We are all appalled by what we see in the Press and on our screens about migrants and their journeys particularly when they are unaccompanied children. Hearing about these journeys and the reasons for them leaving their own country first hand is an extraordinary experience.
When a young person arrives in this country if there is any doubt about their age they must be treated as a child. People are always keen to mention those they have read about who are actually proved to be over eighteen but the reality is that sometimes it is the other way round.
An Age Assessment is required if UASCs have arrived with no identification documents to prove their age. In West Sussex the Home Office relies on Social Workers from the Gatwick Duty Team to interview them to establish how old they are as well as acquiring any additional information that may be needed.
An Appropriate Adult is an independent person who is there to support the young person, make sure that they understand the reason for the interview, that they are not caused unnecessary distress by the questioning, have breaks when needed and are made aware that they are entitled to legal advice. It is also the responsibility of the AA to ensure that the Social Workers are acting properly and fairly.
Sometimes we meet for the first time shortly before the interview along with their interpreter. This gives me a chance to explain my role and to try to put them at ease, although inevitably some are anxious. On other occasions I collect them from where they are housed. Some are keen to show how much English they have learnt since their arrival (often from the television) others speak no English but I endeavour to communicate and be friendly. The interpreters of course speak their language and are sometimes from their country which is reassuring for the young person. I have learnt to check whether they have eaten breakfast (sometimes) and whether they have brought any money for lunch (which they rarely have) and so started taking extra fruit or something that might keep them going.
The interview itself follows a set format. Once the Social Workers have introduced themselves and explained the purpose of the interview, then taken photographs, they ask whether there are people or authorities who they should not contact because it might endanger them or their family. One of the first questions is when they were born and how do they know that is the correct date (birthdays aren’t celebrated in many of the countries they are from). Next are enquiries about their family, where they lived, their schooling and whether anybody would have anything that proves their date of birth. While one social worker is asking questions the other is typing the whole interview verbatim. There follow questions about why they chose to leave or why they had to leave, the countries they crossed to reach a port or airport, who transported them, how they travelled and with whom. Inevitably this can rekindle painful memories, as many have survived or witnessed unimaginable atrocities but the Social Workers are always sympathetic and prepared to have a break if it is needed. The journey to Europe has often cost a huge amount for an extremely perilous crossing.
Once in Europe they are held in Asylum Centres where they may well have had some sort of Age Assessment. Every individual’s experience is different, some have spent time in Italy before travelling without tickets on trains up to Calais, others have been in Germany, other towns in France or Belgium. There are those who have made many attempts to hide in a lorry to cross the Channel and eventually succeeded.
There is an enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes trying to establish the veracity of their accounts. Sometimes the assessment will be halted for a few hours, days or even weeks for information to be sought from the authorities in other countries. The interview might be over in a day or it may take two or three. Sometimes they may want time to pray which involves finding an empty room – not always easy. The interpreters are of course essential even if the young person speaks good English. It is too important to risk any misunderstandings and they are often a great help to the UASCs who don’t know that fighting in the street as they did at home or running away from the police could get them into serious trouble here.
It is often a draining experience especially when I feel unhappy about the final decision but the Social Workers are doing their job and I have to remind myself that they have additional information and that I am there as an AA. In spite of this and hearing heart-breaking and harrowing accounts of their lives, I feel privileged to have met such resilient, determined and charming young people.