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Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children and their Post-Arrival Experiences in the UK.

Info: 9018 words (36 pages) Dissertation
Published: 18th May 2020

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Tagged: Social Work

Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children and their Post-Arrival Experiences in the UK.

1.      Introduction

The experiences of children who leave their countries of origin without their parents and seek asylum have increasingly caught the attention of policy-makers, advocates and academics in recent times. This group of migrants are not only without the protection of a state, but they also lacking the protection of an adult to steer them through the vagaries of childhood. At the same time, however, these children are also perceived as a threat, not only to systems of immigration control but to ideals of what it means to be a child and, in turn, the values and responsibilities that adults hold in west.

After the Second World War in 1948, the United Nations formulated Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that set out 30 Articles under which human rights are universally protected (United Nations, 2019). In line with these fundamental principle, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee an individual ‘who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’(UNHCR, 1951).

In the UK, a person is officially granted ‘refugee’ status when their claim for asylum is accepted by the UK government. The term ‘Asylum-Seeker’ is used to describe a person who has left his/her country of origin and formally applied for asylum in the UK and awaiting a decision from the Home Office. In 2018, the largest number of asylum applications were from Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Pakistan and Albania (Refugee Council, 2019a).

Addition to this, the UK government is also a signatory to the ‘United Nations Convention on the rights of the child (UNCRC)’ which is an international treaty to safeguard and promote the rights of children. Therefore, any aspect of legislative or policy framework related to children that come into existence in the UK is expected to cover overarching principles of UNCRC (Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2015).

According to UK Government, ‘a UASC is a person under 18, or in the absence of documentary evidence establishing age, appears to be under 18, who is applying for asylum in his or her own right and has no relative or guardian in the United Kingdom’ (Department for Education, 2017). The United Kingdom received 2,872 asylum applications from Unaccompanied children in 2018. These applications represented 11% of all main applications for asylum, with largest number of applicants coming from Eritrea 620; Sudan 462; Vietnam 312; Iraq 308; Albania 286; Iran 251; Afghanistan 210; and Ethiopia 117  (Refugee Council, 2019b).

Unaccompanied children and young people experience difficult and troubled journeys due to war, persecution and other struggles before they arrive in the UK (Hodes et al., 2008; Thomas et al., 2004). They are vulnerable children who have faced issues such as violence, loss/ death of family member, ethnic/ religious persecution, exploitation and torture in their own countries or during their migration (Kohli and Mitchell, 2007). Following their claim for asylum, these Unaccompanied children and young people get an identity of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC). Unaccompanied children arrive in the UK with the expectation that their hardship would be reduced, hoping that they can stay safe and live with dignity. However, their troubles do not end after they reach to a safe country like UK as they continue to face significant barriers to achieve stability due to xenoracism, hostile environment created by strict immigration policies (Nardone et al., 2016; Masocha et al., 2011). Bhabha & Finch (2006) has also discussed about ‘culture of disbelief’ where a perception is created that these vulnerable children are exploiting and draining the resources. Likewise, Anderson (2014) also stressed about ‘culture of disbelief’ prevailing in asylum appeal hearing system. Although, after the policy change by UK Government the number of children in detention fell significantly, still around 60 children were locked up in immigration detention in 2018 (Griffiths and Silverman, 2019). Ehntholt et al., (2018) in their study concluded that keeping children under detention can lead to long term negative effects on their mental health that may remain potent even after years of their release. Overall from the human rights and equality perspective the tensions between immigration policy and child welfare continue to exist (Aspinall et al., 2010; Pirjola, 2009).

Most of unaccompanied children and young people arrive in the UK in vulnerable condition with poor health, deeply traumatised, with little or no understanding of English, and largely oblivion of systems and culture of the UK (The Children’s Society, 2018). This is likely due to their initial flight often occurs quickly with less planning (Wade, 2011), and agents or other adults determine their destination or broker the departure (Crawley, 2010; Robinson et al., 2002). Dansokho (2016) has described other factors that affect health conditions such as, UASC fleeing from countries where they were exposed to infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis, HIV, Malaria and other health conditions due to decades of conflict leading to poor healthcare structures in those countries.

Academics and researchers have divided life trajectories of Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking Children into three phases: pre-flight experiences in their countries of origin; experiences of fleeing their home country; and, experiences of arriving and settling in countries of asylum (Rutter, 2003; Fazel & Stein, 2002; Lustig et al., 2004). This dissertation focuses on the experiences and challenges faced by Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) after they arrive in the UK. Post-arrival in the UK, UASC struggle to achieve stability in their lives that get entangled with long and tiring asylum & immigration processes, isolation and other barriers that develop a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty in them (Gupta, 2019). However, despite all these difficulties many have shown notable resilience and capacity to survive or even thrive in the face of adversity (Hopkins & Hill, 2010; Tol et al., 2013).

This dissertation aims to describe and discuss experiences of UASC in a sequential order. Therefore, upcoming chapters will explore and review existing literature that covers different stages of their post-arrival experiences like tedious process of age-determination that they undergo, care-planning done by local authorities for UASC, barriers in settling down in the UK, and how some of them show determination to thrive and adapt in a new country. In the process, the dissertation seeks to find out answers for following questions:

  1. What does current literature tell us about the UASC experiences with UK Asylum and Welfare System?
  1. What implications and recommendations can be drawn from existing literature for wide Social Work policy & practice based on the findings?


  1. Literature Review

    1. Initial Screening and Age Determination Process

In this section, we will explore different stages of process and procedures that UASC face after they are reported or found by the UK authorities, and delve into multiple debates and view-points that exist in the academic literature about core aspects of the process. As stated above, although these children and young people arrive from different countries, but their journeys and experiences are mostly similar. They arrive in poor physical and mental health, having suffered exploitation and loss, and are in extreme distress. Children who claim Asylum come through multiple routes in the UK, however most UASC arrive in the UK at port of entries that fall under Kent and Hillingdon local authorities, or at the Asylum Intake Unit in Croydon. For these children the process of getting refugee status may take months or years in the UK (O’Toole et al., 2017; Bhabha et al., 2007; Pitman, 2010). Of the 2,952 asylum claims from unaccompanied children made between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017, 277 (9%) were registered at a port, 844 (29%) by Immigration Enforcement, and 1,831 (62%) at one of the asylum intake units (Bolt, 2018).

Initial screening and visual assessment are done by an immigration officer to obtain information about the basic details of the child. The process requires a responsible adult (independent of the Home Office) to be present for the biometrics and during welfare interview (European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2016). If there is a dispute over the age of the person, a more in-depth age assessment process is followed which we have discussed later in the section. The local authority area in which the child is present has a general duty to provide accommodation under Section 20 of Children’s Act 1989 irrespective of his/her immigration status once it is established that person is under 18 or appears to be so. Thus, Social workers arrange emergency placements for them, and meet their immediate needs like food, clothing etc. Due to their vulnerability and having no adult to care for them, their needs remain unmet and therefore the relevant local authority children’s social services department has a duty to assess such children under section 17, and then to accommodate them under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Consequently, an Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Child becomes ‘Looked After’ and Local Authority becomes ‘Corporate Parent’. 

An application for Asylum by UASC in the UK could have four defined outcomes;

  1. Application is accepted and Refugee status is granted.
  2. UASC leave is granted for a period of 30 months or until the child turns 17 ½ years old, whichever is shorter.
  3. Leave granted on Humanitarian grounds.
  4. Asylum not granted.

Of the children who arrived in Britain alone and applied under their own right, 55% were granted asylum in the year to March 2019 (European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2016).

Therefore, age-assessment process is very decisive and crucial in the life of UASC as they are put through rigorous examination. The decision seals their life’s future direction, whichever way it turns. Hence, it is very obvious that the issue of determining age can cause children and young people significant anxiety and stress, and also have an impact upon their ability to access services. UASC and young people have often found the process very upsetting and it had left them with feelings of distrust (ADCS, 2015). Kvittingen (2010) has also found out that requests for age assessment by the authorities creates an environment of suspicion about the credibility of the young person. The dispute over age questions their life history and identity and has been a cause of mental health problems (Crawley, 2007).

David Bolt, an Independent Chief Inspector of Border and Immigration inspected Home Office data between 2016 and 2017. He found that 618 asylum applicants had to undergo age assessment during the period. Out of these, 65% were assessed as Adult and among them 13 were detained as adults but later found to be children. However, it is important to point out that these numbers may not portray correct representation of such cases because home office does not routinely record data of those asylum seekers who were initially categorised as adults but later found out to be children (Bolt, 2018).

In 2018 the countries of origin with the largest numbers of age disputed cases raised were: Eritrea- 238; Sudan- 130; Afghanistan- 102; Iraq- 88; Iran- 83; Vietnam- 73; Ethiopia- 55 (Refugee Council, 2019b).

Article 3 of the UNCRC expects its signatories to ensure that the age determination process of UASC should be conducted in the best interests of the child, and that where a margin of error does prevail in borderline cases, the benefit of the doubt should be automatically applied. In line with this expectation, Home office has given guidance published in June 2011, sets out the policy and practice to be followed when an asylum claimant’s age is doubted:

  • “The applicant should be treated as an adult if their physical appearance / demeanour very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18 years of age.
  • All other applicants should be afforded the benefit of the doubt and treated as children, until a careful assessment of their age has been completed”

In the UK, social workers independent of the migration authorities undertake age assessment interviews which consider any documents or evidence indicating likely age, along with an assessment of appearance and demeanour (ADCS, 2015), though this has been criticised by Humphries (2004) and Cemlyn et al. (2012) who view them as someone to be a part of system that strengthen immigration control, rather than focussing on their core task to uphold human rights and care for vulnerable people. Another aspect is of power imbalances that have been established in relation to a powerless ‘asylum-seeker’ and power-wielding ‘social worker’ working as an agent of state, whose decision is mostly based on the subjective judgment to discredit and dispute the age claims of UASC. 

Many UASC arrive without identity documents, birth certificates or travel documents and lack any satisfactory evidence of their age. This was highlighted by Dorling (2017), he emphasised that not in all countries and cultures age or a birth date is documented or registered, therefore children may not be unaware of their real age, neither could provide paper proof. This poses an additional challenge in cases of children approaching the age of 18 or appears so. The childhood memories and experience of UASC are often filled with adverse childhood experiences such as separation, abuse and displacement (Hopkins and Hill, 2008). So, an incorrect age assessment can result in serious consequences by denying vulnerable UASC the services that they are entitled to under legal mandate. The detrimental effects of the process on the well-being of UASC has been well established in various studies (Kohli and Mitchell, 2007). On the other hand, the Government has a long-held view that the asylum-system is open to abuse by adults who try to take benefit of the more generous treatment provided to children, and therefore checks and scrutiny are important. Such views were evidenced when Home office was accused of downplaying and undermining the human rights abuses in the case of a particular country in order to ‘cut down the immigration’ (Taylor, 2017). Thus, as mentioned at the beginning of this dissertation the struggle and tensions between immigration policy and child welfare continue to exist (Cemlyn et.al., 2012; Aspinall et al., 2010; Pirjola, 2009). Despite of this inherent contradiction in the policies, certain laws and practices in the United Kingdom are relatively favourable (Bhabha and Finch, 2006). The UK is one of the three countries in Europe that has discarded medical testing to assess the age of UASC following ‘Merton Judgement’. The Court acknowledged that- “given the impossibility of any decision maker being able to make an objectively verifiable determination of the age of an applicant who may be in the age range”, such as 16 to 20, a medical report was not necessary. The ‘Merton judgment’ as it is termed, prescribed a holistic assessment in the age determination process that must be sensitive to ethnic and cultural considerations, family circumstances, and education. The judgment also stressed that assessing age should not be linked with assessing reasons for asylum, and thus any variations in the statements given by the person about their motive to flee home country and person’s claim of his/her age do not essentially indicate their claim should be disbelieved. However, Dembour (2017) in her research pointed out discrepancies in the implementation of ‘Merton’ compliant assessment and severely criticised the ‘wordings’ used in the home office guidance documents, which were found to be less leaning towards the principle of ‘benefit of doubt’ when age dispute arises. In her study, she argued that around 634 young people claiming to be children were assessed to be over 18 between 2015-2016; and that this could be only possible because home office guidance does not say ‘you must give the benefit of the doubt’ rather ‘you are advised to give the benefit of the doubt’. This, she believed is an example of double speak.

 The determination of Age has a vital role in the Asylum process, it is therefore imperative to review different view-points and observations. This led us to analyse further literature to appreciate medical and psychological and sociological aspect of the debate that would enable us to understand the theoretical aspect of the age determination process and complexities in defining the age of asylum-seekers in greater detail. The debates and critical evaluation on the age determination process and its methods from Medical, Psychological and Sociological point of view were widely observed during literature search. Bhabha & Crock (2007) did a comparative study of policies and practice in three countries including UK, and finally summarised reasons for such contentions as; unreliable procedures to determine age (medical), disbelief about age with underlying credibility issues (psychological), and because the status of child or adult determines the kind of support provided (sociological). The difference between adults and children is acknowledged in asylum law and policy and highlights the importance of considering a child’s claim within the context of age and maturity (Home Office, 2017). Therefore, the greater the difference between adult and child treatment, the greater is the contention surrounding age determination (Bhabha and Crock, 2007).


Childhood is a social construction and is constructed in the context of the culture and geographical location and, therefore can vary across time and space. The notion of a childhood that bundles together ideas and expectations about children and young people and their role in societies have been extensively discussed in the past studies (Ansell, 2016; Cipriani, 2016; Jenks, 2005; James et al., 1997). Furthermore, Rosen (2007) argued that international law is built on a definition of childhood that has roots in Eurocentrism, thus it inevitably clashes with local understandings that have been identified in many anthropological researches. In this realm, we reviewed the available literature around social construct of ‘childhood’ and how it underpins and drives the current definition and determination of an ‘asylum-seeking child’. Crawley (2011) mentioned about disparities in the idea of what it means to be a ‘child’ can be observed across various cultures and countries, he argued that the policies and practices that constitute the asylum determination process do not always acknowledge this understanding. Watters (2008) has also claimed that distinct culture and ethnicity influence the experiences and development of children. Dorling (2017) made a point that not in all countries and cultures age or a birth date is documented or registered, therefore children may not be unaware of their real age, neither could provide paper proof. Another noteworthy concept that was explored by Legget (2008) in relation to occidental views of child as ‘dependent and powerless’, he argued that children from war-torn countries may not fit in this western view. Somewhat similar views are propounded by Ali Norozi and Moen (2016), they criticised universalising of age as a determinant to decide what is child, as not all children attain identical physical, social and psychological development at the same age. In their view it is imprecise to define when childhood ceases and adulthood begins as it is dependent on many variables. In support of their argument, they pointed to historical view of childhood that existed in England until 1969 when the age at which an individual adult status was changed from 21 to 18.

Clayton et.al. (2019) argued that multiple contexts around childhood is a reality, and for some it may be associated with time of education and play, while for others, with domestic labour and income generation. Hence, the age at which childhood ends and adulthood begins could differ widely.


Many European countries rely on medical examinations, primarily in the form of dental or bone age assessments (European Asylum Support Office, 2014). Kenny and Loughry (2018) analysed the age determination process of industrialised countries and concluded that assessing the age specifically of those between 15-18 years could see a deviation up to +/- 5 years of age. This is substantial when one is considering a span as short as the first two decades of life. However, in the UK none of the medical methods are used to determine the age of the children. There are many arguments against medical assessments that make them unreliable and unsuitable to assess whether a young person is below or above 18 years of age, like variation in results from people coming from high-income and low-income countries (Cole, 2015). Similarly, Noll (2016) also claimed that assessments of bone development and teeth have been critiqued extensively by medical experts as being inaccurate, as they only measure physiological maturity, not chronological age. In addition to these concerns about the unreliability and margin of errors in bone and dental age assessments, many from within the medical community, as well as human rights activists, have also raised concerns about the ethics of such forms of medical testing for immigration control. The Royal College of Radiologists has even advised its fellows and members that it was ‘inappropriate’ to undertake a radiograph examination for the purposes of age estimation, and any request from immigration official would be regarded as unjustified (Fernie and Payne-James, 2010). Aynsley-Green et al. (2012) has also strongly suggested that use of such imprecise methods raises serious ethical and human rights concerns and is often experienced as unfair and stressful by the young asylum seekers. Age assessments based on physical development can be carried out using a number of anthropometric measurements which do not involve the use of x-rays, although they are equally prone to error and cannot be considered as infallible (Aggrawal et al., 2010). These methods have been highly criticised because they do not take into consideration variations between ethnicity, race, nutritional intake and socio-economic background (Crawley, 2007).  Given the inaccuracy of age assessment techniques outlined above, the veracity of the young person should ideally not be doubted (Kenny and Loughry, 2018).


In the cases where age is disputed, credibility of the applicant is also considered an important factor in the decision-making. The literature seems to come largely from legal scholars on the concept of credibility (Hunter et al., 2013; Anderson et al., 2014; Eyster, 2012). The consistency in the statements and information that is provided by the applicant from the beginning of interview until the completion of the assessment plays significant role in it. An inability to recall details correctly, provide a consistent account or provide an explanation for the actions of adults in the story are frequently used as justification for dismissing a claim of UASC (Clayton, Gupta and Willis, 2019). This was also evident in the research done by Kent law clinic, the research captured experiences of young unaccompanied asylum-seekers in Kent from 2006 to 2013 (Warren and York, 2014). The study examined 20 cases of young asylum-seekers whose claims were dismissed, what they found out was:

  1. Incredibility and implausibility were mostly mentioned as grounds of refusals and tribunal dismissals.
  2. Most claims refused on credibility grounds had also been age-disputed by Social Services.

Schuster (2018) did a similar study by analysing the of Reasons for Refusal Letters (RFRLs) sent to rejected Afghan asylum seekers and reached to same conclusion as stated above, although the participants were not children but the issue of proving and defining credibility remains.

There is a clear link between credibility and psychological stress under which a child completes his journey and reaches at his destination. Apparently, it is established that psychological issues can have negative impact on memory (Kuyken and Dalgleish, 2011; Howe, 2013). Further review of literature was done to critically evaluate the possibility of trauma and other neurobiological factors that could affect the memory of a young person and thereby leading to inconsistent account of events or sometimes forgetting to explain his circumstances with clarity. Expecting a traumatised and vulnerable child to deliver an accurate account of their past journey or life events, solely based on their memory, and then judging them as liar or imposter if their account contains inconsistencies is deeply concerning. Even in normal circumstances, children and young people can although remember simple events, however their ability to define a coherent and detailed account remains under-developed until the age of 20 (Pasupathi et al., 2010; Habermas et al., 2008). Credibility is a key issue in asylum decisions (Sweeney, 2009), because it provides the basis for judging whether or not an individual is entitled to services and provisions as a child.

Rigby and Whyte (2015) has described situations where children may choose to tell some professionals one version of events and others a slightly different version. He suggested that these changes in versions are generally an indication of the complexities of their lives and journeys, and perceptions of events, and should not be used to challenge the credibility of children in the asylum system. In some instances, out of fear children may intentionally withhold information because of shame and would not describe instances when they have used deception to survive, thinking that it could influence the decision maker’s perception of them (Given-Wilson et al., 2016).

Rogers et al. (2015) also explored the effect of Post-traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) on the credibility of asylum-seeker from a different perspective. PTSD is widely reported in UASC (Jakobsen et al., 2014; Silove et al., 1997). Vrij (2011) has mentioned about exhibiting high levels of the anxiety, gaze-aversion and expression of outward distress or fear as a sign and cues to deception and lie. Thus, it is argued that vulnerable asylum-seeking child who suffers from PTSD would be judged untruthful, due to the similarities between trauma and deception behaviours. Thereby, deeply affecting his credibility which as we stated above could lead to rejection of his genuine claim. Therefore, relying on non‐verbal cues are not always reliable (Memon, 2012). It is further established those with PTSD, trauma history and depression have been found to have difficulties in providing specific memories during asylum interviews (Herlihy, Jobson and Turner, 2012). A common view that a detailed memory and specificity is a representative of credibility, and therefore accurate while general memories can be easily constructed, therefore are not accurate, goes against asylum-seeking children. However, Talarico and Rubin (2003) in their study have criticised this view and indicated that the more detailed and vivid memories are, the greater is the likelihood of error. Researches have indicated that such beliefs about human memory or inconsistencies due to them is considered as child inventing stories and being untruthful, and are commonly used to guide credibility decisions in asylum applications (Hartwig et al., 2005; Given-Wilson et al., 2018; UNHCR, 2014, Law Centres Network, 2015).

Autobiographical memory contains thoughts, emotions and sensory experiences of past events that in combination with person’s own experiences develops lived experiences (Fivush, 2010). These are influenced by cultural context, therefore without acknowledgement of the published research on autobiographical memory and culture, such differences may be interpreted in an asylum interview as an account lacking in detail, which in turn could be viewed as a lack of credibility. Brennen et al., (2010) has described about variations in specific autobiographical memories between adolescents exposed to wars and those who are not. The variations in autobiographical memory may be misconstrued in an asylum interview as signs of fabricated or unreliable reports (Given-Wilson, Hodes and Herlihy, 2018)

Considering these debates and conflicts around age-assessment, Lansdown (2005) has defined limitations in age-based assessments and criticised the assumptions of age-based competencies. He proposed removal of all legal age-limits and substituting individual assessment of children to determine their capacity in decision-making. However, Lansdown admitted that such approach could expose children to exploitation and abuse of their rights. Nonetheless, such assessments are affected by culturally based preconceptions about age-related behaviour, subjective judgement, management pressures to reduce costs associated with care of those assessed as under 18, and political and cultural constructions of asylum seekers (Kvittingen, 2010). 

In the case of UASC, it is clear from the above discussions that great caution should be exercised in denying the credibility. Their memory is likely to be exacerbated due to trauma and stress, which impairs their ability to recall and expound on their life-story in a fool-proof manner. 


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