Being age assessed as a young asylum seeker: a message to the authorities

A young asylum seeker shares his story...

Teenager looking upset
Photo; motortion/Adobe Stock

I can’t really sleep at night. When I sleep, my dreams take me back to what happened to me in Afghanistan.

I fled war in my own country, but at least there I could be the child I was. Here, social services didn’t believe my age and I’d like to help them see how it has impacted me. My childhood has been taken away from me, but with the right support, I’m determined to make my adulthood positive.

Threatened and forced to flee

Growing up, my family had a good life in Afghanistan. We were happy and quite rich – we had 1000 sheep! We never celebrated our birthdays, but I always knew when it was because mum would tell me. “Birthdays are important” she said, “they mark how time moves”.

Sometimes armed groups would come to our school to look for older boys to join them, but I was small and kept quiet. Then one day, they came for me. I was very young, but I knew very clearly that I didn’t like what they were doing. I told them “Islam is not about killing other people.” The man slapped me.

That same night, they bombed our house. My mother, grandfather, younger brothers, sisters and me were all OK, but we couldn’t find my dad. We looked for him for three months, but we never found him.

We didn’t feel safe in Afghanistan without my dad so we sold our sheep and moved to Pakistan. But very soon after leaving, they killed my grandfather. Then they shot my uncle with 40 bullets. I was just a child but I was the oldest son in the family, so I knew I was next. I had to leave to protect myself and my family. I have no contact with anybody from my family now. It’s been five years.

Journey to the UK

The journey to the UK lasted three terrible months. At one point, I walked through the jungle for eight days with nothing to eat and only a tiny drop of water. I went for days without talking. On that kind of journey, you are always alone.

Eventually when I was 13, I made it here. It was a relief when I was found by the police and social services, but I didn’t understand when they said I was older. I tried to explain that mum had given me my school card when I left Pakistan that showed my age, but I’d lost the card along the way. I wished mum was there to tell them the truth.

I can’t describe how much it hurts when people don’t believe you, like your opinion doesn’t matter. I felt so helpless, I was just a child and I didn’t know what it meant.

In the end, it affected everything. I was put in a hostel with older boys who were all around 16 or 17 years old. It was difficult because everyone knew each other, and I was alone. I was violently attacked at the hostel and I ran away. It was a crazy decision, but I didn’t know how else to protect myself.

A child in detention

After that, I tried to keep my head down but one day I was picked up by the authorities and locked away in detention. Nobody deserves to be detained for committing no crime, but especially not a child.

They didn’t believe my age so they put me inside with adults as old as 30 or even 50. The other prisoners also thought I was lying, so they bullied me and didn’t let me eat at mealtimes. The seizures I had started to experience during the bombings in Afghanistan came back, but much worse. I started falling on the floor and was crying all the time and the men said I was weak. I became really ill and developed nightmares and flashbacks.

Everything changed when I was released and found the Red Cross. Through the Surviving to Thriving group sessions, I found solidarity with young people who have gone through similar things to me. My caseworker has helped me find a good solicitor and access the right support. Thanks to them, I am now on a different path.

Having my age assessed

After being treated as an adult in my 20s for so long, I was finally assessed last year to be 18. The social worker asked me questions about how well I can cook and how often I shower. I wish I could explain to her that my mum taught me those things when I was young, and after that, I had to do them myself. Social workers have a very difficult job to do – how can somebody decide how old somebody else is?

Although it was hard to accept that my childhood was suddenly over, it was a relief when they granted me leaving care support. Because of that, I finally have a good place to live and am enrolled in college. I have a doctor now, and friends!

I still get upset sometimes when I think what could have happened if I’d been treated as a child when I first arrived. I could have had a real foster family and a place in school, instead of a cell in a detention centre. Maybe now I’d be applying for university!

My message to social services

My social worker is so busy helping so many people, so I don’t want to ask for much. All I really hope is for social workers to listen to young refugees and people seeking asylum and try to trust us. We’ve had to grow up fast to protect ourselves and sometimes that makes us look and act older. But most of us are still small and skinny on the inside.

When the first people we meet here don’t believe us, it can make us feel like outsiders. We’ve already lost everything and having our age disputed means we also lose our identity.

My asylum case is still pending and the uncertainty makes it difficult to forget my trauma, but I am doing much better now. I still find it hard that I lost my childhood one day when I was still 17, without even having a birthday to mark the time moving. But I am almost ready to start planning for my future.

Surviving to Thriving is a unique partnership project between the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council. The project supports refugees and asylum seekers aged 11 to 25 in Birmingham, Leeds and Peterborough who don’t have parents or guardians in the UK. It provides life skills, advice, mental health support and leadership opportunities to help them rebuild their lives and thrive in the UK.

Social workers play a fundamental role in almost every aspect of these young people’s lives and, as such, Surviving to Thriving has delivered trainings and workshops to practitioners in many different local authorities to provide them with the specialist skills and knowledge needed to work with young refugees and asylum seekers.

Community Care Inform Children provides further guidance on age assessments for subscribers:

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