Social workers comment on a case involving a young Afghan asylum seeker made destitute after a dispute over his age between the council and the Home Office. Neither body was willing to take responsibility for his welfare in the meantime
Haashim*, 16, arrived in the UK two years ago after travelling from Afghanistan alone. Haashim claimed asylum on arrival in the UK and has been granted temporary leave to remain. When Haashim claimed asylum, he told the UK Border Agency that he was 14-years-old. The immigration officers accepted this and referred him to his local social services department to receive support. However, the social services department at the local authority disputed his age and commissioned an age assessment, which assessed Haashim as being over 18.
Since the local authority age assessment more than a year ago, Haashim has not received any support or benefits. The Home Office accepted that he was under-18, which means they class him as ineligible for asylum support given to adults provided by central government. This made him the responsibility of council social services. But the local authority has assessed Haashim as an adult and refused to offer him the support and care they would provide for a child. The local authority told Haashim to go to the Home Office for financial support, but the Home Office has referred Haashim back to the local authority. Haashim is destitute and has been sleeping rough for the past year. He has turned up at a local refugee support project looking for help.
*Name has been changed
THE SOCIAL WORKER VIEW
Karen Goodman, unaccompanied asylum seeker operations manager, Kent Council
Kent Council follows best practice and carries out a holistic age assessment involving social workers, social care workers, and education and health professionals wherever possible. We recognise that many local authorities, such as those with detention centres, asylum screening units or those with very few unaccompanied asylum seeking children referrals, may not be in the fortunate position of being able to carry out the assessment over a period of time.
In a case like this, a local authority children’s social services department must be in a position to say whether a young person meets their eligibility criteria to receive a service. It must do this having undertaken a thorough, professional, holistic assessment. It must share the outcome and conclusions with the immigration authorities, which should accept the local authority’s decision.
In Haashim’s case, Kent Council would expect the immigration authorities to take responsibility for him. If this was a young person known to Kent Council, we would make sure this happened and that the young person was not be left with no answer and no financial support.
Mark Edwards, duty team manager, asylum intake team, Hillingdon Council
Our experience in Hillingdon tells us that this is an unusual scenario. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) does not conduct what would be considered to be a thorough age assessment, so would usually accept the council’s assessment of age.
If UKBA had evidence to support Haashim’s claimed age, this should have been made available for the assessing local authority to consider when the original age assessment was undertaken.
Good practice dictates that if a dispute arises between Hillingdon and UKBA, we would have a responsibility to provide support “without prejudice” and in line with the individual’s assessed age, pending resolution.
Good practice also dictates that the young person should have been advised and assisted to obtain legal representation, and informed as to how to challenge the local authority’s decision. He should not have been made destitute.
The process for conflict resolution between UKBA and local authorities is outlined in the existing joint working protocol. This states that: “In the event that neither party can persuade the other as to the correctness of their determination, the case will be referred to the Asylum Policy Unit and a formal reconciliation attempted with the local authority within seven working days.
In the interim, pending a reconciliation, the applicant should be supported in accordance with the local authority assessment. If no agreement is reached through this process, the matter will be referred for binding adjudication to a nominated third-party.
If new evidence does exist that was not considered at the time of the initial age assessment supporting the young person’s claim to be a minor, then the host local authority in whose area he is now living should be requested by UKBA or a legal representative to undertake a reassessment of age. Meanwhile, the council should provide a service to him as a child in need in their area pending resolution of the age issue.
If there is no new evidence to support his claim to be a minor then the young person should be assisted to challenge the original age assessment and UKBA should provide him with accommodation while this is being challenged.
THE SERVICE USER VIEW
Blessing,* an unaccompanied asylum seeking child, aged 16
This is not right. Haashim is alone, has no family here, and is probably scared.
Even if social services say that Haashim is over 18, it is not right to put him on the streets. He may end up doing bad things to survive; to get food and shelter. He may even end up in jail.
You can not just send someone out and expect them to live on the streets like a dog. He needs serious help.
Living like this will eventually destroy him. It happened to me. Social services told my foster carer to throw me out on the streets. She didn’t because I had no one else, and she fought for me.
The refugee support project could help by talking to social services and questioning their decision, and persuading them to do another age assessment.
Haashim must have an advocate, independent of social services and the Home Office, who can represent him. Again, the refugee support project or the Refugee Council may be able to find out what can be done to help.
* Not her real name.
Published in 24 September 2009 issue of Community Care under the heading ‘Age dispute puts asylum seeker on the streets’