Background and rationale
The migration 'crisis' in Europe raises ethical, legal and practical questions, in particular regarding unaccompanied minors and how they should be treated in the countries where they find themselves. Before a decision on how to treat them can be taken, the individuals concerned must be recognised to be minors. Unaccompanied minors whose claimed age is disputed are subjected to an age assessment procedure. In the UK this procedure involves the following actors: those who are age assessed, social workers, 'appropriate adults', legal representatives and judges. The age assessment procedure is marred with difficulties, not least because there currently exists no scientific method able to determine age. UK law says unaccompanied minors must be given the benefit of the doubt as to their claimed age, but there are many cases where this is not happening in practice.Furthermore, the principle of the benefit of the doubt, although a cornerstone of criminal law, is not without ambiguities even in the criminal field, let alone in the age assessment field. Research by Dembour (2015; 2018), NGOs and governmental reports (eg ILPA 2007; Refugee Council 2012; House of Lords 2016), and the media have highlighted the consequences of minors not being believed about their age and therefore being mistakenly treated as adults.
This original interdisciplinary study goes beyond these findings to focus on the principle of the benefit of the doubt in age assessment. It sets out to analyse the human processes involved in the legal application of the benefit of the doubt in relation to an age assessment process that is itself inherent with doubt- and ways that professionals reconcile their own values and doubts in order to reach a consensus. This might involve use of different methods such as qualitative interviews with decision-makers and actors (eg social workers) involved in the age assessment procedure; an analysis of judicial decisions and doctrinal commentaries on the legal requirements and logical difficulties of the principle will also be undertaken. Combining these methods might provide timely and important new insights on the meaning, application and effect of the principle of the benefit of the doubt within the age assessment procedure and the related training of professionals, with broader significance for the use of evidence in related fields. Applicants are welcome to indicate which methods might be most appropriate for this study.
The research will be primarily conducted by reference to the United Kingdom. Depending on the background, previous experience and language skills of the successful PhD candidate, it could involve a comparison with one or two additional countries.
- How do the various actors involved in age assessment of minors seeking asylum understand the legal principle of the benefit of the doubt to work and what kind of tensions do they experience as they work with this principle to apply their training to the age assessment procedure?
- What are the legal requirements and logical paradoxes of the principle of the benefit of the doubt and when can doubt be legally said to be acceptable?
- What impact does the benefit of the doubt actually have on unaccompanied minors' age assessments and how can decision-makers (mainly social workers) be better supported in their age assessing role?
Overall question: What kinds of tensions, conflicts and uncertainties does the age assessment process generate amongst professionals charged with making decisions- and how are these resolved?
Skills required of the PhD student
Essential 1st or 2:1 degree in a relevant social science discipline (for example, social work, anthropology, legal studies, sociology, migration studies); excellent organisation and communication skills, including interest in meeting people of various backgrounds and perspectives; interest in thinking abstractly; clear writing.
Desirable A postgraduate qualification at merit/distinction; relevant practical experience through, for example, engagement with social or legal work.