A judgement handed down today in R (MA and HT) v SSHD concerning detention of young people following arrival in the UK is a welcome intervention and finding of unlawful policy and practice.
In recent months, the number of young people that we have been working with who receive short form age assessments has increased dramatically, with many young people experiencing an hour or so with social workers employed directly by the Home Office receiving a dispute of their age. This runs counter to established principles of age assessment and raises important ethical considerations on the practice of social workers employed directly by the Home Office and their active involvement and participation in widening hostile policy.
This judgement is important in ensuring that young people have access to correct advice and appropriate adults and where an age assessment happens, are properly informed of their rights and entitlements in that process. Furthermore, it is a very important judgement when thinking about access to justice by those harmed by these unlawful actions and ensuring they receive proper and correct treatment under existing laws and frameworks.
We have been incredibly concerned by the use of short form age assessment and the prolonging and use of detention in which to undertake them since we have been seeing more young people approaching us and others for support having experiencing this. It must be recognised that an age assessment is incredibly distressing and potentially traumatising, when challenging something so fundamental and central to a young person's identity as their age.
These findings can also have significant effects on young people in terms of their safety and wellbeing, often meaning that a negative decision will see young people moved into the adult 'support' system with little information given on their rights and entitlements to request a full age assessment from a local authority and being given no active support in seeking legal advice unless they approach another organisation first.
In our own casework, we have had young people running away from their accommodation due to the distress caused in adult placements, to young people being forced to share rooms with older men, making them feel scared and frightened. For another young person, she was forced to share accommodation where she was subjected to harassment by men in the accommodation, as a survivor of sexual exploitation before claiming asylum. These are just a few examples that highlight clearly that this needs to be seen as a safeguarding issue for young people, who are left open to further exploitation and harm by these decisions being made.
We urge people to consider the harm socially and psychologically to young people who are age disputed, who often experience much confusion, worry and difficulties in identity when they become 'age disputed'. These decisions are often devastating to young people that we work with and are given such little thought, maybe an hour, to make what can be a life changing decision. This is despite an established framework under which age assessments are completed. The way these in the cases brought to the high court and others we have experience fly totally in the face of established policy and safeguards.
Our age dispute work has increased substantially in recent months and this judgement will be another important milestone in working towards young people having access to justice and being able to be properly recognised and treated accordingly in our asylum system.