An Iraqi refugee who is studying for his GCSEs has been told he will be made homeless and deported because social workers have decided that he is 20 years old.
Rabar Hamad came to Britain two years ago hidden in the wheel arch of a truck, after his parents were killed by unknown assailants in a bomb attack on their home in Iraqi Kurdistan.
He was initially assessed by social workers as an adult and forced to live in a hostel. But following a tribunal hearing he was "re-evaluated" by a doctor who decided that his age was somewhere between 13 and 16. Rabar himself claims to be 16 and says he has official documents which prove his age. But the originals have been lost and photocopies cannot be accepted under Home Office guidelines.
For the past year he has lived in a children's home in Oldham, Greater Manchester, and been studying at Breeze Hill School where he is taking a GCSE in English, despite having had almost no formal education in Iraq after the age of six.
Social workers at Wigan Council decided to assess him a third time in a series of interviews and have concluded that he is four years older than he claims to be. They have since withdrawn funding for his accommodation and education and have warned him that he could be deported within the next fortnight.
Friends and supporters, including some of his teachers at Breeze Hill, have since rallied to his cause, saying they firmly believe he is a minor. His English teacher, Sally Hyman, 51, said: "Rabar is the victim of a shambolic asylum-seeker application screening process. Teaching English as a foreign language, I've met a lot of people trying to do all they can to stay, some trying to pull the wool. But Rabar isn't. He is 16 and he's so confused about what's happening to him."
Rabar's case reveals how problematic it can be to decide a person's age during their asylum applications. Under various UN human rights treaties to which Britain is a signatory, any child under the age of 18 must be looked after by the state, even if their asylum claim proves to be bogus. Many applicants consequently lie about their age in the hope of receiving fairer treatment or avoiding detention centres.
But because local authorities pick up the bill for housing and educating unaccompanied child asylum-seekers, campaigners say many officials are determined to overestimate the ages of young applicants to push them above the age of 18 and save on costs.
The Refugee Action charity said yesterday that although they couldn't comment on Rabar's case, they would like to see see all age assessments carried out by an independent body. "Age assessments are very complex and it is vital that anyone undergoing an assessment understands the process and that it is as fair and thorough as possible," a spokesperson said.
Each year approximately 3,000 children under the age of 18 arrive in Britain on their own to claim asylum, with the largest numbers coming from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. In the last year 987 young people have had their ages disputed.
Children are also routinely denied asylum. According to Home Office statistics, 720 asylum claims were assessed for children in the first quarter of 2010, of which only 85 were granted asylum. A further 365 were granted discretionary leave but will likely be deported once they reach the age of 18, often to countries to which that they no longer have any connections.
Marlyn Banham, Wigan Council's Head of Social Care (CYPS), defended the age assessment used on Rabar. "We can confirm that we have undertaken two separate age assessments which have reached the same conclusion," she said.
But Katie Miller, a campaigner supporting Rabar's asylum application, said: "It's completely absurd. There's such an obvious difference between a 20-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy. Rabar's school, his football club, his children's home, they all believe he's 16 but he risks being thrown out of the country simply on the say-so of a single social worker."
Rabar, who is seeking legal advice, said he is determined to stay in Britain. "I'm 16 and I should be allowed to stay. It is so good here, the staff are brilliant and I'm really happy. I love it here in England and I want to say. I don't even look 20. I don't want to go to Iraq, they will kill me like they did my parents."
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