When I applied for and was accepted as a volunteer for the Refugee Council’s Age Dispute Project, I was incredibly excited. I knew that the project had already helped to pave the way for really important changes to improve the treatment of young people whose age is disputed by the Home Office or Social Services (or both). However, I didn’t really understand how the successes of court cases could actually have an impact on the lives of the young people who looked to the Refugee Council for support.
It wasn’t soon before I found out. During my first week with the project, at the beginning of February 2017, I accompanied a 17 year old whose age had been disputed by the Home Office to his first appointment with a solicitor. New to the job, I was nervous that the solicitor would see that I was still inexperienced, and that I might forget something important during the interview. I was officially his responsible adult, but the young person’s friendly and easygoing demeanor actually set me at ease. However, as we chatted in the solicitor’s waiting room I could see that underneath his affable and confident behaviour, he was very anxious about his precarious situation. Having become separated from his family on his journey to the UK and having lost all contact with them, he was now in a hostel for adult asylum seekers. He shared his room with a few other men, and, while they didn’t disturb him especially, he was finding it hard to sleep at night. His anxiety about his asylum case and the uncertainty over the final decision that would be taken on his age were also stopping him from getting enough rest.
After he had concluded the appointment with his solicitor we arranged another appointment for a week’s time in which he would have the opportunity to go over his statement in more detail. But the following week when I came into work, I was told by my supervisor that the same boy had been dispersed to another accommodation for adult asylum seekers in Cardiff. With little warning, and having expected to be imminently assessed and given a chance to show that he was in fact 17, he had been forced to pack his bags and leave London or risk homelessness. I cancelled the appointment with the solicitor, but I let them know that the Age Dispute Project was confident we would bring their client back.
My colleagues at the Refugee Council had long recognised that it was unfair for under 18s to be treated as adults, and consequently blocked from child appropriate services or education while their age assessments were ongoing. The Refugee Council were already supporting a young person who had begun a legal challenge against a local authority for refusing to accommodate him in an appropriate placement while his age was being assessed. Less than a week after the boy I had accompanied was dispersed to Cardiff, the Upper Tribunal issued a judgment on that case announcing that it was unlawful for a local authority who had agreed to assess a young person’s age not to treat them as a child before the assessment was complete. According to this decision, it was clear that the boy I had taken to the solicitor should never have been dispersed to Cardiff as an adult. As a result the local authority responsible for assessing him brought him back to London and placed him in the care of their children’s services team, where he should have remained from the start of his time in the UK.
Five and a half months later, in July, I found myself in the small, comfortable office of an accommodation provider run for separated children above 16, with two social workers, two support workers from the accommodation, a support worker from another NGO, and the very same boy I had accompanied to the solicitor’s office during my first week at the Refugee Council. We were all gathered for his final LAC (Looked After Child) review. He had been age assessed as a child, and given a date of birth which meant he would turn 18 in October. We were meeting to discuss how to make sure that he was able to manage the transition from being supported by Children’s Services to the Leaving Care team after his 18th birthday and the extra independence he would need to exercise. As well as outlining the plans for how the local authority would support him with his housing, finances and education, we also discussed his health. He was still sleeping poorly, he said; he was nervous about the outcome of his asylum case, and was plagued by nightmares. Underneath the confidence he showed in the meeting as he enthused about all the activities he had engaged in since returning to London like his football club and drumming circle, there was still the vulnerable young boy in need of support.
I reflected on the irony that when his age had been disbelieved, he had been given far less support than he would now have after he turned 18. It was so unfair that he had been made to go through all of the upheaval and uncertainty that the age dispute had caused, but I was glad that at least now he was getting the help that he was entitled to under the law. All of the separated young people who come to the Age Dispute Project have experienced unimaginable trauma, and it is tragic that the very systems in place in the UK which should protect them cause them more distress. Now, having been supported by the Age Dispute Project, the courageous young man who had supported me in my first week as a nervous volunteer would hopefully have the chance to thrive.