'Imposter-Children' in the UK Refugee Status Determination Process.

Author:Silverman, Stephanie J.


This article describes and analyzes an emerging problematic in the asylum and immigration debate, which I cynically dub the "imposter-child" phenomenon. My preliminary exploration maps how the imposter-child relates to and potentially influences the politics and practices of refugee status determination in the United Kingdom. I argue that the "imposter-child" is being discursively constructed in order to justify popular and official suspicion of spontaneously arriving child asylum-seekers in favour of resettling refugees from camps abroad. I also draw connections between the discursive creation of 'imposter-children' and the diminishment of welfare safeguarding for young people. Further complicating this situation is a variety of sociocultural factors in both Afghanistan and the United Kingdom, including the adversarial UK refugee status determination process, uncertainty around how the United Kingdom can "prove" an age, and a form of "triple discrimination" experienced by Afghan male youth. Through unearthing why the "imposter-child" is problematic, I also query why it is normatively accepted that non-citizens no longer deserve protection from the harshest enforcement once they "age out" of minor status.


Cet article decrit et analyse une problematique emergente dans le debat sur l'asile et l'immigration, queje denomme d'une facon cynique le phenomene des >. Mes explorations preliminaires demarquent comment > est relie aux politiques et pratiques de determination du statut de refugie au Royaume-Uni, et comment il les influence potentiellement. Je soutiens que l'enfant-imposteur est constitue comme discours afin de justifier la mefiance populiste ainsi qu'officielle a l'egard des chercheurs d'asiles qui sont issus des arrivees spontanees, pour favoriser plutot la reinstallation de refugies arrivant de camps a l'etranger. Je trace egalement des liens entre la creation discursive de ces > et la reduction des aides sociales publiques pour les jeunes personnes. Cette situation est rendue encore plus compliquee par divers facteurs socioculturels en Afghanistan ainsi qu'au Royaume-Uni, dont notamment le processus antagoniste de determination du statut de refugie au Royaume-Uni (DSR), l'incertitude autour de la > d'age dans le pays, et une forme de > subie par les jeunes Afghans de sexe masculin. En faisant ressortir les raisons pour lesquelles l'enfant-imposteur est problematique, j'interroge egalement pourquoi il est normativement acceptable que les non-citoyens ne meritent plus d'etre proteges des activites coercitives et d'execution de reglements les plus severes une fois qu'ils ont depasse > de statut de mineur.

Introduction (1)

In the United Kingdom, refugee status determination (RSD) is a declaratory process performed usually in an administrative tribunal to adjudicate whether spontaneously arriving asylum-seekers should be granted asylum and its accompanying protection against removal. (2) RSD is founded on a definition of the refugee elaborated in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention). Along with some other vulnerable groups identified during screening, unaccompanied or separated asylum-seeking children (3) are granted access to preferential treatment over adults while navigating the UK RSD process. This access includes entitlements to housing and legal aid, and a staying of detention and deportation orders until the claimant "ages out" of the protective shield of child status.

The special protections for children in the RSD process are increasingly valuable and sought out in a world of 65.3 million forcibly displaced people, of whom 11 million are child refugees and asylum-seekers searching for safety. In 2015,88,245 unaccompanied or separate children applied for asylum in the EU, including 3,045 in the United Kingdom, representing an increase of 56 per cent from the previous year. (4) Recent European Commission data indicate nearly 3,500 asylum applications from unaccompanied or separate children in January 2016 alone. (5) The majority of these children hail from Afghanistan, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Somalia. (6) UNICEF documents the journeys of the thousands of children risking their lives weekly to reach the United Kingdom. (7)

With more than 4,000 unaccompanied or separated asylum-seekers under the age of eighteen coming into local authority care in the United Kingdom, (8) the government is being stretched to meet its welfare needs. Notably, these numbers do not include the equally high number of de facto child refugees who are on UK soil but not registered in the RSD process, as well as the more than 10,000 unaccompanied or separated migrant children in the EU who are "now missing, and are potentially victims of sexual exploitation, trafficking or other criminal activity." (9)

Beginning in the decade preceding the European migrant crisis, scholars became increasingly interested not only in how but also why liberal states afford protections to child asylum-seekers over and above those of adults in the UK RSD process. Researchers are exploring when and how the idea of children as "moral touchstones" in UK society intersects, dominates, or subverts citizenship, irregularity, asylum, and other statuses in terms of social worlds, legal rights, and policy arrangements at a variety of local, regional, national, and international levels. (10) Children's rights and protections have risen to the top of many political and social agendas and have been made symbolically and legally meaningful since at least the 1990s with the promulgation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). (11) Yet research demonstrates how immigration enforcement priorities can override these rights and protections, leading to "perverse outcomes" that would be otherwise unacceptable for children. (12)

These outcomes also result partially from deeply ingrained notions of "race," class, and other markers converging with the administrative nature of the RSD process. Despite the fact that women and children are now thought to comprise the majority of the forcibly displaced worldwide, the Refugee Convention's binary understanding interprets and privileges "adult male" standards above gender-, sexuality-, and age-based persecution to the exclusion of most other protection claims. (13) Likewise, the RSD process can be blighted by underlying presumptions about the deservingness of some groups in contradistinction to the exploitative tendencies of others. Researchers describe pervasive assumptions about the "bogus refugee" with "socio-economic motivations" who presents a "problem" of genuineness for the RSD process (14) and a "threat" to the British people writ large. (15) As will be explained below, unaccompanied or separated asylum-seeking children who spontaneously arrive present an admixture of deservingness and threat, compounded by their independent migrations to the United Kingdom.

Against such a complex background, this article unearths and analyzes a new "threat" to the UK RSD system: termed here as "imposter-children," they are asylum-seekers who claim to be unaccompanied or separated asylum-seeking children specifically to receive preferential treatment in the RSD process. I coin the term "imposter-children" cynically. My intention is to reflect the state's antagonism or, at the very least, non-data-supported suspicion that some foreign nationals are manipulating the RSD process by consciously pretending to be something they are not (children). I am also using "imposter-children" to unearth the government's conclusion that these actions should be detected and either reversed or punished as a matter of safeguarding the RSD-process (and potentially the British people).

In addition to sketching and describing "imposter-children," I am also arguing that this imagined community of adults posing as unaccompanied or separated children challenge the RSD process in important ways. The proffered "solution" is the process of age-disputing imposter-children and then conducting age assessments. Long controversial, these assessments continue to play a key role in legitimating "real" children. By cordoning off unaccompanied or separated children and releasing them from the threats of detainability and deportability, but also rooting out the nefarious adults who seek to undermine this system, my argument is that the state is working to make its unjust and unfair RSD process appear more defensible in the face of an escalating global crisis of displaced children.

Children Negotiating the UK Refugee Status Determination Process

As the most commonly invoked and interpreted area of international law, refugee status determination (RSD) is a manifestation of particularizing global ideas into national-level bureaucratic decision-making. (16) The UK RSD process is notable for featuring a formally adversarial structure, onus placement of proving Refugee Convention persecution on the asylum-seeker, and no automatic access to legal counsel or translation. Judgments vary across regions and venues. (17) Findings of credibility are pivotal for securing Refugee Convention status and the right to stay. (18) In this hostile setting, young people are "expected to give consistent and coherent accounts of their past, whilst often having no independent adult to support them and sometimes without a legal representative. Many are even forced to repeat the process at the age of seventeen and a half, damaging the new lives they have managed to build in a foreign country." (19)

While awaiting an RSD outcome, children (20) are granted fuller access to welfare benefits, health care, and educational opportunities than adults. The local authority--usually a district, city, or county council--provides basic accommodation and educational needs, and assumes increased duties towards those aged sixteen years old and younger, than those aged eighteen years. While...

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