Heaven Crawley interview: the fight for child asylum seekers

Having been head of asylum and immigration research in the Home Office between 2000 and 2002, Heaven Crawley is no stranger to the government’s ambivalent attitude towards certain research findings.

Crawley, who is now a senior lecturer and director of the Centre for Migration Policy Research at Swansea University, has just completed a comprehensive study on age assessments of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children for the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and will be talking on the subject at a Community Care conference in July.

Despite Home Office representatives being informed of the research’s findings as they appeared, Crawley says the department’s plans for new support arrangements for unaccompanied minors have failed to take them on board. “We were disappointed by the consultation as they make factually incorrect statements about age-disputed children,” she says.

One idea the government has put forward is the greater use of dental x-rays to help to determine age. But Crawley argues there is no evidence x-rays can accurately assess age.

Another proposal that runs counter to Crawley’s research findings is to increase the number of social workers based at ports and screening units, working alongside immigration officials, to improve the age assessment process. Crawley says that where this had taken place already it actually worsened the assessments due to the social worker’s presence adding an air of unfounded “legitimacy”.

She argues that this is due to the social workers’ roles being unclear and a failure by some of the workers already in these positions to stand up for the child.

“It’s disappointing that social workers are not being more proactive and asserting what their role should be: to fight for the kids,” she says.

Controversially, Crawley’s report alleges that some social work managers are pressurising workers to assess unaccompanied minors as older than they are to save money as adult asylum seekers are entitled to much lower levels of care than children.

It highlights the conflict of interest built in to the current system, with the social workers who will later support a child also carrying out preliminary assessments. To tackle this, the report recommends the creation of regional age assessment centres funded independently and staffed by multi-agency teams. Crawley says the teams would contain social workers but, crucially, they would not be from the authority that would later go on to support the child.

The government has proposed that 50 to 60 councils should look after the children to relieve pressure on London and the South East. But Crawley says this will not remove the conflict of interest and questions ­whether such a set up would bring ­improvements.

“At the moment there are 50 local authorities that have 98% of all the kids [unaccompanied minors],” she says.

Crawley seems more at home outside than inside government, saying of her time at the Home Office that she had no desire to be a career civil servant and “be shouted at by David Blunkett”. She was also the author of a series of asylum questions put to immigration minister Liam Byrne by the Joint Committee on Human Rights earlier this year which noticeably made him squirm.

The government’s consultation on its reforms for unaccompanied minors closed in May. It is not clear if the resulting plans will take more account of Crawley’s research or if it will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Further information
When is a Child not a Child?

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 Amy Taylor

This article appeared in the 28 June issue under the headline “Heaven knows, the battle must go on”

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