BASW.
New Clause 32 refers to ‘scientific methods’ to determine age, which are hugely controversial and can be very invasive and traumatic for the individual.
BASW is opposed to the use of the term ‘scientific methods’ as a panacea for age assessments, and as a safeguard, are calling for the requirement of the relevant professional body to approve the use of a ‘scientific method’ as a valid way to determine age assessment before it is used.
BASW is clear that there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age, and that the preferred way is through a multi-agency approach. The association also does not agree that the Secretary of State should be able to determine appropriate ‘scientific methods’, and fear that this could result in methods around sexual maturity or other invasive, traumatic procedures.
Where a child does not consent to a ‘scientific method’ being undertaken to assess age, this can damage the child’s credibility. BASW “thoroughly objects” to this measure, and states that refusing being subject to measures such as physical examinations should not have any bearing on a person’s credibility.
“Many people who come to the UK will have endured significant trauma including physical and sexual abuse and may have a deep distrust of medical professionals through their life experiences. Further subjecting them to invasive procedures is not an approach we can accept,” said the statement from BASW.
“Age assessment is not straight-forward, nor is it an exact science. Social workers and other professionals involved in the wellbeing of a person must work together to carry out multi-agency, holistic assessments. The measures in this Bill fail to recognise that it is impossible to determine age precisely and have instead ventured into the belief that it is a simple process either through ‘scientific’ methods or the sole view of a single social worker.
“All children in our care, including those who are undergoing age assessments, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity,” the statement concluded.