A legal battle has been won against the council which was found to have ‘unlawfully’ assessed the age of a Sudanese teenager who sought asylum in the UK as an unaccompanied child when he was 15, but was judged by the authorities to be 20.
The boy, who is now 17, and cannot be identified for legal reasons, fled his village in western Darfur aged 11 having become separated from his parents during attacks by the Janjaweed Arab miliitia, and travelled to Libya, where he was forced to work on a slavery farm.
When he eventually arrived in the UK in February 2019, having crossed the Mediterranean in a small boat with other refugees to Italy, before travelling on to Spain, France and Belgium, he was initially treated as an adult by the Home Office, an upper tribunal was told.
The teenager was placed in adult accommodation for three months. When Wirral council subsequently carried out an age assessment, he was judged to be ‘aged over 18 and likely to be aged 20’.
His case was taken up by lawyers who challenged the finding during the course of a two day judicial review hearing in December. In a critical judgement, which was handed down earlier this month, against Wirral council, Judge O’Callaghan, sitting in the upper tribunal immigration and asylum chamber, ruled the local authority’s assessment was ‘fundamentally unfair’ and that the age assessment was ‘conducted unlawfully’.
The ruling said the council’s age assessment “failed to abide by the procedural safeguards, establishing the ‘minimum standards’ of fairness,” criticised the council’s use of an unsuitable interpreter and said the reliance on physical appearance was ‘wholly incapable of sustaining the weight placed upon it”.
The judgement said: “In the circumstances and being aware that an assessment as to age cannot be concluded with 100% accuracy I find, on balance, that the applicant is a young person aged under 18 and that he is truthful as to the date of his birth”.
Unaccompanied child refugees in the UK are cared for by local authorities as looked-after children and as such are legally required to be in education or training until they are 18. This judgement ensures that he will be treated as a child in his asylum claim.
Solicitor at Osbornes Law, Edward Taylor, who has represented many young asylum seekers in age disputes and acted for him said: “Age assessment is a traumatic process for vulnerable young asylum seekers and should only be carried out where there is significant doubt over the individual’s age. I would urge all councils to review their practices in light of the judgement, in the interests of vulnerable individuals, and to better use public funds”.
Taylor added: “I do feel that some authorities feel pressure from a lack of resources, but of course at the forefront of their minds should be the vulnerable young person in front of them, and whether they may be a child as claimed”.
“I do also worry about the many young individuals who do not manage to obtain legal advice, especially when there is a strict three month deadline to bring a court challenge to an age assessment”.
A spokesperson for Wirral council said the authority took its responsibility to help those seeking asylum in the UK very seriously and would be reviewing its processes.
“Making an age assessment and doing it well is complex. This presents a national challenge for all children’s services. We regret not doing this work as well, on this occasion, as we would like”.
“However, we can confirm that the young person concerned has at all times, upon arrival in the Wirral area, been supported by the authority and received education and continues to do so”.