An article on the age boys start shaving from razor manufacturer Gillette's website was used by UK authorities to try to prove a child Afghan asylum seeker was an adult.
This assessment, carried out by a team employed by the Home Office and working for Croydon London Borough Council, was described by a judge as “dubious”.
The asylum seeker’s lawyer and an expert have now questioned why this “bizarre” evidence was used when making such a critical decision, which resulted in the asylum seeker having to live in adult accommodation for a year.
Details about how the Afghan refugee was deemed to be an adult emerged after the decision was overturned in a judicial review.
But there are also fears that refugee children wrongly placed in adult accommodation could be left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
He told his age assessment hearings that he endured a six-month journey across Iran, Turkey and the Balkans, during which he was beaten up several times, and then the crossed the English Channel on a boat with 40 others. The coastguard rescued the migrants when their boat started breaking up.
The refugee only went to school for six years in Afghanistan and is not fully literate in his native language of Pashto.
When he arrived in UK, he told Home Office social workers he was 17 but they believed him to be much older than 18, on account of his thick eyebrows, defined Adam’s apple and facial shape, while also pointing to discrepancies in his story.
But judge Rebecca Owens said there is reference in the assessment to a “report from Gillette in respect of the age at which individuals start shaving”, which takes it “nowhere”.
She said this “could in fact be said to support the applicant's evidence about his age because his account is that he started shaving shortly before he came to the UK”.
The asylum seeker’s lawyer, Rory Matheson, told The National this was “absolutely not” the type of evidence that social workers should be relying on.
“They should be relying on proper evidence, rather than using websites such as Gillette.com which doesn't provide any kind of scientific basis for any of the findings,” said Mr Matheson, from Osbornes Law.
“I'm just wondering why they thought that was a perfectly acceptable source to use, if they thought it backed up their opinion or what they were thinking of when they were looking at it.”
He said, as judgments go, “it was quite a critical one” and “the judge wasn't very impressed with the assessment that had been carried out and was pretty scathing”.
Assessors also used a report from Forbes magazine entitled What People Really Mean When They Say: 'I Don't Know', which the judge said “appears to relate to a discussion about USA business practices”.
Another online article was used to come to the conclusion the asylum seeker had a “dependent personality”.
“My view is that the references to these dubious articles and their use to question the applicant's credibility, undermine the report as a whole.”
The assessors also believed an Afghan ID document was a forgery and from a newspaper article which they claimed reported on his brother’s death, said his journey could not have taken six months.
But judge said this was “illogical and unfair” and assessors “used guesswork and speculation” to come to their conclusion, given that the asylum seeker had never given a specific date for when his brother was killed.
In her judgment, she pointed out that the Afghan refugee had been “traumatised” by his experience.
He was “questioned over a long period of time – two days – and appears to have often been asked several different questions in one sentence without being an opportunity to respond”, she said in her judgment.
The Home Office initially assessed the migrant to be 25 or older, which was then revised down to 21 by Croydon council but the judge ruled he was 16 when he arrived in the UK and 18 when the hearing took place in July.
Mr Matheson said a concerning aspect of the case was that “a child spent over a year going through the court system to prove their age, which has caused them an immense amount of stress”.
“He spent close to a year in adult asylum seeker accommodation, being treated as an adult without appropriate safeguarding, without access to education, without people assisting basic medical care, which he did need, just missing out on all these necessary safeguards that are in place for children.”
The age of unaccompanied asylum seeker children is assessed when they arrive in the UK, and it’s used to determine what accommodation and support they receive.
Risk of abuse
Currently the standard method of deciding a refugee's age is known as a “Merton assessment” after the case law that shaped the best practice.
Kama Petruczenko, a senior policy analyst at the Refugee Council, told The National that in this case the “assessment wasn't conducted the way it should have been, for example because of the use of evidence such as from Gillette”.
“It’s bizarre but not unusual and it happens often in asylum cases that evidence used by decision-makers is of poor quality, irrelevant or out of date,” she said.
“I can see that for someone looking from the outside it seems unreasonable but unfortunately we have to remember that such mistakes happen more often than we would like.”
She explained that the asylum process is different for adults than for children and that crucially, children who are separated and in need require support from social services because they can’t fend for themselves or be left to their own devices.
“If a child is incorrectly assessed as an adult then such a child could be sharing a room with an adult, which is inappropriate and there have been instances of sexual abuse and other forms of harassment when safeguarding mechanisms that should protect children are not used properly,” she said.
A Home Office representative said: “It’s vital that we remove incentives for adults to pretend to be children in order to remain in the UK – between January 2016 and the year ending June 2023, 49 per cent of asylum applicants whose age was disputed, were found to be adults.
“We are strengthening the age verification process through the National Age Assessment Board, introducing scientific assessments, such as X-rays and measures under the Illegal Migration Act which will help ensure assessments are robust and further protect children.
“We are considering the judgment carefully to understand where any improvements can be made to future assessments.”