David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth in Wales, has welcomed unaccompanied children who have finally been allowed into the UK from Calais with a loud questioning of whether they are children or adults. His basis for questioning the assessment of the Border Force officials is that ‘they don’t look young enough’.
Dentists and doctors in the UK are refusing to carry out assessments on ethical grounds as the margin of error can be as much as five years according to the Royal College of Paediatricians.
Social Workers are deeply concerned that they are being asked to take part in these assessments without the research evidence that our skills can produce any greater accuracy in assessing a young person’s age. However our experience in other areas of practice should make us extremely cautious about being drawn into this divisive practice.
As a social worker I have often commented that a young person of 5, 10, 14 or 16 can look and behave as if he or she were older than their chronological age. A year later, after the young person has been removed from an abusive, harmful or neglectful situation they have recovered a presentation that is much nearer their real age. This is particularly noticeable with young people who have had the care and responsibility of younger brothers and sisters.
In adults we often hear that a person has ‘suddenly aged’ or ‘looks years younger’ as a result of a change in their individual or family life. If we can see this with people we know how much more significant is it for us to recognise the signs of ageing through stress and trauma when we know that has been part of the environment in a young person moving away from their homeland, travelling through dangerous territory and often exploitive relationships in search of safety, security and stability so that they may enjoy their right to life.
Rather than questioning the age of people so that they can fit into or be excluded from a system of social protection we should look beyond the bureaucracy, we should see the need to break the isolation and fear of the long experienced journey. We should welcome and accept people as this will be the basis on which we build just, inclusive societies. We need social protection systems that go beyond meeting the basic need of food, shelter and warmth to be transformational in building sustainable, inclusive societies; where there is dignity and respect for each and every one of us.