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'I was 17 but they said I was 28': Home Office age rulings cost young refugees an education

Fran Abrams
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Luke Dray/Getty</span>
Photograph: Luke Dray/Getty

When Shabaaz arrived in the UK from Afghanistan he was 13; a child in a strange country. “I was alone and I had no one to help me,” he says. Despite that, he had high hopes: he dreamed of going to university to study business.

But there was a problem: social workers who assessed Shabaaz – not his real name – decided he was 16. And that, they said, meant he was too old to go to school and to study for GCSEs. “I was asking them to put me in a college or something like that, but they were saying they needed to sort out my age first,” he says. “They didn’t give me any education.”

Five years on, the local authority has accepted he was much younger than it thought, and has granted him financial support as a care-leaver. He has had some tuition at college, but at 19 is too old to go to school, making university a distant dream.

He takes part in sport – he enjoys boxing – but he needs to improve his maths and English, and his options are limited. “I talked to my tutor. He said, you have to have GCSEs and you are already 19, so who’s going to pay for you?’ I’m really stuck now,” he says.

Charities and lawyers say the situation is not uncommon. Government guidance published last year says young people should be treated as the age they claim they are until any age assessment is completed. Despite that, observers say, too many still miss out on school, college and university.

Related: In Sweden, Noor went straight to school; in Britain, Ammar waited six months

Young people in England must legally be in education or training until they are 18, and asylum seekers under 18 are cared for by local authorities as looked-after children. Those thought to be over 16 usually go to college, rather than school, and the courses on offer are often based around language learning followed by vocational courses, rather than on a broader curriculum.

Shabaaz is now watching his contemporaries moving on: “There was a guy who was with me, he’s now in university. He was my best friend, he’s my age. I’m thinking that if I’d been there in school with him, I would be in university now too.”

The problem affects older arrivals as well. The new Home Office guidance says those who say they are under 18 should be treated as children unless there is compelling documentary evidence to the contrary, or their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggest they are over 25. But in some cases, the judgments made are wildly different from what young people are saying.

When Bwar – also not his real name – arrived from Iran 18 months ago, he did not know anything about the UK: “I didn’t know even the name of the country that I was in,” he says.

He was taken to a police station, where he was asked a lot of questions – including his age. Bwar, who is Kurdish, said he was 17. Initially he was placed in foster care and in a language course at college. But then he was told he had to face a three-day age assessment in which he answered questions about every aspect of his life, his culture, his family. The outcome was a shock. “On the last day they said: ‘This is the result: you are 28.’ I didn’t know what to say. I laughed. I said, ‘Really? I am 28? This is a joke, isn’t it?’ They weren’t laughing.”

It’s so personal. If I am 28, then who am I? Did I sleep for 10 years? I’m not 28, I’m 18 and I really want to prove it

Bwar, Kurdish refugee

The assessment in effect put an end to Bwar’s education. “My social worker went to see the head of my college, and they agreed that I was not good to be in the same class. I had to be moved to an adult class.” Because Bwar would not accept a move into adult education classes, he stopped attending. “I still have so many friends in that class, and they still ask me why I stopped going.”

In Iran, Bwar had attended school until age nine, but was discriminated against because he was Kurdish. He still had high hopes for the future, though: his sister, who still lives in Iran, is an engineer. “In my city so many people were entrepreneurs,” he says. “I felt inspired by that, and so I wanted to study business and finance.”

There are signs he is giving up: “The Home Office said I had to move to a different town, and since then I haven’t even tried to enrol in college. I’m so tired,” he says.

The British Red Cross is helping both Bwar and Shabaaz, writing letters of support for their cases. Kalyani McCarthy, the national project manager for Surviving to Thriving, a Red Cross programme that has helped 160 unaccompanied young asylum seekers and refugees this year, says the programme often comes across this. “What’s particularly disruptive is an age assessment takes a significant time, and in the interim the local authority won’t try and support that young person to access education,” she says.

Related: The child refugees risking the Channel by boat – one year on

The situation, while complicated, could be handled better, she says: “There are concerns around safeguarding, not wanting to put older people in classes with children, but that can be really detrimental for young people who are going through these stressful experiences. It affects their mental health, they get so upset and don’t understand why someone would not believe them: ‘Why would I lie?’”

Simple measures could help, she adds: ensuring young people understand the age assessment processes they are going through, for instance, and letting them choose an “appropriate adult” to support them at meetings.

“From our experience the majority of young people are genuine and don’t have any knowledge of what it means if they are younger,” she says. “I think awareness has increased, but local authorities should only be completing these assessments when there’s a genuine and significant reason to doubt, and not just because a young person doesn’t have documents, which is very common.”

Edward Taylor, a solicitor at Osbornes Law, has represented many young asylum seekers in age disputes. “The definition of a child is that they are under 18, and local authorities by law need to treat children in accordance with their claimed age until the age assessment is complete,” he says. “We deal with a lot of clients who are 16 or 17, and it’s easier for them to start college than to go to school. But if they are 14 or 15, they will often be put into college and not into school; there’s no drive to get them into school and to treat them in accordance with their claimed age.”

Taylor has come across cases where age assessments have been found to be wildly inaccurate: in one case a boy assessed as age 23 by the local authority, was later accepted as having been 17. The process took a year and by then he was over 18. “He would have been able to go to college if his age had been assessed correctly. Instead, he was moved from pillar to post between the local authority and Home Office, which really took its toll on him and prevented the education provision he so desperately needed.”

Taylor has witnessed another serious problem, too: children being held at a reception centre in Kent are receiving no formal education, he says. He recently received a freedom of information response from the county, where young people can spend six months or more in the Millbank reception centre before being dispersed. It confirms that the only education available there is informal language support supplied by a local charity.

Related: Refugees lose friends, money, home – ‘only knowledge lasts’

“Millbank reception centre takes many of the new arrivals who are going to be age disputed,” says Taylor. “They shouldn’t be placed at Millbank, because it clearly isn’t adequate to meet their needs, and deprives the right to appropriate education provision.”

Kent county council said in a statement that the Millbank centre had been overwhelmed by unprecedented numbers of arrivals this year, along with the collapse of a national dispersal scheme, and so unaccompanied youngsters were spending far longer there than normal while their ages were being assessed – in some cases more than six months.

A spokesperson said: “If entered into Kent county council’s care, these young people will be moved into appropriate housing and will then begin to learn English to enable them to move forward into education and eventually be equipped to sit exams in the UK.”

The Home Office said it was exploring with local authorities how to improve the handling of age assessments and disputes. “We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair,” its statement said. “Our age assessment process seeks to balance the need to ensure that children are given the support they need, while preventing adults passing themselves off as children.”

Meanwhile, the future for Shabaaz and Bwar remains uncertain. Both are still waiting to hear whether they can stay in the UK. Bwar has found a solicitor who is helping him to challenge his local authority’s age assessment through legal action.

But the process has taken a deeper toll: “It isn’t just about going to university and stuff, it’s so personal,” Bwar says. “If I am 28, then who am I really? Did I sleep for 10 years? I’m not 28, I’m 18 and I really want to prove it.”

Fran Abrams is the co-author, with Joanna McIntyre, of Refugee Education, which will be published by Routledge on 27 November.