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The psychological impact of the age dispute process on unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK

Dr Angeliki Argyriou
Dr Ryan Holmes
In a first of its kind research study in the UK, clinical psychologists at the Helen Bamber Foundation have found that the age assessment process has a profound and harmful impact on the mental health of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, with some expressing that they were “made to feel like a liar and a criminal” and even reporting experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The study found that the children seeking asylum whose ages were disputed (32 young people) showed higher levels of psychological distress as compared to those (52 young people) who were not. This was supported by a focus group with age-disputed young people who described the process as “hostile” and “threatening” and explained the disruption it caused to their lives.

How old a child is inevitably affects their access to accommodation, education and services. In addition to preventing them from receiving the support they need, the long, drawn-out process of age assessments conducted by local authorities made the children feel like they are stuck in limbo, leaving them feeling frustrated, hopeless, and detached from others. Age disputes also impact meaningful therapeutic engagement and recovery from mental health difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic bereavement, and anxiety.

Being repeatedly questioned can undermine relationships with social workers and other professionals, damaging trust, and a young person’s sense of identity. The young people in the study described being unfairly regarded as deceitful and manipulating the system to gain access rights to which they were not entitled. This perception hindered their willingness to seek out support. Relationship ruptures with social services caused by the age dispute process prevent the establishment of safe and protective relationships with safe adults, in a population of children who have commonly experienced traumatic separation, death, or abuse by primary caregivers. Clinical psychologists at the Helen Bamber Foundation warn that this can be re-traumatising and can have long-term impact on trust and interpersonal relationships.

“It's really stressful. Then they tell you, you are lying. Like, make you, like you may kill yourself, you think like that. Yeah, I'm serious. I'm four years, I'm waiting, like I told everyone the truth. When they say [I’m] lying until now, like I've never ever told [them] another different age. But they say your age is like this.”

Isaac (name changed), from Nigeria.

Local authority assessments should involve gathering a range of evidence from which to take a view on age. However, the research highlights that in many age assessments there is still an overemphasis on physical appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour.

“Because then I haven't grown a beard, I looked young, but my voice was very deep, and they said ‘You have so much confidence in you. The way you speak, you don't skip any words’. And I was like, it's because I've been living on my own since I was 12. I've been feeding myself, I've been going to work, come back home, and feed myself. What do you expect? Do you think that's a joke? That's not a joke.”

Amara (name changed), from Ethiopia.

Read They have to believe what we say. We have to chase our dreams. We have to be steady. We have to be alive”: The psychological impact of the age dispute process on unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK

In partnership with the charity Young Roots, HBF provides specialist trauma psychological assessments and therapies to young people who present with mental health difficulties. The partnership has shown that by using a holistic, child-friendly and trauma-informed approach, the age determination process can be more accurate, and reduce the harm to children in the process. 

For more on this work, read our new joint report “They made me feel like myself”: Supporting young people through age disputes.